1981, Zia ul Haq regime. And bam! there came the Ehteram e Ramzan ordinance, purportedly passed “to provide for measures to observe the sanctity of the month of Ramzan”. And another phase of the societal conditioning started. Hitherto eating and drinking in public places was considered acceptable because of a general understanding of issues like ill health, old age, disease e.g. diabetes, female monthly periods, or a different religion like Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism or even atheism, for that matter; but now, a different societal understanding began to emerge. Where General Zia was paranoid about a lot of things that he considered threatened Islam, he also began to feel that the pious Muslims would be unable to hold themselves back and would let go of restraint if they happened to see people eat in front of them; or it would somehow ‘injure’ their sentiments. And so people also began to think that public eating during Ramzan was a mockery of their fasts and a slight to their religious sentiments somehow.
Now what strikes me as interesting and simultaneously unfortunate is that starvation, voluntary or involuntary, happens every single day. According to Asian Development Bank, 12.4% population lives below the poverty line that roughly translates to 2 crore 23 lakh people. And the Thar crisis is still very much alive and yelling for attention. (But as Qaim Ali Shah says, those infant deaths are not due to hunger or starvation; they are due to disease or maternity complications.)
If I choose to fast willingly for my spiritual purgation and moral edification, that does not entitle me to special privileges. It does not endow me with the right to ask others to stop eating because I apparently have the habit of lunging at food wherever I see it. But still, this perk is provided to me. Others do stop eating at public places during Ramzan and temptation never gets to test my faith. And thus my Rozas manage to reach Azaan e Maghrib without any real test of patience. But my question is that who ensures the protection of the sentiments of poor people, who have no control over their eating or fasting hours because some days they get food and some days have to spend a hungry night counting the stars? Why does no one ask for an Ehteram-e-Gurba ordinance? Why don’t the poor protest for a similar law that protects them from the day and night temptations of the affluent relentlessly flaunting their food, their clothes, and their lives in front of them.
Who is there to protect them from the torment of deprivation that they face every single day? When a scrap-picking child looks into a tiny window from a faraway distance where feasts are being enjoyed, repasts are being relished, and many dishes are being wasted in buffets, who is there to protect his human sentiments? Or when an 8 year old domestic helper is brought to a lavish restaurant to wait on the toddlers while the family indulges in their feast, who is there to protect that child’s sparkle of the eyes and the wholeheartedness of her laughter thereafter? When poor people watch ads or see billboards of sumptuous meals, Nutella naans, puddings etc., they do not ask for special treatment or protection. They do not say that their patience is being tested. They exercise restraint. The real restraint. The one that we do not attain thanks to the Ehteram e Ramzan ordinance.
When fasting was made obligatory on Muslims, did the Prophet Muhammad PBUH ever say that those who would eat in front of fasting Muslims would be punished? No. Because it nullifies the real purpose of the fast. Fasting is done in order to empathize with the poor, and to purge the spiritual ills of human soul by depriving the human body of temporal pleasures. And if we want to truly empathize with the poor, then why not in the exact way the poor experience unwilling and forced hunger? With the full displays of bounties and 60+ dishes buffets of the rich in front of them?
Why is this blatant hypocrisy there in our attitudes? Why is it okay to stop people from eating in front of a voluntarily fasting person, but not in front of an unwillingly starving tramp? Why should we, the well-off, enjoy immunity in every form and shape? Why cannot we ever let ourselves be exposed to feelings of real deprivation, helplessness and temptation? We have turned around the spiritual exercise that was supposed to teach us not to boast of our blessings in front of the deprived ones into a protection mechanism for ourselves instead; that no one is allowed to eat while we, the Marxist bourgeoisie, are fasting.
That is why despite fasting, many people still remain devoid of the benefits of fasting. They might successfully complete the many hours of not touching food, but they certainly do not touch any of the moral virtues that Ramzan brings. These people believe their eating and fasting is synced with everyone universally. They think that while they eat, everybody does, and while they fast, everyone abstains from food. And so if anyone complains of not having bread to eat, they would placidly reply, “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche.” Let them eat cake.