Pakistan’s draconian Ramadan laws take toll on minorities
Ramadan statute from era of General Zia-ul-Haq has been reinforced, increasing pressure on manual workers, minorities and the marginalized
This year Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting also known as Ramzan, has coincided with the hottest temperatures witnessed in Pakistan for years. With daylight fasting hours averaging 15 hours 31 minutes, the longest in four decades, the ritual presents tough challenges, especially to laborers working outdoors.
While many brave the heat to fulfill their religious fasting requirements, for some it is near-impossible while working in simmering temperatures. “Yes, [fasting] is an Islamic obligation, but Allah doesn’t want to torture us,” said Mohammed Iqbal, a mason working at Karachi’s Tipu Sultan Road, while talking to Asia Times. “We can’t function while depriving ourselves of water for 16 hours. There are many who do fast in the heat, but many of us whose bodies simply don’t allow it.”
While temperatures have soared throughout the country, Karachi has been hit particularly hard with temperatures of 45 degrees Celsius recorded, prompting the Pakistan Meteorological Department to issue warnings. “Considering the ongoing observance of Ramadan and people fasting, authorities have to ensure an adequate supply of power and water,” read a statement.
Even so, while city authorities across the country have been on high alert, Pakistan’s Ehtram-e-Ramzan [Respecting Ramadan] Ordinance has become a major stumbling block to ensuring sufficient hydration for workers.
The ordinance, originally passed in 1981 under the regime of Islamist dictator Zia-ul-Haq, imposes fines and prison terms of up to three months for eating or drinking publicly. Instead of reforming or annulling the ordinance, last year the Senate Standing Committee on Religious Affairs increased fines for breaching the rules from Rs 500 to Rs 25,000.
“Unlike many other Muslim countries where restaurants remain open over Ramadan and pull down curtains or put screens so that (diners) aren’t visible to the passersby, Pakistani restaurants aren’t even undertaking delivery orders during fasting hours so that we don’t breach [the Ehtram-e-Ramzan Ordinance],” one owner of a restaurant on Lahore’s MM Alam Road told Asia Times.
While citizens from the upper classes find ways to circumvent the ordinance, those most affected by the law are the poor and members of religious minorities.
People from non-Muslim communities have revealed that they are extra careful in the month of Ramadan to avoid doing anything that might be deemed offensive in Pakistan, a country where blasphemy remains a ‘crime’ punishable by death.
In 2016 an elderly Hindu man was badly beaten for eating publicly during Ramadan, with his blood-soaked images going viral on social media. “I see it as bullying. It is quite literally: ‘If we can’t eat, neither can you,’” said human rights activist and blogger Shamila Ghyas, to Asia Times. “Is our imaan [faith] really that shaky, that the sight of someone eating makes us lose our minds? Where is the self-control… the one we are supposed to [be] learning about and exercising this month?”
Ghyas believes that, in fact, the Ehtaram-e-Ramzan Ordinance disrespects Ramadan.“We [Muslims] are the ones who disrespect others by imposing ourselves on them. The concept of ‘no compulsion’ [in Islam] is quite alien to us,” she adds.
Veteran rights activist IA Rehman, the Secretary General of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, says the Ehtram-e-Ramzan Ordinance is a ‘blatant violation’ of human rights.
“There was respect for Ramzan even before the ordinance was passed. Restaurants would draw curtains and people would avoid eating in public,” he told Asia Times. “There is no punishment [for eating in public] in Islam. Only those that can fast have been ordered to fast. Religious minorities used to refrain from eating in front of Muslims out of respect – now they are being intimidated into it.”
With the Islamic lunar calendar losing 11 days per year relative to the Gregorian calendar, Ramadan will continue to fall in the hot summer months for the next few years.
Last month, the World Meteorological Organization’s (WMO) Clare Nullis cited climate change when she revealed that the “hottest temperature ever recorded for April, was registered… in Pakistan.”
Federal Secretary for Climate Change Abu Ahmad Akif questions the ‘wisdom of the ordinance:’ “Public governance is extremely difficult in Pakistan. The moment you try to come close to the [Ehtram-e-Ramzan Ordinance], violent protests erupt and the government will be in danger,” Akif said to Asia Times.
He went on to say that common sense might dictate the rescinding of the law. However, he continued: “Even if you want to eliminate the law because of the heat wave, laws here are not made on common sense. We make laws based on emotions. I can’t go and say that [Ehtram-e-Ramzan Ordinance] must be abolished, or a fatwa [punishable edict] will be raised against me.”