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A man distributes bread among poor so they can break their fast at sunset during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in northwest Pakistan s Peshawar on Aug. 4, 2011 (Photo: Xinhua/Umar Qayyum)
Image: Imago

In Pakistan, everyone must observe Ramadan

Shamil Shams
July 12, 2015

In Pakistan, it is illegal to drink or eat in public during Ramadan. You can be sent to jail, heavily fined or may even beaten by vigilantes. DW's Shamil Shams recalls his experiences living in Pakistan during Ramadan.


Last month, a brutal heat wave killed more than 1,250 people in Pakistan - many of them died of dehydration while fasting in sweltering temperatures. Even then, the government did not relax a 34-year-old law requiring Muslims to abstain from eating and drinking in public during the holy month of Ramadan. Some clerics did, however, say it was permissible to break theRamadan fast for health reasons.

In 1981, the military dictator Zia-ul-Haq introduced Ehtiram-e-Ramadan (Respect for Ramadan), an Islamic law that prescribes punishments of up to three months in jail and a fine for people who drink or eat publicly. "A person who, according to the tenets of Islam, is under an obligation to fast shall not eat, drink or smoke in a public place during fasting hours in the month of Ramadan," the law says.

"We cannot allow the liberal people to secularize our country, our society," Zia Ahmed, a small trader in the southern city of Karachi, told DW. "The respect of Ramadan is mandatory for all citizens of Pakistan. There can't be any compromise on it." As for religious minorities: "They live in an Islamic country and must obey its rules."

Nearly all restaurants are closed from fajr (dawn) until maghreb (dusk), and shopkeepers only sell takeaway food items. If you are hungry or thirsty the only place for you is home. At offices - both public and private - you are not allowed to eat.

Relatives of heatwave victims stand as dead bodies are seen in the the cold storage of the EDHI morgue in Karachi on June 21, 2015 (Photo: ASIF HASSAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Temperatures soared to 46 degrees Celsius (115F) last month, killing more than 1,250 people, mostly fastersImage: Getty Images/AFP/A. Hassan

"The law is inhumane and violates fundamental human rights," social activist Abrar Ahmed told DW. "Nobody should force anybody to do anything," he said. "Those who want to fast have the right to do so, but those who don't want to fast have equal rights."

'Show respect'

Even back in the late 1990s, it was unimaginable to eat or drink in public during Ramadan. My fellow secular students and I discovered a hospital cafeteria near our university in Karachi. There, alongside laborers and religious minorities such as Christians or Hindus, we could eat without any problem.

Now, I've been told, even the hospital cafeterias don't serve food during Ramadan. And, even if they did, it is very likely that someone around you might accuse you of blasphemy.

"Those who do not fast should behave as if they were fasting," religious scholar Abdul Qudoos Muhammadi told the German news agency DPA. "Non-Muslims and elderly or sick Muslims can eat but they should show respect for fasting Muslims and avoid eating or drinking openly."

Progressively worse

With the war in Afghanistan and growth of Islamist organizations such as the Taliban in the region, things have taken a turn for the worse in the past few years. Religious extremism and intolerance are on the rise in the South Asian Islamic country.

"Forget about Ramadan - I have to be careful about what I do in public throughout the year: what I say, what I wear," the journalist Tehmina Niazi told me. "People become more pious during Ramadan and I have to be more careful," she said.

On a number of occasions - and not just involving Ramadan - people have taken the law into their hands and punished Christians and Hindus for a perceived lack of respect for Islam.

Karachi, Pakistan
The tiny liberal community in the country is not powerful enough to challenge the Islamic lawsImage: DW/S.Shams

Shahzeb Siddiqui, a liberal Muslim in Karachi, says respect nees to be a two-way street. "If the religious people can't respect my rights, I am not ready to respect theirs. It is as simple as that," he told DW. "And when these people go to Europe and the US, they insist on their rights. They protest against the veil ban in France, but they don't allow Christians in Pakistan to live freely. I find it hypocritical."

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