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During Ramadan, breaking the rules by breaking the fast

By Michele Langevine Leiby,

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Snacking between meals is often discouraged, but during the holy month of Ramadan, anecdotes abound of citizens being reprimanded, shamed, fined and even jailed by the enforcers of strict legal requirements that all Muslims fast during daylight hours.

But as the old saying goes, you can’t legislate morality. Throughout the Muslim world, there is an underground of people who either choose not to or are unable to follow the strict religious injunction to not eat or drink — or let anything enter their bodies between sunrise and sunset.

People who are ill, aged, pregnant or menstruating are exempt, but otherwise, every other able-bodied Muslim is expected to sacrifice as a sign of faith.

This Ramadan, some sophisticates in Islamabad have noticed a more tenacious approach to enforcement compared with the more relaxed stance of recent years past.

In an upscale market in the city, the half-shuttered, dimmed entrances of posh restaurants and boho coffee shops have greeted customers with discreetly printed signs such as “Open for non-Muslims only.”

Technically, non-Muslims are exempt from the fasting rules. But out of respect for Islam, they are required to refrain from eating publicly while others are fasting.

During Ramadan, one multinational corporation here has suspended its policy of providing free lunch, even though most people in the office don’t fast, an employee said. Workers also were told they could no longer congregate outside to smoke. Smoking, too, violates the fasting requirements.

“For the last three or four years, I have not been able to fast due to the smoking addiction,” said Irfan, a 36-year-old medical professional. “I do not find any support; rather I am criticized and rebuked and people get angry at me, asking why I am not fasting.

“There is no doubt that anyone who does not take part in Ramadan has social pressure, which starts from his own family and friends.”

The 1981 Ramadan ordinance was promulgated during the reign of Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, the military ruler who Islamicized the country in many aspects, including the order that fasting be observed in all public places.

Even Pakistani lawyers notorious for their truculent attitude toward authority were pummeled into submission after violations were found on the grounds of the Islamabad High Court.

Local media reported that the owner of a canteen serving lawyers during the holy month was arrested and jailed for three days after an official enforcement agent observed that several clients were being served in violation of the Ramadan ordinance.

For some non-fasters, it is easier to go along — or pretend to.

“When I’m out, most people assume I’m fasting,” one young Pakistani writer said. “I play along to avoid scorn or lectures.”

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