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Breaking Pakistan's Ramadan Fasting Laws Has Serious Consequences


It's the month of Ramadan, a sacred time for observant Muslims who fast from sunrise to sunset all month, then they gather for communal meals. But what happens if you can't or you won't fast? In Pakistan, it's more than just insensitive to eat or drink in public during Ramadan. It's actually illegal. NPR's Diaa Hadid reports.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Ramadan is a time of devotion. It's also joyous. After sundown, when the fast ends, the bazaars come alive. But for Pakistan's poorest workers, it's a tricky time. You can see that many of them don't fast. I was in Faisalabad. It's an industrial city, and plenty of people here work in the cotton industry. Around the corner from the noisy cotton-weaving factories, there's a teahouse. This is where workers come to break the rules. A waiter serves chai in battered cups.

The owner, Javed - he's only got one name - says dozens of workers here come to eat and drink during the day. That's technically legal. It's forbidden to eat on the streets. But because open eating is criminalized, even eating in his tea stall can lead to harassment and extortion from the authorities. He says people like him are caught in the middle.

JAVED: (Through interpreter) If I stopped working, I can't provide for my family. And if I don't fast, I'm not considered a good Muslim.

HADID: In the tea stall, there's a weaver, a welder, a guard and a cleaner - Farid Abbas. He's about 50. He says he supports four kids on $230 a month.

FARID ABBAS: (Through interpreter) It's really tough for us. Anyone who works for 16 hours, how can he fast?

HADID: It's not just the physical labor, it's the heat. Consider Pakistan's largest city, Karachi. Temperatures there hover around 110 degrees. There's water shortages, power outages. Dr. Sayid Tipu Sultan manages three hospitals in Karachi.

SAYID TIPU SULTAN: It is very dangerous to fast in this terrible heat. Dozens of people there died because of heatstroke.

HADID: Sultan says he partly blames Pakistan's influential clerics, who he says risk people's lives by advocating fasting under any circumstances. He says Islam allows people not to fast if they're sick, if they're travelling and if they simply cannot fast. To get a sense of what the clerics think, we met Saifallah Rabbani.

SAIFALLAH RABBANI: (Foreign language spoken).

HADID: He runs a conservative Islamic seminary. He says workers that claim it's too hot to work and fast are making excuses.

RABBANI: (Through interpreter) These are lame excuses. This is laziness. According to Islam, if they are Muslim, they should be fasting.

HADID: He says it's good to ban public eating. Pakistan's an Islamic state. It should have Islamic laws. At LUMS, a college in Lahore, Sher Ali sips coffee. He's Muslim, and he's not fasting. He can discreetly break the rules here because this is a liberal campus. Beside him is Sara, who's Christian. For her safety, she only gives her first name.

SARA: Non-Muslims have been beaten up in the streets for, you know, they've been caught eating food in the past. And that's happened in my hometown. So that's a very oppressive side of, you know, this month that's supposed to present piety and everything spiritual and love and whatnot.

HADID: For non-Muslims, she says, these Ramadan rules makes them feel unwelcome. Diaa Hadid, NPR News, Lahore. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Diaa Hadid chiefly covers Pakistan and Afghanistan for NPR News. She is based in NPR's bureau in Islamabad. There, Hadid and her team were awarded a Murrow in 2019 for hard news for their story on why abortion rates in Pakistan are among the highest in the world.