Commentary on Ramadan from Yasaman Bayani, Human Rights Activist who we interviewed on Bread and Roses recently.

The month of Ramadan, considered holy by Muslims, has start and we hear of people murdered by the ISIS (the Islamic State) or punished by different governments around the world imposing the religious laws on non-abiding people. For me who had to live under the reign of Islamic laws this brings many memories. During the month of Ramadan, we are deprived of one of our basic human rights: the right to eat in public. Eating, drinking and smoking in public is outlawed from dawn to dusk during this month and in countries like Iran, leads to arrest of the “offender” or sinner. At my university the cafeteria was closed for the whole month of Ramadan. It would only provide dinner after dusk. Most restaurants would also work in limited capacity. Otherwise they face threat and other harsh consequences by the religious authorities.

I have talked to many refugees and immigrants who have come to live in Canada and have asked them about their experiences in the month of Ramadan. Mahtab came to Vancouver as a refugee from Iran (Iran is officially known as the Islamic Republic of Iran). She told me her life story of being raised as the first child to a Muslim family in the southern city of Abadan and her experience in the month of Ramadan:

“For me it was the month of torture. My father was a worker and we lived in poverty. I was the first child and my father had decided to raise me as a Muslim woman. He woke me up before the dawn to eat. Then I was forbidden to eat until the dusk. I had no appetite to eat at 4:00 a.m. I hated to wake up that early in the morning. Then I had to go to school and refrain from eating and drinking for the whole day. I always lost a lot of weight during the month of Ramadan. At night, after breaking our fast and eating, my mother would take me to religious gathering that where filled with propaganda in favour of fasting. The mullas (Muslim clergy) who preached us about Ramadan told horror stories of what would happen to us if we refused to fast. We would all go to hell and burn in a ferocious fire. There were also snakes with seven heads that would attack non-fasting sinners and eat them as the mullas preached.

There were times that I was so hungry that I would eat something in hiding- a subversive act of sin. I felt guilty afterwards. I also had the most horrifying nightmares. I dreamt of being in a terribly hot place surrounded by aggressive snakes attempting to capture me. I would wake up with screams and my mother and aunts would spray cold water on me to calm me down. I cried and confessed that I ate while fasting and my mother sympathetically said to me “Dear daughter, why did you eat?”

When I was in grade 8 or 9, I decided that all of these fasting rituals and the Islamic teachings are too oppressive for me. I stopped practicing them.”

Kayhan is a 21 year old man who emigrated from Iran two years ago and is now working and studying in Vancouver. While living in Tehran, the capital city of Iran, Kayhan was confronted by the Islamic paramilitary forces (Basijis) during the month of Ramadan for smoking in public on the sidewalk of a street. On another occasion, he was beaten up severely by these soldiers of Islam. These soldiers’ only job is to monitor the streets and public places for people who do not obey the Islamic rules. Many other Iranians have similar stories of harassment by a government that imposes the rules of sharia (Islamic laws defined by high rank mullas) upon people who are either atheist or of other religions and who do not believe in fasting in Ramadan and do not care about practicing Islamic rituals.

Iranian political prisoners have witnessed many occasions of torture based on Muslim fasting rituals during the month of Ramadan. Hamid Azadi was a political prisoner under the Islamic Republic of Iran. The first volume of his prison memoir was published in Seattle, Washington, by an independent publisher, Entesharate Kanoon in 1997 (P. O. Box 3953, Seattle Washington, 98124-3953, USA). Hamid was a political prisoner in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison. More than 10,000 political prisoners have been executed in Evin Prison during the reign of Islamic Republic of Iran. During the month of Ramadan when Hamid had just been arrested, the fasting was imposed on him and on all other prisoners. Along with regular beatings and torture, Hamid who was a leftist youth, was forced to fast in the month of Ramadan in the summer of 1981 (pages 18, 31; Darha va Divarhe, An Evin Prisoner’s Memoir). There are numerous other memoirs by Iranian political prisoners (all published abroad) that confirm Hamid’s encounter. The situation in most countries under the Islamic rules is not much different from the Islamic Republic of Iran.

When we were young elementary school students in Iran, religious studies were part of our curriculum. We were encouraged to fast in the month of Ramadan and one reason given to us for this fasting was that we would share the poverty of the poor people for a short time. The consequences of not obeying the fasting ritual were severe and would lead the non obeying Muslim to hell. As a skeptic teenager, my counter argument was that if we cared about poverty stricken people why would we not work for social and economic justice for them. Why would the poor population care about the short term suffering via fasting of the richer segment of the society? The poor population would not benefit from the fasting and good “spiritual” feelings of the fasting rich. Of course the other arguments by our religious study books and other propaganda media included feeling connected with the god and everybody suffering the same way for the same duration. As an adult I was appalled that Muslims’ fasting laws were imposed on people who were not interested in obeying them. During the month of Ramadan, the organized religious paramilitary in Iran is more vicious in its attacks on the rest of the population. In Algeria, attacks by the fundamentalists dramatically increase during Ramadan. And the same is happening under the rule of Islamic State.

Some pious Muslims like to lecture about how fasting purifies our bodies. I personally have endured many days of fasting as a pre-teen and teenager. I did not find any aspect of healing in fasting. Instead of feeling purified, I suffered from dehydration in hot summer days, as well as chronic headaches and loss of weight. I understand that people have many types of eating disorders, and in my view fasting in Ramadan is one of them that in enforced by religion. Based on Islamic sharia (laws) girls at the age of 9 and boys around the age of 12 are considered fully capable of fasting. I was one of these children who felt guilty by my religious training if I did not fast in Ramadan. Years later when I was an in my late teens, I decided that religion had affected me in a devastating way. One of the most liberating times of my life was when I finally convinced myself that there is no such thing as a god and prophets and Imams with supernatural abilities. I discovered that humanity and nature could be respected and cared for in many ways that our religious past did not comprehend.

Every Ramadan I like to tell my friends a joke that I heard at the age of 16 from a Tehrani atheist. A foreigner comes to Tehran during the month of Ramadan. He notices that the Iranian Muslims at his residence are having a big dinner at dusk. Later he encounters another feast of food at around 10:00 p.m. He has to wake up very early in the morning and he notices that people are eating yet another meal before dawn. He asks his hosts what it is all about. They inform him that this is the month of fasting. Surprised he says, “If you eat like this when you’re fasting, how do you eat the other months of the year?”


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