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Ramadan and consumerism

Nahid Riyasad | Published: 00:00, May 26,2019

 
 
Cover Story

Urban middle-class people flock to the shopping malls around the city during the month of Ramadan to check out and buy trending Eid fashions and accessories; taken from Bashundhara Shopping Complex, Panthapath, Dhaka. — Abdullah Apu

In the way the month of Ramadan is observed today is marked with many transformations. Talking to young entrepreneurs, students and professionals, Nahid Riyasad reflects on these changing practices and the turn towards consumerism

It is that time of the year. One would be hard pushed to find any shopping mall in any urban area of Bangladesh that has no decoration attracting the shoppers during this time. The Arabic month of Ramadan is considered holy by Muslim communities across the globe.

During this month, it is obligatory for any adult Muslim, barring physical condition exceptions, to fast from dawn to dusk — one of the five pillars of Islam. This month literally is the month of moderation and self-restrain.

Apart from fasting, this month holds another pillar of Islam — charity or zakat. It is obligatory for any Muslim, who has certain amount of wealth, to practice charity during this month. It is believed to be mechanism for distributing wealth in society.

In practice, what we get is a month long shopping and feasting frenzy, particularly in the urban areas. Different fashion brands launch new lines of clothing targeting the largest festival for Muslim — Eid-ul-fitr. Besides, most of the restaurants if not every one of them, launch special offers to indulge more and more into gluttony.

First twenty years of the new millennia has almost past and putting aside all our differences, people across the globe has seemingly adapting a singular tendency — consumerism. This is a social phenomenon which inspires people to increase acquisition of products or goods in a never ending loop. This perpetual need to consume, we can say, has taken its toll on the Ramadan too, ironically — a month designated to practice moderation and less consumption.

To understand how consumerism has taken over the month of Ramadan, New Age Youth talked to a number of students, young entrepreneurs and professionals to get a glimpse of how Ramadan practices have transformed over the years. They reflected on transformation in food-habits on iftar, clothing and shopping tendencies during Ramadan.

Nashida Zafra is a young professional in the telecom sector and is the mother of a six year old girl. ‘When I was a kid and around the age of my daughter during the early 90s, we, my siblings and friends eagerly waited for our Eid dress. Usually, we got that dress a day or two before the Eid with no option to express our preference as our parents did the shopping for us,’ she said remembering her memories.

When it comes to her daughter Arisha, Zafra mentions that it is entirely different for her next generation. ‘Last year my daughter had at least 15 dresses for her Eid, most of them were presents from family members and she complained that her friends had even more. Now, we could not be unhappy with a single dress that was chosen for us by our parents and my daughter is not content with 15’, she said.

Studying in the senior year at Southeast University, Fouzia Jahan acknowledged to New Age Youth that her excitement about Eid and Ramadan in focused on a single point — new dresses. ‘When I was a kid, I had to be happy with whatever my parents got me. As I am an adult now, though living with my parents, now I can buy dresses as of my liking,’ she said.

Fouzia also expressed that as she is not a professional yet, so she has to be satisfied with the number of dresses that her parent’s budget allows. ‘When I get a job, I will fill up my closet on each Eid with latest fashion and trending new dresses,’ she said in an excited tone.

Iftar is an inseparable part of Ramadan because this marks the end of fasting for that day. This is a family gathering time too. The tradition is that family members sit together in the evening and wait for the azan to break their fast together.

Yeasmin Jahan, a college teacher and a mother of two teenagers was remembering her childhood memories of iftar, ‘back in our days, we didn’t have these many restaurants and iftar was a meal prepared at home. However, these days, my children often eat out for iftar with their friends. We have to accept the changes,’ she said while adding, ‘the only outside food we had on our iftar menu in childhood was fruits.

People are gathering to buy delicacies for their iftar at Chawk Bazar, Old Town, Dhaka. - Sony Ramany

 

The scenario is no more the same as more and more urban youths are opting to eat their iftar at different restaurants rather than at home. To cater to this segment, most of the restaurants in upscale urban areas are offering new deals and the youths are frantically buying into this culture.

Ziaul Haider is a business administration student from University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh. He expressed that he is more comfortable in taking iftar at restaurants with friends than family members. ‘During my childhood iftar was a family affair and was compulsory to attend. These days, I prefer to break my fast at restaurants that offer exciting food for iftar. This also allows some great buddy time with my friends’.

In 2019, having iftar at home does not guarantee a plain and simple meal, contrary to previous practices, observes Niazul Islam, who is a businessman in his mid-50s. ‘During my childhood some forty years ago, we only had iftar with fruits and some homemade fritters. Right after that, we had our dinner. Now, both my children demand to have delicacies like roasted chicken, beef kebab or mutton halim and we have to entertain their demand,’ he said.

Sadia Sharmeen, a banker and wife of Niazul shared her childhood memory of iftar. ‘I grew up in a semi-urban township where it was very much common to distribute iftar to your neighbours. We children got exuberant as we had the responsibility to take the food from door to door. Unfortunately, my children would never know the charm of sharing food with your community’.

Sehri is another important meal during Ramadan. This is taken before the morning prayer supplying the body with energy to function till the next meal which is iftar. Given the time, it was highly unlikely that people would go to a restaurant for this meal. The scenario, however, is gradually transforming.

Altaf Hossain is a manager of a restaurant in Dhanmondi that offers buffet in sehri time. ‘We are here for over a decade and this is only our fourth year of offering buffet during sehri. At first, I thought, this would be a loss of money because people would not come to eat sehri at a restaurant, let alone a buffet. From the very beginning, we got tremendous response from young people and families as well’, he said.

When asked about the age group of the customers, Altaf said that young university students usually come to have sehri; however, more and more families are utilising the chance to organise a perfect family get together.

Not all restaurants have responded swiftly to this transforming culture but many are grabbing the opportunity. ‘Personally, I wasn’t very eager to offer such late night meals at first, because, I wasn’t sure restaurant food can meet that demand,’ said Mir Mehedi, a young restaurant owner who runs four restaurants at different location in Dhaka.

‘However, I started getting countless requests from my guests to arrange sehri couple of years earlier. They also showed genuine interest in having pizza and baked pasta, in what we specialise in, for sehri,’ he added.

The indulgent practices of iftar or sehri, like any other practices, are only available to certain economic class of people. When middle-class urban families are allowing their children to indulge in different delicacies offered, recently a father grabbed the media attention when he was caught stealing baby-food from a super shop in Dhaka because he has been unemployed for the last three months.

Workers of government owned jute mills are on and off in demonstration from April 2019 demanding their due payment. Photographs of their minimal iftar have been circulating in social media indicating that transformation of religious practices into consumerist behaviours can be read as extremely class specific.  

When every other practice regarding Ramadan is transforming into a more consumerist culture, the very celebration of Eid, which comes after the month of Ramadan — is ought to be on the path of transformation. 

Sadia took a stroll down her memory lane when she was asked about the celebration of Eid during her childhood. She said that wearing new dress, collecting salami from elders and most importantly gang-up with local kids and visiting every household to eat delicious food were the major source of joy for children during Eid.

‘I cannot say the same for my children as they usually stay at home during the entire Eid. Moreover, they are not very eager to socialise with other kids, they are more interested in looking at i-pad screens and online interaction’ her tone radiated deep discontentment as she could no recreate or pass down her memorable childhood memories or experiences to the next generation.

As told earlier, charity is an essential pillar of Islam; many affluent Muslims take this chance to show their wealth and ‘humanity’ by arranging free charity-good distribution. These kinds of arrangements often attract thousands of people which have resulted into deaths of many in the recent past.

On May 14, 2018, during one such event, nearly 20,000 people gathered in front of a madrasa field at Nolua, Satkania, Chittagong. While collecting their sari and Tk 1,000, at least 10 women died of stampede and heat stroke.

Earlier in July 10, 2015, during another such event in Mymensingh town, at least 27 people lost their lives while trying to get their share of zakat — the essential charity for affluent Muslims.

Culture of a celebration is not static rather fluid and ever transforming. As the practices of Ramadan are gradually transforming, two things are happening simultaneously. On the one hand, it is losing its denotative meaning of moderation and charity; on the other hand, the month is gradually adopting a connotative meaning — consumerism. 

These practices are sharply characterised by economic class. Nonetheless, the Muslim urban middle income populations of Bangladesh are taking the month of moderation and turning it into an ostentatious showcase of wealth and indulgence taking a sharp detour from the very meaning of the month of Ramadan.

Nahid Riyasad is a member of the New Age Youth team.

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