Ramadan the 13th

Sois serein, marche avec humilité, sers avec dignité, aime avec sincérité.”

– Tariq Ramadan

Mardi, 23 juillet 2013:

Two weeks of Ramadhan have passed in what seems to be just the blink of an eye. Every year Muslims all over the world celebrate the fasting month, with some in the southern hemisphere fasting for less than twelve hours (thank God for those short and cool winter days!) and some in the northern hemisphere (or more specifically one Lebanese Muslim man in Greenland) fasting for 21 hours straight — God bless his soul. Here in Malaysia we’re somewhere in the middle; we start fasting at 5.49 a.m. and break our fast just a few minutes after 7.30 in the evening — only 14 hours in total.

However, things are not so festive for Muslim prisoners in Guantanamo Bay this Ramadhan, as some have been suspected of going on a hunger-strike. According to a report I read here, in order to be granted permission to pray and break their fast in groups, the prisoners have to commit to not hunger-strike. So far 26 prisoners have made this commitment, but 80 others (accounting for half of the population) are still on a hunger-strike and 46 are on the list for force-feedings. And what does ‘force-feeding’ mean? Here’s how Carol Rosenberg described it: “They will shackle you; take you out of your cell; put you in a restraint chair, where you are strapped in; and this tube will be inserted up your nose, down the back of your throat and into your stomach, to have a can of Ensure put in.”

This is shocking, to say the least; I can only hope that circumstances will improve at Guantanamo. And not to mention for other Muslims around the world living in poverty who are going through a completely different fasting experience than ours too. The Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia was once brought to tears at a Q & A session when he was asked the question, “Is our fast valid if we have no food to eat for sahur (the meal we have before fajr (dawn) before we start fasting) and iftaar (break fast)?” Here in Malaysia we Muslims are so notorious for our excessive consumption of food during the fasting month, with various Bazaar Ramadan in almost every other neighborhood offering 1,001 different kinds of gastronomic temptations, that our out-of-control consuming habits seem almost subversive to the values of patience, moderation and gratitude we are supposed to instill in ourselves during this month. To know that there are people on the other side of the globe who do not have the same luxury is truly a wake-up call.

When we lived in Dhaka, it was very interesting to see how the Bangladeshis celebrate Ramadhan. Like all the other Muslim-majority countries in the world, Bangladesh too has a very diverse Muslim population with some of its people (mostly men in the tabligh community) taking their religion very seriously, while the rest of them (and I’d say the majority) are somewhat more moderate or lax when it comes to practicing their religion. Interestingly, I have met people who never pray or fast throughout the entire year yet choose to answer the call of prayer and fasting during the fasting month. My peers at school also took a break from their partying and drinking habits in Ramadhan, and some even publicly declared on Facebook, and also to me personally, that they attended tarawikh (a special evening prayer we perform only during Ramadhan) at the masjid. This, to me, is one of the blessings of this holy month, as some way or another we find ourselves remembering again what we have forgotten. This month offers a sort of rekindling of the religious spirit, I suppose.

On the other hand, one of our drivers, Imran, also declared that he wasn’t fasting during Ramadhan based on the reason that he was — in his own words — “working”. We were extremely shocked to hear this because in Malaysia one would, for one, be extremely embarrassed to admit to another Muslim that one isn’t fasting (except if one were a woman with very understandable reasons) and second, working as a driver of a fully air-conditioned Pajero from 7.30 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day isn’t usually considered a valid reason to bypass the obligation of fasting, particularly if one is physically fit and healthy and not suffering from a chronic illness that might require one to take nourishment every few hours.

If the average domestic driver could use ‘working’ as an excuse to not fast, I wonder how the thousands of rickshaw pullers in the country responded to the obligatory call for fasting. To be very honest though, if these rickshaw pullers find their job to be extremely physically strenuous to the extent that fasting for more than twelve hours might cause physical harm and prevent them from working, then perhaps some negotiation in this case is possible — particularly if they were the primary breadwinner in the family. The reason I say this is because rickshaw pullers in Bangladesh are all skin and bones and muscles; they appear to be severely underfed and undernourished, which is perhaps understandable considering the physically extreme nature of their job, the meager salary they get for all their hard work and the endless number of mouths to feed at home.

Sometimes when Imran drove me around the city I’d look at the rickshaw pullers around us and feel this overwhelming feeling of frustration, mostly at the fact that these men will be pulling rickshaws their entire lives but may never get to live a comfortable life. Perhaps their children and grandchildren will manage to pull the family out of poverty — and I hope they certainly will insyaAllah — but this is to be a long and difficult road for too many of them. Education in Bangladesh is regrettably a real luxury in every sense of the word, and too many Bangladeshi children have difficulty getting access to it, unlike here in Malaysia and other more fortunate countries. This, I believe, is one of the primary reasons behind the massive disparity of wealth between the rich and the poor. In fact, this gap is so tremendous that it swallows millions of people into oblivion every year — especially the poor, whose voices often go unheard and their plights ignored.

In Dhaka I’d visited my friends’ houses — or should I say mansions — for exam revisions and I could see rickshaw pullers and other ‘economically challenged’ people loitering just outside the towering bronze gates. The rich and the poor live in such close physical proximity to one another yet their separation in the social sphere is one that cannot be missed. In Bangladesh the rich live, eat, learn, work, worship, and entertain in elite establishments generally reserved for the upper-classes and the expatriates, but the same cannot be said for the poor. This is radically different from Malaysia, where children of the rich and the poor and the middle-classes go to the same school, watch movies in the same cinema, pray in the same masjid and eat at the same restaurants. I think the absence of a middle-class in Bangladesh means that its people from both ends of the socio-economic spectrum most unfortunately do not have access to the same level of education, work opportunities, etc, which merely reinforces the economic gap between these two groups.

One thing that is very obvious and extremely worrying is the lack of government-established schools in the country. Article 17 of the Constitution of Bangladesh guarantees free education for its citizens aged six to eighteen, from primary to the secondary level, and the government seems committed indeed to making this a reality for the people by establishing primary, secondary, and higher secondary schools as well as a total of 15 universities, most of which use English as the language of instruction and are highly subsidized by the government. Though these schools are indeed many, they are not enough to cater to the educational needs of the millions of children who are among the 15,414,000 people living in the 16th largest urban city in the world (according to this report). Besides the lack of availability and limited accessibility, other factors that make education such a huge challenge for the local population include the extremely high teacher absence rate of 15.5% in primary schools and also high drop-out and grade repetition rates, all of which severely impede the establishment of a positive and encouraging learning environment for children (as indicated by this study). As a result, it is of no surprise that Bangladesh has among the lowest literacy rates in South Asia.

To get really good and high quality education, one would have to turn to the private sector for help. In Dhaka, a large number of the schools established are so-called private ‘International’ schools which are mostly attended by children of the upper-classes (and all offering different curricula). To send your children to these schools one would need a lot of money. And I mean, A LOT of money. Case in point: when I attended the International School Dhaka, the school fees for Grade 12 students cost just a little above $14,000 per annum. Now it seems that this figure has risen to around $17,000 per academic year. Other international schools might charge less but with a per capita income of US$923 in 2012 (as reported by a local source), children’s education still seems like an extremely expensive investment for the average set of Bangladeshi parents, particularly for those from a lower socio-economic background.

Whatever the economic challenges of the poor are in Bangladesh, at least not all their rich counterparts take their luxuries for granted. Some are extremely active in NGO-related works that seek to provide micro-loans to women in rural areas to help start up their own businesses, or to increase access to education for economically disadvantaged children. In fact, I am extremely glad to say that I myself have participated in one such endeavor by volunteering as a group leader during the Shisho Bikash Kendro Weekend School as part of my CAS (Creativity, Action, Service) activities. In this program, we invited a group of economically disadvantaged children aged between seven to twelve from the Shisho Bikash Kendro School to our school so they get to experience our facilities on campus, and some of our activities included teaching the children Art, Maths and English and how to use the computer, as well as letting the kids have a splash or two in the swimming pool. Although the contribution that we made through this program is minuscule to say the least, I thought that it was good to see my privileged Bangladeshi peers thinking of their less-advantaged counterparts. Bangladesh is certainly a nation fast moving forward, but economic progress will be heavily slowed down by social issues such as lack of education and will mean nothing if these issues remain unsolved, which is why I think education should really be at the forefront of public policies, development plans, you name it.

After leaving Bangladesh I started taking our local education system here in Malaysia a bit more seriously and appreciate the fact that our government has invested an astronomical amount of money into building schools (with a fully-functioning air-conditioning system and a well-equipped computer lab and a well-maintained football field) and training teachers and creating a comprehensive and standardized syllabus, all for the sake of educating our children no matter what their skin color is, what God they worship and what race they are. Whatever the deficiencies of our current local education system, I am glad to say that we are still much, much more fortunate than many people out there who cannot afford a good education for their children without first having an overflowing bank account.

I think our education system has certainly been a crucial asset in drawing the Malay population out of poverty in the post-independence era. In the 1980’s, the government was sending out our secondary school graduates to England, Canada, and the US for their tertiary education on full government scholarships (my parents were among the fortunate beneficiaries of these scholarships), and these overseas graduates came back as engineers, accountants, political scientists, and lecturers, ready to serve their still-young and developing country. With the power of education, Malays were able to occupy strategic positions not only within the government but also in the nation’s economic and academic landscape at the time to help build the country into what it is today, along with the help of their Chinese and Indian counterparts.

I never fail to be impressed at how our government could gather the funds to sponsor these students to study overseas; the scholarship recipients at that time number up to thousands, I’m sure, which must mean hundreds of millions of Malaysian Ringgit invested in their education. It is extremely comforting to know that 1) our country was economically stable enough by the 1980’s to undertake such an expensive endeavor; 2) that our government viewed educating the younger generation as a national priority; and 3) that we had a leader who truly had the best interests of the people and the nation at heart, and who made decisions for the country like he made economic investments — spend now, and reap the benefits ten, twenty years further down the road. Tun Mahathir, where would we be today without you?

As we Malays would say, ‘Bersusah-susah dahulu, bersenang-senang kemudian.’ When I was thinking of a translation for this saying, I remembered a verse in the Qur’an that said exactly the same thing:

Verily, after hardship comes ease.’ [The Qur’an, 94:5]

More importantly, our education system does not discriminate between people from different socio-economic backgrounds. The rich and the poor have always gone to the same educational institutions and the cheesy high school romances of that era perhaps did indeed do wonders in disclosing the gap between the rich and the poor by producing a generation of middle-class citizens. In Malaysia, it is not abnormal for the son of a fisherman to marry the daughter of a rich urban-based businessman. Perhaps there may be initial challenges in terms of family acceptance, but a similar level of education in both spouses forms the bridge that closes any socio-economic differences between the two. Today, if one encounters someone who looks down on the poor, one would most likely grant a hard and satisfying smack to this snob and sympathize with the poor rather than participate in the disgraceful act of looking down on others. I used to hate the word ‘middle classes’ when I was doing the ‘Social Inequality’ unit at UWA and ‘The Middles Classes: Changes and Perspectives’ at Sciences Po, but when I seriously look back on it, thank God the social landscape of this country is dominated by the middle classes because it seems like other countries without a middle class at all are much worse off than we are.

As always, I start this post intending to talk about my experiences of Ramadhan as a child when we lived in Accra, Conakry and Dhaka, and also when I celebrated the fasting month with just friends and no family as a university student in Perth, but I seem to have digressed far into the realm of education, the middle classes, and Bangladesh. Either way, I am most thrilled at having reactivated my blogging tendencies again as it gets my brain thinking about these issues; and just thinking about them won’t do because I’ll forget about them again too soon. Thus, immortalizing these thoughts on my blog sound like a good solution.

I’ve always felt like I was searching for something that could help me understand what it means to grow up in countries like these, and when I first did Anthropology at UWA I felt like I’d finally found my calling. The study of living — that’s what I’ve been looking for all this time! And alhamdulillah, glad I found it just in time.

Next post: more on Ramadhan insyaAllah.

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