Saturday the Muslim holiday Ramadan began. During this holiday, an overwhelming majority of Muslims choose to fast for an entire month. They wake up before sunrise to eat some breakfast. Not until sunset to do they satiate their thirst and hunger.
As you can imagine, the workplace has experienced a change of pace. People’s energy levels are lower, and the workday ends at 3:30 pm so that everyone can rest before their nightly feast. When I use the word feast, I do not use it loosely. Last week, one of the Bangladeshi interns graciously invited us to iftar (breaking the fast) at her house. We ate all sorts of delicious food, both savory and sweet. Three hours after the iftar, the families eat an actual dinner, which we also stayed for. Embarrassingly, I probably ate more than all the fasters, and I had not even fasted.
Interestingly, the vast majority of Muslims in Bangladesh choose to fast. In fact there is tremendous social pressure in Dhaka to fast. When I invited a non-fasting Bangladeshi to dinner, he expressed concern that he may face resentment from local passerbys. Even Muslims who do not pray five times a day or devoutly study the Qur’an participate in the month-long fast. Needless to say, it has been fascinating to see a city cater to the needs of about 90 percent of the population.
At 3:30 pm many leave work to go to the bazaars to collect heaps of food for their iftar dinners. Some even go the bazaars at 3:30 am to gorge themselves for the day. At the restaurant where I ate dinner tonight, the entire indoor seating was reserved for people breaking their fasts. While I have enjoyed diluted traffic in the city, it also reminds me that people are bonding with their families, enduring the hardship of fasting with their loved ones. When we attended our Bangladeshi friend’s iftar, all I could think about was how much I wished my family was sitting around this dinner table and laughing together.
Ramadan has also heightened my religious awareness. While eating dinner tonight, a man approached our dinner table and asked if he could speak with my girlfriends and me for a moment. Thinking he just wanted to find out my name and where I was from, prompted by the blonde hair, we let him proceed. He asked if he could tell us about Hinduism, clearly unaware that I was sitting with two women of Indian descent who grew up in Hindu families. He informed me that the pants I was wearing, depicting the om (aum) symbol were offensive because according to the Hindu gods, the symbol should only be worn on the upper half of the body, not the lower half. One of my sharp Indian friends retorted, “Oh, God came down and told you this?” Embarrassed, and without anything to back up his statement, he surrendered. I proceeded asked him, “Would you prefer if I took off the pants and sat here in my underwear?” Totally humiliated, he laughed and scurried away. Maybe I crossed the line, but none of us appreciated his sermon especially when I had no intention of offending anyone. As he left the restaurant, he apologized to us, and my Indian friend reminded him that we are guests in his country and the Hindu gods also say to treat your guests with respect. That shut him up.
Even though my Indian friends made really good points about the Hindu religion, I still felt really embarrassed and slightly ignorant. Since Christianity has no wardrobe restrictions that I know of, it has been challenging living in a country where your appearance says so much about your beliefs. First off, my blonde hair is a dead giveaway that I am not Muslim. Yes, there are blonde Muslims, but not nearly enough for anyone to assume I am Muslim. Second, wearing the traditional salwar kameez verses the makeshift salwar kameez that I throw together sends a message. The women here have an uncanny ability to match the most unique, colorful, and intricate prints together. Their outfits look far more put together than my dress plus leggings plus pashmina scarf.
Maybe this month of Muslim festivities left this Hindu man feeling especially vulnerable. Either way, I am not wearing my om pants until I return home. Appearance means far too much here for me to take the risk.