Ramadan, Eid and Consumption
Dr. A J M Shafiul Alam Bhuiyan, Professor and Founder Chair, Dept. of Television, Film and Photography, University of Dhaka, Professor and Founder Chair, Dept. of Television, Film and Photography, University of Dhaka : After a month of Ramadan and the celebration of Eid ul Fitr, Dhaka streets are getting gradually busy shedding its desolate and melancholic look created by the departure of thousands of the inhabitants for their ancestral homes for the celebration of Eid. While grading student theses during Eid holiday, I was pondering whether Ramadan and Eid in our society became occasions for conspicuous consumption instead of practicing abstinence for self-purification.
For Muslims, Ramadan is the month of abstinence which means they refrain from food during daytime and sinful behavior throughout the month with a purpose to cleanse their souls. It is also a month of maintaining self-discipline, sacrifice and showing empathy to the less fortunate. Eid ul Fitr is the concluding ceremony of Ramadan or the month of fasting. What are the features of the culture of Ramadan in Bangladesh, a country whose 90% population are Muslims? Let us try to conjure up the elements of Ramadan culture.
Ramadan arrives for many in Bangladesh as a month of binge consumption and extracting maximum profit. The rituals of religion take over spirituality. Mosques house more people than usual during the five times prayer. Many people primarily in the public sector slack off on duties and avoid serving the reduced office hours and as a result, Ramadan turns into an unproductive month for many public enterprises. Ifter (meal after breaking the fast) and Sehri (meal before beginning the fast) parties have been new inclusions to the culture of the cities. Almost every Muslim family, given their pecuniary strength, strives to arrange the best food for Ifter and Sehri. Restaurants abuzz with people serve Ifter at breakneck speeds. Upscale restaurants in the rich neighborhoods run for the whole night to host Sehri parties. The consumption of various food items soars, skyrocketing the import. Anticipating the high consumption of food items during Ramadan, the unscrupulous wholesalers as well as retailers charge exorbitant prices for food and grocery items, to make maximum profit.
With the beginning of Ramadan, the hundreds of shopping malls across the country also gear up for windfall profits with a variety of garments and outfits. Many shopkeepers make their whole year’s profit on the occasion of Eid ul Fitr by selling goods at way higher prices than their purchasing costs. To beat the high prices, a section of the consumers travel to neighboring Kolkata to buy many of the goods at low prices. In recent years, Kolkata has emerged as a key attraction for Bangladeshi Eid shoppers especially for sarees and other female garments. Amusement parks, resorts, and sea beaches also become full to brim during the Eid vacation.
We have turned the religious occasions into the occasions of consumption of food, clothing and the articles of adornment. Is there anything wrong in it? Two things are at play here. First, it does betray the essence of the religion. Second, a large portion of the consumption is unproductive. We will have a hard time to find a society where holy occasions are used in ripping people off. On the contrary, shops in many Muslim countries sell products at discount prices during Ramadan. Sales at discount prices are a common phenomenon in many Western countries on the occasion of Christmas, to help people consume.
The consumption of goods is necessary for capitalism to continue as an economic system but it also has its aftermath. Consumption reflects inequality in the society. Norwegian-American economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen broached a concept called conspicuous consumption in his book titled The Theory of the Leisure Class, to explain the ugly side of consumption. He argues that the upper class indulges in conspicuous consumption which means they consume luxury goods for showing off their status. Their consumption habit percolates through the society and influences the other classes of people. With the economic development of the country, more and more households strive to pursue conspicuous consumption. He goes on to say that conspicuous consumption involves wastage because goods are consumed primarily for ostentation, not for subsistence. Didn’t many of us indulge in conspicuous consumption during Ramadan and on the occasion of Eid? We need to ask ourselves.
Through binge consumption, on one hand, we flouted religious teachings and on the other, we have fattened up the coffers of an unscrupulous merchant class that make money primarily by trading in foreign goods in the local market.