The underbelly of celebrations

Published: June 12, 2018
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The writer is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor of biomedical engineering, international health and medicine at Boston University. 
He tweets @mhzaman

The writer is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor of biomedical engineering, international health and medicine at Boston University. He tweets @mhzaman

The time is upon us again. A month of fasting ending in Eid — a deserved time to spend with family and loved ones. Behind the bright parties and endless feasts, of pictures with mountains of food and smiling faces, is a dark reality of those who make it happen. Those working in the kitchens, behind the scenes making sure that the feasts take place immaculately — that the guests go after eating to their hearts content. Those who toil in stifling heat and the chaos of a fancy party get to spend yet another Eid away from their own families. Their children are somehow less worthy of having their fathers and mothers at home on Eid. Those children in urban centers of poverty and far-off villages do not have the same right as the rich kids have of integration, of family reunion and of an opportunity to be together.

It is not that these faceless people have a choice. They don’t. They may be free in the eyes of the state, but they are economic slaves of the parasitic system. They have no negotiating power, no alternative means to support their families and little ability to move up the economic or social ladder. They are the fuel, that burns and burns, to stoke the engine of outward prosperity and propriety of a certain selfie-snapping, Twitter-posting class.

Ramzan is no different than Eid — with extravagant Iftar parties and Sahri get-togethers that work like clockwork — how often do we wonder about those who really make it happen? Working in unbearable heat, in a job demanding endless hours and minimal sleep with no formal contract, they are the real reason a celebrity, a minister, an officer gets to smile in front of a camera with a plate full of goodies.

Fundamentally, there is nothing wrong with an Eid party or an Iftar get-together. In fact, the time to bond in a fractured society as ours is most welcome. But there is something fundamentally wrong if those parties happen on the backs of those who do not get to celebrate, who work in miserable conditions and do not get their fair share or the opportunity to relax with their own loved ones. The incredibly valuable, rich and profound message of social justice in Ramzan is lost, if the celebrations create more inequality and deprive children of the domestic servants to enjoy with family, a festival that is supposed to be beyond class, caste and creed.

Elections are upon us — and while the process has moved in fits and starts, and at times derailed, the net direction is still a positive one. What is also positive is that various parties are taking election manifestos and 100-day plans seriously. Their arguments can, and should be debated, but the mere fact that this conversation is taking place is a sign of maturity. What is less encouraging is that there is a lot of discussion on infrastructure, but not on human dignity. What has lacked is a manifesto ensuring equal rights to all, and making sure that the less privileged among us get to have dignified employment, with clear contracts and rights that are based on principles of dignity, respect and fairness.

There is no justification, from any of the left or right political prism, of the religious or the secular, that can argue for depriving children of being at their parents’ home for Eid or having domestic servants work in conditions that are inhuman and demeaning. In fact, every single political or ideological viewpoint represented in our political landscape argues for human dignity, of family unity and of the right to celebrate for all. The only argument in favour of keeping the status quo comes from feudalism and exploitation, and there should be no space for that in Pakistan of 2018 or beyond.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 12th, 2018.

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