This year the Muslim month of Ramadan began on 9 July. During Ramadan, Muslims fast. From dawn to dusk they deny themselves food and water. For 28 days x 24 hours/day, they restrain their emotions, give up bad habits and exercise more than usual generosity. They remind themselves what it means to be thirsty and hungry.
Many Muslims also read the Quran and attend prayers at mosques more frequently than they would in the other eleven months of the year.
In Malaysia, as in other countries with large Muslim populations, a carnival atmosphere fills the air. Special foods are prepared, sold and consumed. It’s common for families and social groups to ‘break fast’ together. Hotels and restaurants offer special menus for breaking fast.
The roads are a lot less crowded than usual during the time of breaking fast – sometimes people stop their cars by the roadside and break their fast.
It’s a season for doing good, and for showing restraint while others do not. Some Muslims have even said to me that they “gain merit” by serving refreshments to non-Muslim guests in their homes while not partaking themselves.
So it’s with some horror that I read about what’s been happening in a co-ed primary school located not far from where I live. The story surfaced 2 weeks into Ramadan.
It seems the canteen in the school has been closed for Ramadan and non-Muslim and (therefore non-fasting) students have been asked to eat their meals in the school’s shower rooms. It also seems like there are in-use toilets close to the shower room, and the smell from the toilets fills the air. Both boys and girls eat their meals in the room. It’s not clear whether the shower room is for boys or for girls.
The mother of one of the students was informed about this by a driver who ferries her daughter to the school. [I wonder why the daughter hadn’t said anything to her mother.] The mother couldn’t believe what she was told. So she went to see for herself. Her disbelief turned into horror and rage. She confronted the school’s afternoon supervisor, but didn’t get a satisfactory response. So she took photos and posted them on Facebook.
The photos and her notes went viral. The comments began to spiral. It turned into a racial thing: this is what “they” do to “us.” Then people became incensed with the school authorities. The deputy Minister of Education, an Indian, was brought into the fray. Muslims criticized the school’s headmaster and teachers. People began saying this is the state of our nation thanks to the government’s tolerance, nay promotion, of intolerance of non-Malays.
I do not wish to downplay the seriousness of what’s going on. I think it unconscionable that the school canteen should be closed for business during Ramadan. I think it unconscionable that students should be barred from the canteen premises during Ramadan. Shouldn’t schools cater to Muslim as well as non-Muslim students? I think it unconscionable that students should be expected to eat their meals in a shower room, filled with toilet smells.
I do not wish to downplay the seriousness of what’s going on. Why aren’t people asking whether the shower room is still used as a shower room? Why aren’t people asking when the shower room began to be used as a place to eat? [Especially since one news report says the “conversion” of the shower room occurred in March.] Why are people zeroing in on this one incident as if it’s typical of every school in Malaysia? Why aren’t people talking about other schools? Why are we so eager to see the worst in everyone?
I noticed that Sinar Harian, a Malay Daily has expressed outrage over what the students have had to endure. Sinar Harian interviewed and gave voice to 4 non-Muslim parents whose children attend the school. Sinar Harian even noted that the school has 28 non-Muslim students, 74 teachers, and a total of 1,373 students AND that reporters from the state news agency, Bernama, couldn’t get access to the Headmaster!
So far, this appears to be a matter concerning one school, with 74 teachers, probably including one or more Islamic religious teachers. What have they done? What will they do? What do they say is the reason for cordoning off the canteen during Ramadan? How joyful will they be when they break their fasts this Ramadan? What will their (Malay-Muslim) friends say to them in the suraus, mosques and open houses?
The aroma of delicacies fills the air in our bazaars. The aroma of toilets fills the air in the “makeshift canteen” in Sri Pristina School. What aroma fills the air of our conversations?
Rama Ramanathan maintains the blog Rest Stop Thoughts