By Zehra Kazmi:
I think it would be hypocritical to say that Ramzan is not about consumption. Any large festival that involves a “celebration” is. As I was struggling to think about what else I could write about, the way the market works during Ramzan struck me as particularly interesting. Islamic festivals are traditionally austere affairs but capitalism has converted them into a market opportunity, which makes for an interesting case study. In India, where Muslims are in minority, this economic impact is more visible in the form of popular cultural images.
Even if you are not too familiar with a city, you always know when you’re in a Muslim dominated neighbourhood – especially during this time of the year. Aside from the local mosque in plain view and the sudden increase in the number of men in skull caps and women wearing hijabs or niqaabs, there are ubiquitous hoardings wishing you Eid Mubarak, shops selling kurta pyjamas and “fancy” burqas (which include a whole range of stones and sitaaras to jazz up your plain old chaadar), and proudly “Muslim” hotels. The streets smell of keora and the shops are lined with dates (that start from 45 rupees a packet and can go on to 800 bucks or more), sewai spirals, and a variety of breads and biscuits. Cloth retailers find their stores packed with families buying clothes for the occasion.
Even if you were to stay at home and switch on the television, Akshay Kumar and Dollar Club will wish you Ramzan Mubarak in the most unimaginative advertisement ever and the trailer of Salman Khan’s latest Eid release will traumatize you.
I found in my research that the adjustment of work hours during the month of Ramzan takes place in almost every Muslim-majority country. On some stock markets, there’s reportedly a “Ramadan Effect,” a month-long rally. That often means higher prices, which means higher profit margins for merchants, retail stores and cafes. Countries like Bangladesh had to temporarily halt the export of fish to ensure there was enough for domestic consumption and to prevent the prices rising. The higher consumption equates to higher economic growth, although this is generally only a short-term effect.
I remember how excited I was in fifth or sixth grade when this American virtual reality website aimed at young girls called Stardoll (Yes, I was once on Stardoll and have no shame in admitting that) decided to celebrate ‘Ramadaan’ with me. They launched a month long celebration and users from all over the world wished each other. For me it was a great moment of pride in my religion, American fashion websites cared about Ramzan. America’s big-businesses, traditionally the conservative class, is ridding itself of some of its wariness towards Islam as the month slowly transforms into a shopping holiday. Post 9/11, the visibility of Muslims led to a spread of mass hysteria and hate against the community, but also caused American shopping giants to take notice of the growing numbers of American Muslims and their rising purchasing power. Could capitalism be the answer for the normalization of Islam in America as well? The fact that big brands like DKNY and Macy’s are investing money and manpower into marketing goods specifically for Muslims reflects a level of acceptance, even if the motive is a lot more mercenary than what some of the more naive among us might assume.
However, this monetization of Islam’s major festival represents an interesting dichotomy. On the one hand, Muslims like me are relieved by any news item that doesn’t link us to ISIS or barbarism and shows us in a more flattering light, does this move represent a new trend where our festivals slowly lose their meaning and become mass-shopping bonanzas?
Closer home in India, it interests me how this year there has been a great extension of dialogue about Muslims, especially on social media websites like Buzzfeed. Even if the discourse is funny and light, or more serious and in-depth, like what we are trying to do with this column, both add to the discourse about Muslims and more importantly, the normalization of a community that has been the ‘other’ for too long.
This article is part of Youth Ki Awaaz’s special coverage of Ramzan.