The recent ban on ‘meat’ in India has resulted in a variety of reactions in the Indian and international media. Debates about minority rights, fundamental rights and hegemony of a particular ideology have been raged across print media and the blogosphere. An Indian Muslim recently petitioned the government to ban vegetables for a day. India is inhabited by people of diverse faiths and practices and there are different views about this ban, ranging from derision to appreciation. There are a significant number of people living in India who are vegetarians because of religious reasons. Things though, are totally different across India’s eastern border. The Hindu population in Pakistan is less than 1% of the total populace. Among the Muslim population, consuming and presenting meat to guests is considered a question of social prestige and not of religion. Eating vegetables regularly is generally considered a sign of poverty or lack of resources. Despite such attitudes in the society, the number of vegetarians is increasing with time.
Vegetarians in Pakistan are almost as an ‘outcast’ due to their dietary habits. They face derision, curiosity, surprise, a bit of coercion and allegations of being a ‘Hindu agent’ only because they choose to eat differently from most members of this society. At a friend’s house last month, his teenage daughters were almost shocked to hear my dietary preference and were genuinely curious to know how I survived without consuming meat. Being a vegetarian in Pakistan is almost, an act of rebellion.
Living in Lahore doesn’t make things any easier. One of my American friends was vegetarian for most of his life. That is, until he had to live in Lahore for two weeks. The only ‘vegetarian’ option he found at some top-notch restaurants was ‘Kheer’ or Rice pudding. And you can’t survive on Rice pudding for too long. He still prefers vegetarian food but occasionally dabbles in the ritual of eating meat.
Being a vegetarian in Pakistan during normal days is a pain; being vegetarian during Eidul Azha just compounds the misery. Some people also call it ‘Bakra Eid’ because of sacrifice of goats ( Bakras). Meat, blood, offal and the smell of Barbecue reins the streets of Lahore, Karachi, Quetta and most other cities of Pakistan. At most Eid parties across the country, there are no vegetarian options for the ‘deviant’ vegetarians. It is a perfect depiction of a possible vegetarian apocalypse. Ali Farrukh works for the sales department of a leading firm in Karachi and adopted vegetarianism two years ago. He calls the days following Eid as some of the worst in terms of obtaining non-meat food. He laments the fact that we have such tasty vegetarian dishes in our cuisine but they are considered ‘low-brow’ because of societal pressure. People in Lahore often joke that even ‘chicken’ is a vegetable and trying some those dishes won’t affect his ‘vows’. There are no exclusively vegetarian restaurants in Lahore, Karachi or Islamabad. One has to suffice on either ‘Daal’ or ‘French Fries’ at most food outlets.
An often neglected aspect of Eid is the impact that bloodshed has on young minds. In the more religiously inclined households, kids are forced to watch the animal slaughter to make them realize what ‘sacrifice’ means. On most occasions, the same kids had played and nurtured the animals themselves before the day of Sacrifice. Some people are so disgusted by the bloodshed that they decline eating meat for a few days after Eid. Add the fact that most ‘butchers’ around the time of Eid are not qualified for their jobs and the animals end up suffering immense pain before losing their lives. In other Muslim countries, animal sacrifice is conducted in properly designated slaughterhouses and the ‘after-effects’ of the act are not thronging the streets as is the fashion here. In countries such as Turkey, people choose between sacrifice and monetary donation at the time of Eid.
There are many people who turn vegetarian after witnessing animal cruelty. Furhan Hussain living in Islamabad is one of them. He stopped eating red meat three years ago and has been on a totally vegetarian diet for a whole year now. He complains about many of his friends abandoning him just because he refused to eat meat alongside them. To gather people with similar experiences as his, Furhan started a Facebook group which has dozens of members by now.
K. Shahid, a newspaper editor working in Lahore adopted vegetarianism few years ago and he describes the ‘slaughter-fest’ on Bakra Eid as one of the many reasons for his ‘conversion’. In his view, Eid is just one of the days when thousands of animals are slaughtered for food, however the ante is upped and meat is cooked more frequently in the three days following Eid. He finds it particularly difficult to find vegetarian options during Eid dinners or gatherings. In his words, “it becomes even more tiresome than usual to explain—for the gazillionth time—why one wouldn’t eat meat, especially when it has ‘religious blessings’ as an add-on.”
Being different is difficult in most societies but the task is even harder in a conformist setup such as ours. No efforts are made by the state or the society to reach out to the ‘different’ people and this difference could be religious, social and cultural. Most Pakistani cities lack cultural diversity and that ultimately leads to feelings of seclusion and being an outcast in the society. Eating meat(or not) is a lifestyle choice that shouldn’t require societal approval. In a country where defending human rights is a dangerous task, animal rights are not even considered important enough.