Pakistanis in Peshawar buy sweet drinks from a store ahead of the start of Ramadan tonight. More than 1.5 billion Muslims around the world will mark the month, during which believers abstain from eating, drinking, smoking from dawn until sunset. (ABDUL MAJEED/AFP/Getty Images)

As the Muslim holy month of Ramadan begins, religious minorities in Muslim-majority countries such as Pakistan have to be more careful about eating and drinking in public in the scorching heat: on the one hand, it can cost them physical public ire and physical violence; and on the other, in some countries, a heavy fine and imprisonment.

The “Respect for Ramadan” (Ehtram-e-Ramazan) law was introduced in Pakistan in 1981 by military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq; since then it has created an atmosphere where no food or drink is to be sold or consumed publicly during the fasting period (which runs from dawn to sunset).

Earlier this month, the Senate Standing Committee on Religious Affairs approved an amendment in that law that now allows three months’ imprisonment for eating or smoking in public. Eateries are to be fined roughly $250 for providing food during the fasting hours (around 4am-7pm in Pakistan). The punishment for hotels that violate this amendment rose from around $5 to close to $250. Cinemas, meanwhile, could face fines of as much as $5,000 for opening during fasting hours.

The development particularly affects non-Muslim Pakistanis who do not follow the Islamic traditions of Ramadan.

Bakhtawar Bhutto, sister of the chairman of the opposition Pakistan People’s Party, tweeted against the recent amendment, calling it “ridiculous” and not in accordance with Islam.

Two Christian brothers were arrested under this law in August 2009, while last year a Pakistani octogenarian Hindu in a remote area of Sindh province was beaten in public by a policeman until his face bled. Pictures of him circulated on social media. Gokal Das, reported to be a diabetic, had started eating rice in public a little before the breaking of the fast.

Pakistani food prices usually rise with the start of Ramadan, while people tend to become more lethargic in the workplace, and stop listening to Indian music. One author, Komal Ali, notes that female anchors on TV adopt a more “Islamic” outlook and stop inviting male guests onto their shows who are na-mehram (men who are not related to them in a way recognised in Islamic law). He writes:

“I find this law extremely hypocritical and prejudiced – not only on a social level, but also on a religious level … My driver, who is a Christian, recently told me that he hadn’t had lunch because all the restaurants were closed.”

Traffic becomes congested shortly before the breaking of fast, but roads are then quickly deserted as people go home to break the fast with their families. From hospitals to police stations, work usually halts.

Anglican Bishop Peter Humphrey of Peshawar, recently elected moderator of the Church of Pakistan, says that minorities become more cautious about their behaviour during Ramadan.

“It has been announced in Peshawar that any violation of the law will result in imprisonment, which is worrisome,” he says.

Shams Shamaun, a rights activist from Hyderabad in southern Pakistan, says that the law discriminates against religious minorities. He says that they should be treated more carefully during Ramadan so that they do not feel left out.

Naveed Anthony, former advisor to the Sindh Chief Minister, says the law is generally less likely to be enforced in Sindh province, where he lives, because the province is comparatively more tolerant (despite Das’s beating last year).

In Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province – where most Christians live – Gujrat District Police Officer Sohail Zafar Chatta, a Muslim, wrote on Facebook: “Christians fast for forty days. How about respecting their sentiments?”

Another Muslim wrote: “Is it Ehtram-e-Ramazan, or just don’t-eat-in-my-presence attitude? …There is no compulsion in religion. Not even during Ramazan!”