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Selfies in black abayas

Today, when worlds collide with equal force and consequence as speeding cars on a California highway, can we imagine escaping the impact of even a single collision? Is the option of being miraculously air-lifted out of the interminable traffic log-jams available for us, even if we are spared physical injury? Just as avoiding California highways is an impossibility (given the systemic destruction of public transportation system), meeting head-on forces of neoliberal globalization with its unique technological, financial, and ideological structures is an inevitability.

No one can be immune to them, least of all those individuals who carve out pulpits in digital spheres to ride on resonance created by viral messaging, to vociferously denounce change, and to profess antediluvian ideologies. Everyone is inexorably a part of the contemporary social and economic reconstruction of our worlds. Even those who are ensconced in rural backwaters and are uncaring of the new logic are nonetheless to drawn into its vortex. Tragedies such as the one at Rana Plaza in Dacca, Bangladesh, exemplify its brutalities. Rural and urban poor are pulverized among labels of global brands and multinational corporations, which mark their personalities equally on shoddy, illegal constructions and on indices of wealth and status.

This is an age of impurities, where boundaries are difficult to maintain and everything collides into the other. Unyielding powers create change far beyond our control. How is it then that we continue to talk about the relentless flux of our immediate realities in neat terms that invoke order and permanence? More importantly why do we continue to presume that some individuals have been left outside of these massive realignments to dwell alone in their isolated or pristine worlds? Or that the world can be precisely reconfigured in taxonomies that work only in the binaries and create divisions such as traditional and modern or fundamentalist and cosmopolitan?

Such viewpoints impose artificial clarities and attempt to contain complexities within simplistic rather than simple categories.

For example, how would you describe the women who grace the photograph on the cover of my book? Here are two young women, dressed in black abayas (the Middle Eastern style cloak and veil), covered from head to toe to signal their allegiance to a modest and decidedly non-Western femininity. Meanwhile, they take pictures of themselves on their iPad to upload within minutes on Facebook or Instagram, waiting with bated breaths for the number of “likes” their photo would receive. Should their personalities be locked within stereotypical perceptions of Muslim women as oppressed and backward? Should their engagement with modern technologies be seen as superficial and unimportant to creating any meaningful engagement with modernity?

It is still generally believed in a country, which has undergone a total overhaul not only in spheres of economy but also personal ideologies and public sensibilities, that Muslim youth have somehow miraculously been air-lifted out of any collisions with the force of new ideas.

However, if the definition of being modern involves an awareness of multiple options and a desire for exploration, then these women are decidedly modern. The media, which peddles anything and everything with slightest potential of being saleable, brings home to them the many options for self-construction both from the West as well as the East. A veiled persona is one among the many alternatives available to them. Their veil, which is imported from the entrepots of the Middle East, and has nothing to do with dowdy burkha worn in India before, implies travel, consumerism, and visions of cosmopolitanism — and this notwithstanding the dominant tendency to see only imports from the West as indicating modernity.

The fact is that these young people are avid pupils of self-help and self-reconstructive philosophies, which are so integral to modern lifestyles. Like other young people, they draw on their extended ambit of their forays, made wider by the omnipresence of media and the preeminence of imagination in everyday life, to find and create “the new me”. The choice of wearing veil is as much a negotiating stance with a patriarchal society as a wish to be more desirable in the marriage market by presenting themselves as the alternative foil to the permissive modern woman. I see this sartorial adventure as no different from the decision of wearing a smart suit to land a job at a multinational corporation. Their modernity is complex and filled with anomalies such as the dreams for being “a working housewife,” but are nonetheless informed by larger debate about citizenship and rights. Otherwise how would it be possible to assay the veiled persona in a climate of rabid anti-Islamicism? Most importantly their complexities make us rethink the definition of modernity, and to redefine from spaces other than those in the western hemisphere.

Featured image: Architecture Detail on Qutub Minar, Delhi. © Bulent Ince via iStock.

Recent Comments

  1. robin gangopadhya

    I heard her chat in KPFK today. Also read the blog post. I would like to propose a wider horizon for “modernity” among women ( or men for that matter): for starters, let us drop the fetish about what one does with iphones…
    Let me get on with modernity
    – can they swim for the Olympics in that dress, only allowed
    -can they participate in figure skating?
    – play at Wimbledon or US Open?
    – can they jump in the pool to save a life?
    -can they work at par with men/women in the field from where we all originated?
    -can they perform surgery?
    ( I know you would say yes, but I wont go for one myself)
    – can they run to save their lives if suddenly it is required?
    none of these. Whence prediluvianism or postmodernism?

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