Moderns, Models and Martyrs

If you believed the Indian media, then not only do Pakistani women possess cleavages and midriffs but their displaying these body parts is considered a fight against militancy.

“Bare shoulders, backless gowns and pouting models are wowing Pakistan’s glitterati as Karachi Fashion Week shows the world a different side of the Taliban-troubled nation,” said one report. Are there no other paradigms for us to understand modern Pakistan? Do we even want to?

There is talk about Islamic clothes as opposed to what was witnessed on the catwalk. This is an artificial comparison. Social dress codes vary for regular wear even in the couture capitals of the world like Paris, Milan and New York.

However, the Indian media saturated with tribal chiefs found an opportunity to perform a virtual bereavement ritual as fashionistas supposedly braved gunfire to strut on the ramp.

It is a patronising attitude quite forgetting that we have to deal with not only the rightwing moral police but also educational institutions that lay down rules. In Kolkata, for example, a college wanted its students to only wear sarees and not salwaar-kameezes; the elite St. Xavier’s College in Mumbai issued a diktat against short dresses.

We want to look at modern Pakistan as the West does – a materialistic opposition to fanaticism. None of these people are modern in the sense of being ideologically driven. We give prime time and front page space to wardrobe malfunction and there are psychological discussions on stress levels. It perhaps adds a similar dimension when we see our neighbour defying external stress.

A modern Pakistan is both a relief and a threat to India. It is a relief because there are mutual opportunities and mutual backscratching possibilities for fake blonde bluster to cover up real blonde moments. It is a threat because we need those bearded guys and burqa-clad women to make us feel good about our democracy. For those who constitute the upper layer of any society, democracy is the ability to walk the ramp – for charity, for theatrics, for flaunting money, for flaunting regenerated bodies, for flaunting redeemed self-esteem, for flaunting trophy hubbies. To belong to the jet set you need to walk the ramp.

Can such cocoons rebel against society? Take this headline: “Fashion takes a bow near Taliban hub in Pakistan”. Do we know what a hub is? And how close is Karachi to the hub? The show taking place under heavy security does not as a matter of course catapult it to the level of a valid protest. “And this is a way to tell the people who want our lives to stop that ‘No, we won’t let you.’” was one such voice that immediately echoed what the Indian media is happy about portraying.

A “mix of eastern and western inspirations” immediately makes us think of a little bit of Chanel infused with a touch of Sindh and the Louis Vuitton with Lahore. This is the muaah-muaah comfort level of the wannabes whose empathies come purely from performing a striptease. It is a battle of and for the botox and its accruing financial benefits. India has a huge market, but Pakistan’s elite can flash their Calvin Kleins just as well.

I can imagine our media chortling at the words of one expat Pakistani designer who said, “My muse is that quintessential modern woman who’s self-aware and knows what she wants. She’s ambitious and driven but isn’t afraid to flaunt her softer side in fear of contradicting that image. In fact, she embraces it.” Oh no, the power woman has those threads sewn into her mannequin frame and control over body means just not being able to exhale.

Why do these people assume that a woman in the tribal areas, if heard, might be unaware about what she wants? Is it not possible that her ambition is to not flaunt certain assets? The neo ‘cons’ transpose the victim of fanaticism against a peek preview of the houri from heaven and end up portraying extremism in two limited shades.

The positions are in place. Men have to take on the war against terror and women must do the phoney mommy of moderation act. Liberalism is the new poster girl and caters to market demands. No wonder it has degenerated to the level of the trivial.

Look beyond this current event and you will find that according to the Indian media the great Pakistani moderns are not the true dissenting voices, but the flavours of the season. Modern is Imran Khan coming out of a socialite’s pool in Mumbai like Ursula Andress, actress Meera covering half her face with shades and the other half with braggadocio, politicians and diplomats wearing suits, commentators talking in clipped accents punctuated with home-grown patois, activist cats crying over the spilt milk of peaceful resolutions to the conflict. And if someone can say “those Talibs” followed by a few choice cuss words, then they begin to epitomise nothing less than a quick-fix renaissance.

This is a composite list. If you notice, the arrivistes overtake the artistes. People who do street theatre, use art and dance as statement, who question the status quo are simply bypassed or seen as ranting mavens unless they are threatened. Then, they can take that great leap towards modernism. Intellectual shahadat – martyrdom – has good currency.

Interestingly, television and newspapers in India have buttressed the feudal class as spokespersons of such modernism. The idea is that a haveli may well be a hotbed of intrigue against the system when more often it is only a haven for hors d’oeuvres. On the rare occasion when a person of clear merit is propped up, then it is as per Western parameters. Abdul Sattar Edhi is not a mere do-gooder anymore but the ‘Mother Teresa of Pakistan’, and Mother T was a celebrity with an imported stamp.

It is this construct that makes us narrow-mindedly listen to our neighbour talk the robot walk. No wonder that we count among the great moderns former President Pervez Musharraf. The reason is simple: he has a dog.

FARZANA VERSEY is a Mumbai-based columnist and author of A Journey Interrupted: Being Indian in Pakistan, Harper Collins, India. She can be reached at kaaghaz.kalam@gmail.com


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