Meet the hip-liberals: Cultural dynamics of Pakistan fashion industry – by Nadeem Paracha

I have never been able to understand the cultural dynamics of what is called the Pakistan fashion industry, particularly the notion of holding ‘fashion weeks’ which, at least to me, seem to last for months.

There is nothing new in saying that the so-called Pakistan fashion scene constitutes the minutest percentage of the population when we start counting the number of designers, models, ‘fashion journalists,’ and audience members for fashion shows in this country. Their activities carry not an iota of social relevance whatsoever.

To me they’re quite a useless bunch and I am sure after reading this they would be thinking the same way about me as well. Fair enough.

However, I do have the right to raise a few questions when the enthusiastic fashionistas – who entirely exist in a colourful timeless void – go on to make statements to the effect that they are ‘defying extremism’ and how their events have more to do with matters of business and economics than mere, decedent entertainment.

Well, in no way are these jazzy events akin to a bunch of cosmetic ladies and men standing up to the specter of extremism. The truth is this (albeit widely covered) fringe has always been around. They were there even during the most myopic and reactionary days of one General Zial Haq as well. Thus, even if this country’s military, politicians and people do manage to fail themselves by whining out democracy and submitting to monsters like the Taliban, it is my guess, Pakistan would still be holding fashion weeks.

These trendy folks, about whom we are forced to read and see so much of in our newspapers and on TV, are actually quite a miniature lot. Their existence in the public eye is mainly due to the fact that they make great eye candy and software for Sunday papers to splash their pages with.

But like I said, even if we have Mullah Omar as our ruler, blowing away the heads of poor ‘underclass’ women for daring to take a peek from their jet-black burqas, or chopping off the hands of men who dare to shave, the fashionistas would be holding a fashion week at some big shot’s haveli because that big shot will most probably have some friends or connections in the Mullah’s brigade.

And anyway, the class these fashion kings and queens belong to would probably be the first to exit a burning, turning Pakistan.

Some might ask, should not a liberal man like me, who wants to see his country evolve into one of the most dynamic, diverse, and democratic nations in the Muslim world, feel happy when events like fashion weeks take place in this country during such testing times?

I’m afraid not. Like I said, these fashionista types have always been around and never have they managed to exhibit the kind of relevant meat (pun not intended) required for reviving the country’s cultural health.

This can only be done through the aggressive promotion of things like popular theatre and cinema, indigenous folk music (of all the languages that are spoken in this country), literature that clearly reflects the political, economic and social challenges of the times, and debates on faith and national identity involving accomplished intellectuals, historians, politicians and the masses, and not papaya-faced cranks masquerading as talk show hosts or ‘experts’ on TV.

Dances with wolves

The other day while flipping through the gazillion TV channels out there, I stopped for a while at a channel that was covering this year’s ‘Pakistan Fashion Week.’ Lo and behold! I noticed that one of the sponsors of the event was a foreign bank that recently laid-off hundreds of its employees as a ‘cost cutting measure.’ Now, why (rather how) would an organisation that is willing to dump many of its employees to cut cost, end up paying for a floozy event like a fashion week?

There you go then. In addition to Mullah Omar’s rule, even if the nation is facing an economic meltdown, there will always be some rich corporate dude willing to keep the wheels of ‘fashion’ turning. ‘Social responsibility’ they call it in corporate lingo. Model citizens, indeed (pun intended).

Supposedly the Pakistani ‘fashion scene’ (sometimes audaciously called an ‘industry’) has grown manifold, but it has never fought against the forces that want to clamp down on it. How can they? This batch of hip liberals in the shape of fashionistas and pop musicians is the third in line of a generation, most of whose parents quietly went along with the Zia regime after greatly benefiting from all that American and Saudi money floating around during the dictatorship.

This ubiquitous minority was quietly allowed by the ‘Islamic’ regime to have their parties, booze, and fashion shows behind closed doors, as Zia’s moral brigade went about harassing the majority in the name of “purging vulgarity from society.” The economics of this class was never threatened. And anyways, culturally, they already had their little Paris, New Yorks, and Londons operating in their drawing rooms.

But of course, this was/is a highly opportunistic class as well. Because the moment things started to open up, especially during the second Benazir Bhutto government, the second generation of this class of hipsters suddenly arrived upon the scene with their catwalks, guitars and what not because there was good money to be made. However, the moment the second Benazir government fell, so did (for a while) that hyped “cultural revolution” this class was chanting about from concert halls, catwalks, and award ceremonies. And since most among this generation of hip liberals were bought up in apolitical, tight. and compartmentalised elite environments by their prospering parents, they had no clue what had hit them.

One example I would like to quote here of such a scenario is when, in February 1997, the second Nawaz Sharif government took over, and I actually saw members of a band celebrating the coming of a new era!

Though most of their contemporaries in the fashion industry and the music scene had absolutely no idea how politics worked and what it meant to have a ‘Ziaist’ back at the helm, those who tried could not go beyond knee-jerk reactions based on speculative political gossip and conspiracy theories originating in cosy drawing rooms.

Well, many years and openings later the scene is quite the same. The opportunists are out in force courting brand new TV channels, FM stations, fashion shows, and the music scene. There maybe newness in how openly they are operating, but there is not an iota of substance in their “cultural events” that can actually challenge the obscurantist mentality and forces that challenge them. In fact, sometimes the case is quite the contrary.

Thus, my suggestions to the fashionistas would be to stay the heck away from making political statements. By suggesting that you are ‘challenging extremism,’ you are actually sounding as silly and dunce-like as those long-haired (and, indeed, bald) rock stars of ours who ended up sounding like well-fed drawing room fascists in a recent video by The New York Times.

Anyone for Pathanay Khan or Reshma, instead?

When pop ate itself

According to my own experience as a journalist covering the Pakistan music scene in the 1990s, it is never a good idea to encourage pop musicians to start making political statements. As an idea it can be exciting, but since much of the modern pop music scene in Pakistan originates from middle-class settings, one can thus expect nothing more than self-righteous droning and quasi-reactionary demagoguery usually found in the urban bourgeoisie and petty-bourgeois sections of society.

Surveys and studies of these two classes in Pakistan show them to be among the most conservative, with a history of backing assorted military dictators (especially Ziaul Haq and Pervez Musharraf). Of course, there have also been clear exceptions in this regard, but it is true that over the years the overall conservatism of these classes has seen certain sections from within become both supporters and financiers of the more extreme strains of Islamic thought.

There have been recorded cases against many middle-class shop-owners and traders for financing jihadi organisations; whereas many sections among the more ‘modern’ bourgeois class have largely exhibited their own version of extreme beliefs by passionately patronising (as supporters and clients) a number of Islamic televangelists and drawing-room preachers whose numbers have grown two-fold from 1990 onwards.

Consequently, there has also been a dramatic increase in the number of young men and women from the middle-class now preferring to adorn beards and hijabs, and taking religious rituals a lot more seriously (compared to the situation till the late 1970s). But this class still constitutes a large number of ‘westernised’ youth as well.

However, compared to their more socially conservative class contemporaries — who have been seen to follow right-wing groups from the Jamaat-i-Islami to the supposedly defunct Sipah-i-Sahaba, from the Sunni Tehreek and the Tableeghi Jamaat to individuals such as Dr Israr Ahmed and Amir Liaquat — the more ‘modern’ lot in this respect have not exactly fallen to the left as a reaction (like they did between the 1950s and the early 1970s). Instead, in spite of whole-heartedly embracing the economic, aesthetic, and cultural fruits of liberal economics and politics, they have retained their class’ inherent political conservatism.

Many western journalists and Pakistanis alike are now trying to understand why, for example, many educated, westernised, and modern Pakistani pop/rock stars and their fans are all gung-ho about anti-Americanism but at the same time keep quiet about matters such as religious extremism, terrorism, and the Taliban.

The funny thing is, this is happening even when there are disturbingly tangible and physical examples of the ubiquitous carnage and mayhem being caused by so-called jihadis; whereas conspiratorial notions such as the ever-present explanation of a ‘foreign hand’ remains a largely unsubstantiated and thus somewhat air-headed perception. Adam Ellick’s interviews with former rock star turned loud reactionary mutt, Ali Azmat, and bubblegum-rock poster boy, Ali Noor, in his NYT video feature are the cases in point.

Both hail from modern, middle-class settings and represent the more westernised sections of the Pakistani bourgeoisie. In spite of overtly mimicking the aesthetic, cultural, and linguistic strains of western pop culture, both refuse to see any contradiction whatsoever in conveniently attacking ‘western imperialism’ as the reason behind the terror attacks in Pakistan.

Azmat is seen in a T-Shirt and shorts, with an expensive Apple laptop by his side, sitting in a room decorated like an arty version of an American college dude’s bachelor pad, and the following is what he had to say: ‘It (suicide bombing) is the agenda of neocons to de-Islamise Pakistan…’

In his recently acquired wisdom (which, according to columnist Fasi Zaka, Azmat gained “from watching a total of two YouTube documentaries” and following the rhetoric of Azmat’s newfound guru, Zaid Hamid) Azmat is convinced that the Taliban are not behind the bombings of girls’ schools, but “foreign forces (CIA, RAW and Mossad),” are to be blamed!

Where else but in Pakistan can one find a rock star with a history of being a ‘party animal’ and lucratively sponsored by various western multinationals become a shameless and witless apologist of men who in the name of faith not only blow themselves up in public, but are also known to have used three-to-six-year-old children for the same deed.

Then, in the same documentary, we see yet another scion of the increasingly warped Pakistani bourgeoisie, Ali Noor, the long-haired, guitar-slinging lead vocalist of Noorie. Amidst terrifying footage of blown-up cars, shops, and body limbs, he announces that “the Taliban only constitute a tiny problem.” And, of course, it is the Americans who are to be blamed. While spouting this profound insight, Noor gestures the ‘tiny’ part of his grand statement with his hand and you wonder, shouldn’t that gesture be explaining the size of his brain? No wonder he is incapable of realising the irony of him now appearing on TV to plug cones made by a western multinational.

Is all this symptomatic of mere delusion, or of some unprecedented form of collective psychosis that this class is now suffering from? I think ‘educated,’ westernized, modern idiots like the failed Times Square bomber, Faisal Shahazad, have the answer. In fact, I think he is the answer.

Nadeem F. Paracha is a cultural critic and senior columnist for Dawn Newspaper and

Source: Dawn, 13 May 2010

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