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Our hybrid modernity

Published Jul 31, 2012 12:20am


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JUST before Eid, around a year ago, a local television channel did a small report on the exponential increase in customers at small hair-cutting salons.

The clip, regardless of its original intent, ended up focusing on the formation and shifting of hair styling and beautification preferences amongst lower-middle to middle-class male customers in Lahore.

In one small interview, a barber told the reporter that ‘rebonding’ and ‘emo cutting’ are in high demand these days, and customers between the ages of 15 and 30 are generally the most informed and picky about such things.

On the face of it, this seems like just another human-interest story: a clip produced for the explicit purpose of filling an empty slot on the evening news, and to provide viewers with a sense of holiday-induced vibrancy. Beyond the surface, however, this innocuous-looking report provides a perfect snapshot of the pervasive changes taking place in Pakistan’s cultural landscape.

Twenty or 30 years ago, envisioning the proliferation of a derived fashion sense amongst lower-middle-class males and females in Pakistan would’ve been fairly impossible. Today, the same strata, some of which forms the first generation of urban migrants, is very much attuned to regional, if not global, trends in fashion. Their preferences, in turn, are actualised through the availability of affordable apparel, like replica Ralph Lauren shirts or fake Louis Vuitton bags from China.

This dynamism is similarly visible in other consumer spheres. Food preferences, for example, have been changing rapidly across the country, especially in secondary cities and towns. Fast food restaurants, usually native imitations of multinational chains, are now flourishing in the business of providing affordable local and western cuisine — a reality one could only previously associate with the metropolitan ethos of Karachi and to a lesser extent Lahore.

Likewise, in the realm of communication, Pakistan’s telecom footprint has put an entire generation of citizens, from across classes, at complete ease with cellular technology and the Internet. This has, and will continue to have, a profound impact on the way knowledge is received and understood, as well as on cross-gender interaction. Cellphone companies, driven by the very primal instincts of consumer capitalism, are tapping into these impulses, and making truckloads of money through low tariffs, late-night packages and shiny marketing.

Part of the reason why these preferences have begun to exert themselves more forcefully over the last decade is the influx of consumer goods — as a result of trade liberalisation — and partly, as clichéd as it sounds, because of the sheer proliferation of cable television. In both instances, the end result has been a reconstitution of what it means to be ‘modern’ in Pakistan — a term previously associated with a metropolitan, usually upper-class demographic.

This newfound, affordable modernity has made Pakistan’s urban mass situate and identify itself both domestically and at a more global level. One result has been a form of consumerism, briefly touched upon above, which seeks to replicate and nativise global or regional trends. The second result has been to open up complex questions of individual and group identity, which, according to some, are answered by Pakistan’s religious predisposition — whether it’s transmitted through statist narratives and symbols, or through societal actors like the media or Islamic groups.

The popularity of revivalist movements like Al Huda, of televangelists on major private TV channels and of the need to primarily identify oneself as part of the Muslim ummah are all largely urban phenomena, and can be seen as a collective response to questions of identity. Complementing this in almost symbiotic fashion, commercial concerns have willingly reshaped themselves to fit the context and responded by introducing exorbitant iftar and sehri deals, Sharia-compliant banking, and even shampoos for women who wear headscarves.

These signposts of right-wing transformation, however, may not be as one-dimensional and all-encompassing as they sometimes appear. Beneath the surface, in a country of nearly 70 million urban inhabitants, alternative or supplementary answers are still present and thriving. For example, even in a place as urbanised as inner Lahore, biradari and clan still hold public significance in businesses and as markers of identity and relationship building.

In many Punjabi households, educated or otherwise, kinship (along with class) plays a crucial role in marriages. In Karachi and other parts of urban Sindh, and in Balochistan, nationalist sentiment and identification on linguistic lines continues to retain popularity with segments of the urban population. Religion, perhaps, does not figure into the public imagination the same way in these places as it does in others, which shows that the idea of identity is still fluid.

For our purpose though, it’s important to appreciate three things. Firstly, the urban landscape in Pakistan is changing rapidly, and now stretches beyond just a few large cities. Secondly, we are currently witnessing the development of a Pakistani modernity, one that is partially derived from global culture and partially produced from the local context.

Televangelists teaching us how to make a pious meal for iftar and twenty-something boys driving Suzuki Mehrans with one-line phrases on their rear windows are both facets of this. And thirdly, while the spectre of an exclusivist and assertive form of religiosity looms large, especially in urban Punjab, the question of identity is still open for contestation. The duration and scope of this contestability is a completely different question, and one that will only be answered in a longer time frame.

Either way, the coming few years will prove to be crucial in a number of ways and might delineate the impact that this hybrid modernity of ours has, and will continue to have, on Pakistan.

The writer is a freelance columnist based in Islamabad. Twitter: @umairjav


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Umair Javed is a freelance columnist.

He tweets @umairjav

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (13) Closed

Brig (Retd) Waheed Uz Zaman Tariq Jul 31, 2012 06:38am
This transition was imminent, in the light of our electronic linnk with the world. As we are globalised, our own national identity is lost in the broadening horizons, skewed westwards. Modernity amidst trends to to the conservatism is leading to polarisation in the society; already facing a kind of civil war. We need homogenisation which I mean adoptation to the golbal trends while retaining our ideological basis. This kind of adjustment may enhance our image as an enlightened Muslim nation having tolerance and broadmindedness. This may help to counter extremism, in thoughts and actions.
umer Aug 01, 2012 05:38am
For starters we should accept the fact that there are myriad of cultures in Pakistan.foisting an alien culture, be that western,arab or indian on all segments of Pakistanis is unfair and smacks of cultural imperialism
Farhan Jumani Jul 31, 2012 02:21pm
I have thoroughly read this article and I do agree with the view point of author. This Modernity or development has also bought loom challenge of individualism. If I have to tell, what fears this modernity has brought with us. I will say 1. A loss of meaning, the fading of moral horizons. 2. A fear instrumental reason 3. Loss of Freedom In this subject I will suggest to those who want to read more further on this topic they should read Charles Taylor especially his article “The Malaises of Modernity” in which he has discuss the challenges of modernity and its impacts in depth. Thanks and Regards Farhan Jumani
Farhan Jumani Aug 01, 2012 11:51am
Thankyou to dawn family to accept my post and my perspective...
bkt Jul 31, 2012 11:28am
Great and very timely article. Thanks
Cyrus Howell Jul 31, 2012 05:41am
Somethings similar has happened to consumerism in Indonesia. All over the developing world the last 30 years the first child in the family (or in Muslims countries the first male) move from the farm to the nearest big city to secure a job and education. When the #1 son rents an apartment, becomes successful his siblings follow him for jobs and education. Back on the farm, how can a family divide their land in 5 parts for 5 sons, and in the next generation and successive generations do the same? There will be no farmland left. So yes. The young people who have traveled to "the big city" are not the same as those who came before. Young people spend money on how they look, once they have money. The family farms cannot no longer support families (other than feed everyone). The young do not have cash to buy what they want . In the cities they learn to use cell phones and learn about computers on their own. They confront the world of work. I have seen the same happen in China, Honduras, Mexico, Indonesia and the Philippines. The birds have flown. It was time to leave the nests.
Kamal Jul 31, 2012 06:10am
My parents used to say that in their youth (circa 1950s), whatever their parents said had to be accepted. To do otherwise would invite social censure. In my youth days (circa 1970s), we were allowed to question their views - our own views shaped by inputs from our friends, their parents, our extended family, social circle, and information gleaned from books and magazines in libraries. The internet has made considerably more information available. I can not imagine reading this newspaper even 15 years ago, and would have ended up with a jaundiced view of Pakistan & its citizens. Good to hear about such changes happening in Pakistan, especially among the youth.
Dr Imran Ahmed Jul 31, 2012 03:51pm
Well said Waheed sahib!
Usman Sh Jul 31, 2012 04:38pm
religion as a marker of identity is more pronounced in urban centers than in the rural. The first generation which gets urbanised has a sense of losing moorings and anchorage, feeling anomie, so they find great appeal in fundamentalist narrative which gives them a teleological meaning, a guard against the presumed absurdity and meaninglessness of life. The metropolitan dwellers who have settled generations before have adopted culture to coexist with the 'other'. Lahore is an emerging metropolis of mature first generation but still carry the experience of first generation. Karachi is unique case. It is by intellect a metropolis with huge population of North Indian city dwellers but they had adopted islamist narrative to gain legitimacy. though that narrative was syncretic barelvi and not puritan deobandi.
Syed Murtaza Haider Jul 31, 2012 05:58pm
I think we should adopt islamic culture, islamic traditions, islamic norms. Hair cuts like spikes and french cut which writer highlighted is not the muslim culture.
Seemab Jul 31, 2012 08:03pm
i think i have read this earlier perhaps in an Indian newspaper or Dawn has republished it perhaps. i will try to get the link
Mohammad Ali Khan Jul 31, 2012 10:32pm
The world has experienced this phenomenon in all ages and regions.What we are today is a product of centuries of human interaction.Good and evil gets to permeate in societies, and cause their progress or decline.Pakistanis need to have a free mind and spirit to chose the right stuff for themselves.
does not matter Aug 01, 2012 03:52am
Could you please elaborate what is an Islamic hair cut?