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Our hybrid modernity

July 31, 2012


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