Feisal Naqvi

Way to go, ladies!

In Uncategorized on June 9, 2009 at 3:07 am

There is a website by the name of Gigapan which specializes in giant zoomable panoramas.  Type ‘Münster’ in the site’s search engine and you get what looks like a standard street-view of an average German town, complete with the requisite Gothic steeple in the background.

Now zoom in on that church steeple till you find three hanging metal cages. Because therein lies a tale.

In February 1534, the town of Münster was as solidly bourgeois as it looks now. But to a group of radical Christians, Münster represented a priceless opportunity which they exploited to the hilt. After seizing City Hall, the radicals set up a regime in which all property was to be held in common. After a brief period of communal glory, Münster dissolved into a madness where the “elect” were able to force women into marrying them, dissenters were executed and all normal life ground to a halt.

In June 1535, the forces of the Church finally succeeded in taking back control. The leaders of the uprising were tortured to death and their bodies were hauled up for public viewing in three cages hung to the spire of St Lambert’s Church. After 50 years or so, the bodies were themselves removed. But as the internet testifies, the cages remain there till today.

Except when viewed from a great distance, history’s progress is never smooth. We are too prone as a nation to comparing our plight with the West in which all seems as serene as the unruffled surface of a pond. But go beneath that placid façade and it turns out that things were once as bloody and as confused there as they are here.

Those boring streets of Münster ran with blood 500 years ago and the half-millennium since has not been all milk and honey either. Between 1900 and 1945, Germany was the centrepiece of two world wars. Between those two wars, Germany first went financially insane, destroying its economy through hyperinflation, and then went politically insane, giving vent to its darkest urges through the nightmare that was Nazism.

The point of all this history is not to say that everything will turn out fine. That platitude may or may not be correct but it is certainly irrelevant. Instead, the point being made is that life is to be lived, not just endured: the fight is now.

All of this brings me naturally enough to the charity event recently organised by the Pakistan Fashion Design Council.

As a fund-raiser, the show was spectacularly successful, raising Rs 4 million to go along with the Rs 8 million worth of goods already sent to Mardan by the umbrella group, Hum Pakistani. But the true importance of the event was not in the amount it raised but in who did the raising, and how they raised it.

The PFDC event was organised almost entirely by women. One could, with some justification, refer to the organisers as socialites. But the throwaway cynicism of that tag would be unjustified. Yes, they are all women who are social. But they are also all women who are successful professionals. And that is an important fact because while militant sympathisers present the current conflict as being between true believers and a corrupt elite, it is also a war between a small group of men and pretty much most of the women in this country.

The PFDC event was therefore an important function because it showed that those women of this country who will have the most to lose when the fundos come to town are determined to fight back. And the way they fought back is also important.

Fashion may seem light years removed from the theological debates between liberals and extremists but it is not. Extremists believe that there is only one way of being Islamic, which is to act like a well-armed 10th century goat-herder. The rest of us believe that there is no limit to human expression, that one can be both modern and Muslim, and that Islam is a religion for all times and all places, not a template for reproducing one place and one moment in time.

With its devotion to the ephemeral, the fashion industry represents the most complete rejection of the fundamentalist ethos possible. At the same time, our fashion industry is one of the few things in this benighted country that is uniquely Pakistani — as in not Indian, not Arab, not ‘Islamic’, but simply, specifically Pakistani.

Celebrating Pakistani fashion is therefore not just frivolous escapism but a defiant gesture that rejects those who wish to enchain all of us in an arid time-warp. In the case of the PFDC, that defiance was more than symbolic because the organisers had received several bomb threats. But even in symbolic terms, the PFDC’s defiance was many-layered: not only was the event organised by women of all ages, but it featured the work of many extremely talented female designers which was in turn presented by the best female models of Pakistan.

Perhaps all of the above is too complicated. If so, let me put it more simply: the PFDC function was an extremely public, well-manicured finger from the (mostly) female fashion designer community to the militants. Way to go, ladies!

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