Opinionista Kalim Rajab 23 June 2014

On multiple identities

An innocent conversation on dress conjures up deeper thoughts on identity and what it means to be a global citizen.

The other day, a female colleague and I were shown a sepia-tinted photograph of an elderly client and his wife, taken in the 1960s. How nice to see an Indian woman in a sari, I commented; would you ever think of wearing one these days? My Indian female colleague and I are of the same generation, hence the question. I was thrown aback that she was thrown aback by the question. Not really, she replied; a sari is for Hindus.

She, by contrast, was Muslim – and in drawing this distinction she was probably not alone in her thinking.

A generation ago, such a viewpoint would have been rare in most Asian communities, South Africa’s included. Saris – the Indian subcontinent’s most elegant export and its national dress – are worn by all there, regardless of their religion, be they Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Sikh or Parsi. In part, the wearing of it was (and still is) a statement by female Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis asserting that despite religion, there is another, overarching identity for a fifth of the world’s population – ethnicity. Two generations ago in South Africa, sari-wearing was commonplace for all local Indians, and it was rare for Indian Muslim women to wear the form-covering hijab (as my colleague now did) – the hijab, after all, being essentially an Arab dress. (While it is true that, for example, my grandmother did modestly cover her hair – but like all others of her time she did it by wearing the Indian dhowni, or loose scarf, which was quite different from the Arab hijab). Window-shopping in those days through Fordsburg in Johannesburg, or through Grey Street in Durban, the height of fashion would have been Indian saris or dhupattas rather than Arab purdah.

Ironically enough, during this period in history, even in much of the Arabic speaking world, the practise of purdah wasn’t as dominant as some would now have us believe. Ghada Shabandar, an Egyptian human rights activist, recalls that growing up in 1960s Cairo, “the hijab did not exist… I do not remember a single veiled woman” from those times. Religion was the “ethical scaffolding” of people’s lives – to use the Iraqi writer Ali Allawi’s term – but crucially only one of the multiple identities which Middle Easterners carried about with them. Cultural identity and ethnicity – being Bedouin, Levantine, Palestinian, Assyrian, Kurdish or Maronite, to name just a handful – was just as important.

It was a similar experience in South Africa. Today, I am struck by how this has all changed, and how much more pigeonholed we are by the strict bounds of religiosity which threatens to block out the more flexible calls of ethnicity and culture.

I make these observations not to ridicule the choices others have made – for it is in the nature of communities to evolve and mutate. Rather, it is to ask why the choices we make are now seen to be mutually exclusive. Faith, ethnicity, culture, outlook, geography – our societies seem to be demanding one over the other, rather than a graceful coexistence. It was this graceful coexistence which, for example, gave rise to the distinctive, unadorned three-striped sari which Mother Theresa – a Roman Catholic nun – chose for herself and her order to reflect the regular dress of poor women in the Kolkata slums where she founded her community. She knew instinctively that in order to gain legitimacy, she needed to draw on multiple traditions and identities and take on the flavour of her surroundings.

The economist and philosopher Amartya Sen emphasises that it is precisely this sense of multiple identities which is what adds colour and flavour to our lives, what makes us more dappled as individuals and which is something to cherish. “I can be at the same time an Asian, an Indian citizen, a US resident, a British academic and a Bengali with Bangladeshi ancestry,” he says. In much the same way, the polemical African academic Ali Mazrui revels in throwing those who attempt to pigeon-hole him off-kilter. He insists on emphasising his “triple-heritage”- a combination of Islamic law, Kenyan culture, and a Western education – and in fact sees it as something which has shaped modern Africa. Both these thinkers do not refute the central importance of religion in defining peoples’ lives – they simply ask how it can be possible not to simultaneously respond to the emotional pulls and sentiments of other elements of one’s background – and not to use religion as a demarcator of artificial difference.

Let us celebrate ourselves in all our variegated beauty. The alternative is bland monochrome. What’s your combination? DM

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