The GenNext of non-resident Kashirmis is on a rediscovery route with focus on culture. Last month, a few young women from diverse professions took time to have a photo-shoot wearing Pherans, the long loose gowns usually part of the traditional dress, it was an instant hit on the social media. Saima Bhat tells the story
Watching a few Kashmiri pheran clad women shooting on a Los Angles beach, the onlookers shouted ‘Oh Persian Princesses’. The pheran clad ‘models’ were quick in response: ‘No, Kashmiri actually’. This was not the first time that they were mistaken as Iranians. That was the reason why a Kashmiri-British blogger Sumaya Teli, the person behind the shoot Los Angles turned to her blog Mamanuskha and shouted: “We want to take Kashmiri back.”
A physician from Sheffield University, Dr Sumaya lives in US with her husband and three children, for whom she has given a break to her career and is not practising presently. But she is amongst these Kashmiris who left the Vale in their childhood and then lived their lives with only a few flashback moments. She admits she falls into the category of non-resident Kashmiris who live ‘dual identities’.
“I am an ethnic Kashmiri as my parents were born and brought up in Kashmir,” Sumaya said. “We shifted to the UK when I was just six years old.”
“After all these years”, Sumaya, whose parents are originally from Sopore says, “When people in the USA hear my British accent and look at my get up (brown Hijabi girl), can feel their eyes ask ‘who are you’ or where are you from.” It was her physician father’s decision to shift to the UK long back.
Calling Kashmir her ‘heartland’, Sumaya says she always had a heartfelt connection with the Vale. “We would spend our childhood summers in Kashmir. Summer vacations in England last for about six weeks and from the first day of school in September I would be counting the days till we would visit the home again,” she said in an interview.
Deep in her heart, Sumaya wants to be a writer and probably this was how her blog, Mamanushka, came into being. “I’m a fulltime mother and a self-taught writer,” she says. “In 2016, I wrote an article for Seekers Hub about how to make the Prophets real for your children. In the West, these are hot topics for every Muslim parent. The article did extremely well in the Muslim parenting circles and due to my photography and writing, a friend, Aiysha Malik, reached out to me suggesting that we write a blog together. That is how Mamanushka was born.”
The blog posts are mostly about the authentic experiences of living in the world as women, as mothers and as Muslims. They mostly cover style, motherhood, relationships, food and faith.”It is a reflection of our own experiences, put out in an attractive format. Over the last few years, it has allowed us to connect globally with many others and form a ‘virtual tribe’.”
Despite living in a ‘liberal world’, Sumaya still feels enchanted by her culture. “I used to wear pherans with jeans for lectures at the medical school. What’s there not to love? Pherans are modest, comfortable and with a pair of pockets. I mean the pockets are just the best part about a pheran. I still wear them all the time at home, to the mosque, and to dinners. They are so versatile, from the cosy and warm pattew (tweed) or mounul (woollen) pheran -perfect for cosy nights to the gorgeous and graceful velvet tilla pheran (embroidered) easily worn for a special event. “I am complimented whenever I wear a pheran and I love talking to people about this unique item in Kashmir’s traditional attire,” she said.
It was because of Sumaya’s write-ups about pheran for the international audience that she was asked to manage them for a fashion show during a three-day event of KGNA (Kashmir Group of North Americans). “I was asked by Naira Tariq (who spearheaded the idea of a children’s fashion show showcasing clothes from different regions of Kashmir) to source pherans for the finale of the fashion show,” she said. “I was more than happy to do it.”
Sumaya sourced the pherans from Iqra Ahmed of tul-palav for the fashion show and used them for the photo shoot too. The pheran-shoot with the four Kashmiri girls at the beach also happened during KGNA but it had nothing to do with KGNA organisers. “Basically I and some of my friends in our spare time went to the beach and took some photos,” she said. “It was entirely my personal project. I styled the pherans, directed my friends, took the photos and wrote the story on my blog.”
Choosing Iqra’s label was decided by Sumaya. “It had to come from a Kashmiri female designer. Of course on Mamanushka we like to promote strong female Muslim entrepreneurs. We believe in women working together and uplifting each other. So I knew I would choose a woman.”
As soon as the shoot was over, Sumaya got tremendous response from Kashmiris as well as non-Kashmiris. “As I wrote about it on my blog I did not anticipate the response these images would garner across the Kashmiri diaspora and in Kashmir!” she adds. “It was wonderful. A good friend of mine who is a Kashmiri herself says, she doesn’t have much connection or positive association with Kashmir but now she says the blog post has inspired her to return to her Kashmiri roots. It was a huge inspiration.”
Her volunteer pherans models included Sabra Bhat, a fitness enthusiast who is a Management Consultant and Digital Health Strategist, Faiqa Ambreen, an Aerospace Engineer, Zairah Sahaf, a Data Scientist currently working on cutting-edge Artificial Intelligence technology and Maysa Bhat, a third-year dental student.
Sumaya wanted her models to look strong, powerful, seriously sanjeeda and not the usual pouty lips and hair flips. “I told my friends to look fierce as they do not need to smile for anybody. Of course, there are photos where we are smiling – because we were also genuinely having such a lovely time, it was all a lot of fun!”
Once the photoshoot was online, she received a comment and Sumaya says, she knew it would be a man, who had commented ‘em che khoof naak’ which means they look scary. “That guy doesn’t know how happy his comment made me! Yes! I wanted to tell him Women are not on this earth just to smile for you!”
But some peoples reactions to the pheran photos were ‘dismissive’ as they assumed that the women behind it had never lived in Kashmir. “The same people said that we had no right to talk about the Kashmiri as we. Someone sent us an image of Sharmila Tagore in the movie Kashmir Ki Kali suggesting that what we did was no different than Indian Bollywood propaganda.”
Even Sumaya’s Pheran models accept the fact that they are living a dual identity. “It reminded me of the many times while living in Kashmir when folks would bluntly tell me I am not a Kashmiri, but an American,” Sabra said. “They would discredit my experience because it was different and it hurt back then also because I grew up being taunted for looking different from my white classmates and was never seen as American. So to equate this shoot to Indian Bollywood propaganda is to dismiss me as an outsider and someone with no genuine interest in my roots.”
Faiqa, Sumaya’s other model, recalls her memories where she had heard pherans are associated with non-working women who stay at home. “I have seen this garment being well donned and preserved by our grandmothers who look absolutely stunning and graceful in them throughout the year, while rest of the population just wears them in winter,” she said.
Now wearing the Pheran on a Pacific beach gives her a feeling of debunking all those negative notions that she has heard while growing up in Kashmir. “Wearing pheran outside Kashmir on the foreign lands is giving it recognition and we hope our future generations keep preserving this iconic garment,” an excited Faiqa said.
Zairah, their third colleague, had seen pheran as a symbolic dress for the nikaah mahraen (bride) only. “But what did I know, I was just a little girl,” she admits. “I inherited thoughts, ideologies, opinions, and biases from the environment around me. As I started to meet and be open to more people from within and outside my community, I realized how occupied our minds can be without us even realizing it. I am so glad I am part of this much needed, first of its kind, modern take on pheran and how we must own and preserve our identity. I am so delighted that lately things have started to change and we Kashmiris are now reclaiming cultural spaces through theatre, films, arts, and media.”
Promoter Sumaya believes that Kashmiri voices should be welcomed by all Kashmiris whether be they are from the diaspora or based in Kashmir. “Strong Kashmiri women wearing pheran’s on a foreign beach, may not be resisting the armed forces literally – but these images and what they represent (strength, power, ownership) seek to challenge the cultural appropriation and blurring of identity that comes as a result of these years of occupation,” she said insisting on every single word.