On the Appropriation and Depoliticisation of the Pheran — by A. Makbool and Neelofar Gooroo
March 16, 2022
This piece by A. Makbool and Neelofar Gooroo raises important and relevant questions about what it means to wear the Kashmiri Pheran, lending particular attention to the ways in which attempts have been made at diluting the Pheran’s political symbolism over the years. Published in our Acquaintance section dedicated to opinions and perspectives, Makbool and Gooroo’s extensive think piece provides ample critique and perspective on cultural appropriation, depoliticisation, and a historical background on how the Kashmiri Pheran became more prominent among Indian wearers, many of whom remain wilfully ignorant about its political and cultural significance for Kashmiris.

On a cold December night, we saw a Pheran roaming—at an intriguing distance—around one of the canteens on the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) campus. A quintessential symbol of our Kashmiri identity, a moment of joy couldn’t hold us back, and we approached to greet this Pheran-clad person by saying, “Vaaray tchu haez?”—“How are you?” in Kashmiri, used to greet someone formally. Seeming perplexed, the person responded: “Hello? What?” It was a sight of discomfort to greet a Kashmiri responding to us in a language other than Kashmiri, as our intrigue turned to dismay far sooner than later.

Reading our unease and sensing the awkwardness of the situation, the person immediately added: “I am not a Kashmiri, this Theran [that is how certain Indians pronounce Pheran] is a gift from a Kashmiri friend.” To which Neelofar asked, “But why do you wear a Pheran if you don’t even know what it stands for? Does wearing it provoke any interest in finding out what’s being done to your Kashmiri friend’s people and their land?” The person replied: “Look, I know things aren’t ‘okay’ in Kashmir, but I don’t like politics much. However, I offer my sympathy.”

This was a standardised response we had heard multiple times. Being ‘apolitical’ towards Kashmir while styling the very clothing that was an irreplaceable marker of identity for Kashmiris—that made them suspect and prone to undressings and intimidation at checkpoints and during raids in their own land—was something that never ceased to perplex and disappoint. Wearing a Pheran for a Kashmiri carried the weight of a larger history, one of being constantly profiled on their own streets, especially since the early 90s. Conversely, quite a few Kashmiris wouldn’t think twice of wearing a Pheran in an Indian city, while so many Indians could prance along without considering such profiling even as an afterthought and much less be conscious of what it feels like to be subjected to stares of suspicion and hostility. Visibly upset by the expected apathy suited to that ‘apolitical’ ‘moderate’ and ‘liberal’ Indian position on Kashmir, Makbool resolutely replied to the person’s wilfully ignorant claim in a rather composed tone: “Your friend must have been an idiot to gift you one and you a bigger idiot to wear it,” and we left without giving this person the liberty to propagate more rubbish at the expense of our patience and presence.

The afterthought of this encounter got us thinking and wondering why Indians are so interested in wearing Pherans. And why would a Kashmiri ‘gift’ a Pheran to an Indian friend or friends without providing any sort of history or cultural context? After all, gifts are gifts only when they mean something—something symbolic that makes a gift worthy of giving and the giving worthy of remembrance. And whenever any such gift is given, and that too one that the receiver doesn’t know two hoots about, at least a background story or a historical and cultural lesson is logically due.

You wouldn’t give some gift that is heritage to a people from a ‘far-off land’—that is made conveniently close in the media—even in trying to be hip and cool without telling a story or two about the garment. Similarly, you wouldn’t randomly gift a Chinese qipao to someone from another culture without telling them where it came from, with the receiver of the gift not having a basic inclination about enquiring about such an item if no such explanation were given. In the case of the JNU Pheran, while this might not be the first time Kashmiris discuss Indians wearing Pherans in ways that seem problematic on many fronts, it certainly leads to multiple critical inquiries that Kashmiris should expand and reflect upon. Before rummaging for answers, it becomes pertinent to fleetly highlight the relation between the Pheran and Kashmir.

The Pheran and Kashmir: From a Socio-Cultural to a Political Bond

Clothing patterns are a vivid reflection of people’s lifestyles, lived experiences, cultural values as well as their larger history. Terming clothing as “a silent language”, Louise A. Liddell argues that clothing “speaks for us”…“because clothing is the first thing you see and is the largest area, you notice clothing before you see faces or hear voices” (hence the term “JNU Pheran” for that unnamed Pheran-clad person). Furthermore, taking Liddell’s words on clothing into account, like every culture, Kashmir also has distinct clothing patterns that shape Kashmiris’ social, psychological, and emotional outlook through a lengthy history. The Pheran is one of the more prominent among such markers of culture, identity, and “self-concept” (as Liddell terms it).

Effective for resisting the Himalayan cold, the Pheran is among the exceptional outfits Kashmiris wear for the largest part of the year. While sitting, a Pheran covers one’s entire body and delivers comfort of a signature Kashmiri kind that only Kashmiris can distinctly describe by means of a lived experience and as a practice of everyday life. Similarly, there is a fundamental Kashmiriness to a Pheran paired with a Kangir. While the Kangir is an integral part of the Pheran, the Pheran is its jugular vein, especially when below zero temperatures set in the cold Himalayan winters. The quintessence of this relationship between the Pheran and the Kangir gets vividly reflected when Kashmiris sit down in a Kashmiri way (on a matted floor, without the use of furniture) and keep their feet on a Kangir inside their Pherans.

Moreover, this intimate bond is most strongly felt in the coldest spells of winter, Chillai Kalan, when a Kashmiri wearing a Pheran without a Kangir yearns for a Kangir/Nar-e-Josh, which doesn’t necessarily translate to asking for a Kangir, but uniquely represents a yearning for the warmth of the fire that the Kangir retains. As a result, Kashmiris have also developed a unique imaginative relationship and a particular taste of linguistic flavour around the Pheran with a particular vocabulary associated with it weaving its way into our everyday language. Needless to say, there is an entire ritualisation around the Pheran that is so deeply embedded within Kashmiri culture that goes far beyond fashion and aesthetics.

Besides its clearly delineated socio-cultural importance, the troubled political history of Kashmir has bestowed the Pheran with multiple political meanings. On numerous occasions, wearing a Pheran has made Kashmiris ‘suspicious’ to the gaze of the Indian forces. This suspicion has led to countless Kashmiris being stopped by Indian forces only to be harassed, arrested, disappeared, or even killed if one looks through reports and records. Our elders often remind us of how dangerous it was to go out wearing a Pheran during the 90s. Even now, our parents, especially mothers, warn us to not wear a Pheran around army camps, which happen to be ubiquitous across Kashmir. The scrutiny by Indian forces against the Pheran has not, however, only been limited to some discrete occurrences. Over the recent years, the Indian state has also attempted to initiate full-scale administrative censorship against the Pheran. In 2014, the Indian Army ordered Kashmiri journalists not to wear Pheran while attending press conferences. In September 2018, Indian ‘administrators’ in Kashmir attempted to ban wearing Pheran in government offices and educational institutions. In February 2021, Bajrang Dal even asked the Modi-led government to ban the Pheran across Kashmir. Paradoxically, last year on December 21, so-called World Pheran Day, while Kashmiri elites and Indian ‘liberals’ celebrated this day by showing off their Pheran-clad pictures on social media, many Kashmiris were forced to remove their Pherans before entering a government office. The list goes on.

The Pheran was also used by the media cell of the Muslim Khawateen Markaz (MKM), a women-led politico-religious organisation active during the 1980s in Kashmir. Aimed at countering Indian propaganda on Kashmir, these MKM women used Pherans to hide their cameras while secretly visiting different far-flung regions of Kashmir to record the brutal incidents of rape, torture, violence, and destruction of property by the Indian army (Malik, 2019).

Moreover, the Pheran has also been one of the targets of the Indian state’s attempts to appropriate Kashmiri history and identity through its ‘Kashmiriyat’ propaganda. Led by the Indian state and implemented by its elite pawns in Kashmir, the project of Kashmiriyat attempts to Indianise and Hinduise Kashmiri culture, traditions, identity, and history by erasing the historical connections between Kashmir and Muslims.

Given the social, cultural, and political significance, the Pheran has not merely remained a piece of cloth but has become an important part of Kashmiri identity and the politics surrounding it. In terms of metaphor, the Pheran has been a witness to Kashmiri suffering, tears, blood, death, and resistance, with its texture and fabric speaking for Kashmiris and for Kashmir. Therefore, many Kashmiris are now consciously wearing Pheran to express their distinct, non-Indian identity in order to resist the intensified symbolic and forced attempts at ‘Indianising’ Kashmir and Kashmiris. But why have some Indians started wearing Pherans all of a sudden, and especially after August 5, 2019?

The poet Madhosh Balhami in his Pheran, standing outside his house that was burned down in an encounter, resulting in the loss of 30 years of his unpublished political poetry. Photograph by Syed Shahriyar.

Rising Pheran-Fascination Among Indians: Between ‘Apolitical’, Personal and Political

The Pheran-clad Indian person from the JNU campus mentioned in the introduction of this piece is not just a rare case. Over the recent years, the desire for owning and wearing a Pheran has been considerably increasing among many Indians, particularly ‘liberal’ and ‘leftist’ educated classes. This becomes evident not only with the rising demand for Pherans in Indian bazaars but also by a marked surge in Indians requesting their Kashmiri ‘friends’ and colleagues to get them a Pheran from Kashmir. But what exactly is this Indian Pheran-fascination about, especially when Kashmiris are continuously being subjugated in their name? From wearing a Pheran for the sake of ‘aesthetics’ and exoticised notions of style to wearing it for showing ‘solidarity’ with Kashmiris, Indians seems to find multiple ‘justifications’ for using such a distinctively Kashmiri attire. Given this rising desire and the ensuing ‘justifications’, it becomes imperative to respond to these from a Kashmiri perspective.

While there might not seem anything wrong with wearing a Pheran for aesthetic reasons, it is important to locate this aesthetic fascination with the Pheran within the broader Orientalist pattern of representing Kashmir and Kashmiris. From Mughals to the British, Orientalists have recurrently portrayed the relationship between Kashmiris and Kashmir as ‘an ugly picture in a magnificent frame’. While these depictions created a very ‘desirable’ and ‘coveted’ image of Kashmir’s territory by praising and exotifying the landscapes of Kashmir, by labelling Kashmir as the ‘paradise on earth’, as the ‘Switzerland of East’; these representations, on the other hand, portrayed Kashmiris, the inhabitants of this ‘paradise’, in a very negative light by labelling them as ‘backward’, ‘indolent’ and ‘fanatic’. Continuing in this tradition, Indian discourses on Kashmir, including ‘liberal’ ones, often use mythical narratives, biased media, and Indian state-sponsored propaganda literature to purposefully create a beautifully ugly image of Kashmir—which needless to say is an overt contradiction in basic representation.

Beyond this propaganda scholarship, such representations are also vividly reflected in Bollywood’s portrayal of Kashmir, where the landscapes of Kashmir, like the Dal Lake, snow-clad mountains, and Mughal gardens, are excessively exoticized—while in the same vein local people are either absent or are negatively portrayed. Therefore, reducing a Pheran to its aesthetics not only severs the special place of Pheran in Kashmiri identity and resistance but also furthers such Orientalised representations of Kashmir and Kashmiris. In contemporary times, an element of consumerist allure presents a disjointed fascination towards this garment, that results in an appropriation of sorts.

At once, the garment is worn as merely a stylistic object of clothing, while its symbolic and sociopolitical value is discarded and invisibilised. To invisibilise a garment from its meaning to those for whom it is indigenous requires an effort of its own—and such an effort is facilitated by that peculiar consumerism at the centre of any capitalist society. Regarding this, one is reminded of Slavoj Zizek’s famous words, “On today’s market, we find a whole series of products deprived of their malignant property: coffee without caffeine, cream without fat, beer without alcohol…” And indeed, what Zizek terms the “malignant property” of the “product deprived” in such terms of such a “property” is the political and historical significance of the Pheran for the Kashmiris—which is duly discarded, downplayed, invisibilised or outright (mis)appropriated by Indian ‘Pheran-lovers’.

That there are people who wish to wear a garment that has particular significance for an indigenous population without wanting to carry the political and historical weight of what that garment means to such a troubled population is akin to Europeans and Americans wearing Native American warbonnets at the Coachella Music and Arts Festival. Moreover, there is a clear attempt to establish a self-assigned membership into Kashmiri culture without carrying the burden of what such a membership entails.

When India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, wears a Pheran that he claims was gifted to him by a “farm labourer,” he enforces a self-assigned membership into Kashmir for a day’s visit or a virtual event when he has to give a speech. Perhaps, in this case, it is the greatest of such examples where this self-assigned membership into Kashmiri culture reflects the complete negation of what Kashmir and Kashmiris stand for. At such a sight, we have at once an Indian who is dressed in a quintessential Kashmiri garment that is visible on his body while wearing it in that context makes invisible the aspirations of millions of Kashmiris—aspirations that are symbolised by that very garment. And so, there it is a cyclical contradiction of sorts that will irk any Kashmiri aware of the greater importance of the Koshur Pheran.

In claiming to like the Pheran for its aesthetic and stylistic allure, many Indian Pheran-lovers also maintain they are ‘aversive’ to politics, as did the Pheran-clad person in the JNU canteen who ignited the writing of this think piece. This ‘apolitical’ fascination with the aesthetics of the Pheran aptly resonates with how many ‘apolitical’ neighbours and acquaintances of Jewish people responded to their suffering during the Holocaust. In occupied Poland, as Jewish people were being targeted en masse, a Jewish man was looking for a place to hide with a peasant acquaintance. His acquaintance’s son-in-law asked him: “Since you are going to die anyway, why should someone else get your boots? Why not give them to me so I will remember you?” (Gross, 2007). Boots are an essential accessory for winter, and so is the Pheran, a necessity and a means to survive in the cold and harsh winters—whereas for such Indians, it becomes merely an aesthetic and stylistic item whose greater value is diminished and undermined due to that particular ignorance of its wearer.

Moreover, some Indians, many of whom call themselves ‘liberals’, ‘leftists’ and ‘anti-fascists’, many of whom frequently flaunt Pherans in universities like JNU and Jamia Millia Islamia, claim to wear the Pheran with the intent of showing solidarity with Kashmiris. In response to the Indian government’s attempts to ban Pheran in Kashmir, as highlighted above, many such Indians even uploaded their Pheran-clad pictures on social media to protest the ban. But one wonders how an Indian body donning a Pheran can become an act of solidarity and protest when Kashmiris are fighting against that very assimilation?

Such Indians need to understand that any ban in Kashmir is enforced in their name, in the name of their so-called “national security” and at the expense of restricting the basic rights and lives of Kashmiris to the extent of even putting them in danger or simply making them expendable. And more importantly, in claiming to be offering solidarities, these Indians often criticise and distance themselves from what they call ‘radical’ Kashmiri understandings and approaches. Instead, they unwarrantedly offer their own ‘nuanced’ explanations and analyses over Kashmir while disregarding a considerable amount of scholarship and intellectual perspectives from Kashmiris within the Valley and in the international arena.

How naive of them to expect that Kashmiris will even consider such conditional solidarities? Added to this, there is that specific type, the one who has gone to spend a few months in Kashmir, and comes back to campus, and while attending a Kashmir related talk, acts like a self-prescribed Kashmir expert during the Q&A sessions—and then proceeds to lecture and argue against Kashmiri students who’ve been born and raised in Kashmir and have had a lot more time familiarising themselves with their own culture, their own history and their own sense of identity, both through lived experience and through engagement with a wide variety of texts produced by Kashmiris.

Coming back to Pheran and India, how do Kashmiris expect Indians to relate to the Pheran? Luckily, the place that raised this question of Indians wearing Pheran also answered this question for us. Recently, a Kashmiri friend of ours, who happens to be a research scholar at JNU, shared his experience of wearing a Pheran in JNU. A few weeks earlier, this Kashmiri researcher had been wearing a Pheran while on an evening walk with his friends inside the JNU campus. While they were exchanging banter, his Pheran caught someone’s attention from inside an SUV that drove close to them, slowed down, and the person from inside the car shouted at him, “Oye Kashmiri Aatankwaadi” (which translates to “Hey, you Kashmiri Terrorist!”), along with other invectives.

Though he felt anguished, the thought of getting disappeared from the campus, the thought of becoming another Najeeb, made amends for his anger. Though Indian ‘liberals’ and ‘leftists’ would disapprove of such reactions, Kashmiris want Indians to see the Pheran, and everything Kashmiri, in the very same light. For Kashmiris, the Pheran should remind Indians that this piece of clothing, and by extension, the person wearing it, does not belong to India. Or rather, Kashmiris want the Pheran to irk Indians as it irks Indian soldiers and the ‘administrations’ that have tried to ban it in Kashmir. Perhaps that would be far more acceptable and honest.

References

Gross, J. (2007). Fear: anti-Semitism in Poland after Auschwitz, New York: Random House.

Liddell, L.A. (1996). Clothes and your appearance, Goodheart Willcox Co.

Malik, I. (2019). Muslim Women, Agency and Resistance Politics: The Case of Kashmir, Palgrave Macmillan.

The views, opinions and perspectives presented in this piece are the authors’ own. For more information, see the Editorial Disclaimer at the bottom of the page.

About the Authors

A. Makbool and Neelofar Gooroo are two graduate students. These are their pen names.

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