After the de-operationalisation of Article 370 on August 5, as most of us are aware social media was flooded with videos and songs made by Indians to “marry Kashmiri women”. The unabashed, crude joy to own yet another unpossessable and inaccessible entity like Kashmiri land, were Kashmiri women.
Despite Kashmir valley experiencing a crippling communication blackout for the last sixty days, with massive restrictions and curfew imposed, where it has impacted life beyond one’s imagination, one comes across the launch of a fashion campaign (Zooni) directed by Avani Rai for a label called Raw Mango.
It is not just that the campaign is ill-timed and insensitive, but it does damage by further fetishing Kashmiri women. The aforementioned campaign comprises a few stills and a marriage video. In the stills, there are women standing atop a Shikara, wearing red brocade salwar kameez facing the sun. The video had a delicate model with chiseled features in a mess of a bridal attire (Kashmiri veil, non-Kashmiri jewellery and a Gojri cap (subsuming identities within a larger identity, but that is larger and a separate debate).
After I posted it on my Instagram, that is where I saw it first, a friend and I discussed if it was just about “cultural appropriation”. It obviously is. Being disrespectful to someone’s history, appropriating the name “Zooni” that is what Habba Khatoon (Kashmir’s last queen was also known by) and releasing it at a time when misery should not be capitalized on.
Besides that, it’s deeply problematic and pornotropic as it reinforces a certain image of a Kashmiri woman. Gone are the days when a Kashmiri woman was reduced to being an object that “needed to be loved and adored”. A resilient Kashmiri woman somehow just does not seem to fit that hegemonic bill, that fantasy. She is the one who negotiates with militarization on a daily basis. She braves pava sprays and tear gas, she is the one who faces pellets, the one who goes looking for her siblings and children in jails, the one who looks for her husband subjected to enforced disappearance, she is the one who has spent years in jail, she is an academic who has been detained without any charges. What she is not- is someone who poses with the utensils in her home after a CASO, or with the remnants of a fighter jet where she further loses her agency. It is nothing but additional violence that a Kashmiri woman must endure in form of a different narrative.
After much furore on social media, about its timing, Raw Mango has retracted their “Zooni” campaign. They have issued a statement on the campaign process that had begun much earlier than the stipulated launch that happened to coincide with the two-month long siege and communication blackout in Kashmir. They conclude the statement by saying that they’ve withdrawn it given the timing (which is creating waves internationally, wonder how did it not occur to them sitting barely an hour away from the valley), and “assumption on intent” indicative of how we, Kashmiris, probably are not equipped to recognize their benevolence. The video from the campaign comes at a time when hundreds of weddings have been cancelled or postponed in the valley including my sister’s. The stills come at a time when Kashmiri women are feeling most vulnerable.
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Updated press note as of Oct 4th: At Raw Mango our process of design requires a two year lead time, from research to stores. In November 2017, our design team began research and textile development for ‘Zooni’, a collection drawing from Kashmir. Each textile and silhouette is created through an exploration of this country – though traditions, rituals and craftsmanship across different regions. For instance our 2018 collection ‘Heer’, alluded to the culture of pre-partition Punjab. In May 2019, we began to explore campaign directions for Zooni, and a recce was done on May 2019 in Srinagar. The shoot was executed over 5 days from June 27 – July 2, 2019. A release was planned for August 8th, 2019 and given the political and social climate surrounding the region, the launch was postponed. The decision to withhold the images has since been under considerable discussion and concern. The decision to release the images shot by Avani Rai was the decision of the brand. It was not a decision of Avani’s, who requested to delay the release further. The campaign imagery for Zooni was released on the evening of Oct 2, 2019 on Instagram, and recalled that evening based on requesting the public sentiment on timing, as well as a request from Avani Rai.
Meanwhile, two days ago, I was having nun-chai with our old neighbour who has two unmarried daughters. He often complains of backache and sleepless nights. As a father, he fears that with the de-operationalisation of Article 370, “not just the land but they will take our daughters away too.” A sentiment that one has to live through to understand but not difficult to empathize.
A RAIOT POSTSCRIPT
Although, Raw Mangooooose took down their occupation fashion porn with some knicker in a twist bad grace, it is worth some curiosity that photographer of their visual campaign is one Avani Rai(@avani_rai), who Raw Mangobar had tagged in their instagram launch of their Khooni campaign (look at the bottom of the screengrab below).
So who is this Avani Rai? As a small town webzine from the lost frontiers of Indian empire, we googled her and we were impressed and appalled. Ms. Rai (daughter of reeeeeallyyyyy famous Raghu Rai as most of the media reports reported) has photographed some really amazingly non conflicty, non-politicy photographs of Kashmir. As she arrogantly/ignorantly told Indian Express
LET WHO SPEAK?