Thursday, February 14, 2013

Love in the Time of Narcissism

Maryam Sakeenah
Arguably, love is the highest sentiment the human spirit is capable of. In essence, it is selfless, generous, liberating, sublime. It purges one of all that holds one down to the mundane and earthy. Kahlil Gibran famously writes:

Love gives naught but itself and takes naught but from itself. 
Love possesses not nor would it be possessed;

For love is sufficient unto love.

And think not you can direct the course of love, if it finds you worthy, directs your course.

The contemporary world is characterized by a materialism that has banished the spiritual and hence objectified and commercialized spiritual values. The sacred sentiment of love has not been spared from being grotesquely tainted by it- so that we have it expressed in expensive, stark-red balloons, roses, chocolates on sale all over shops in Pakistan on a particular day in the year. The local florist explained to an appalled me that the reason why the flowers were so shockingly costly was on account of something called ‘Vanteen Day.’
The hyped up, almost frenzied festivities on Valentine’s Day depict this cult of Narcissism that has gripped us in its monstrous clutches. This makes our deepest and most sacred, private sentiment be expressed with a loud, bawdy exhibitionism. This overzealous celebration of carnal passion symbolizes the perversion of the sacred that is an inevitable result of materialism.
We are taught to express and exhibit passion to satiate our selfish lusts by partaking of the rituals to the goddess of commercialized love- to spend enough to ‘prove’ our love; to fall in love with ‘love’ romanticized by the popular media; to breathlessly pursue romantic love, chase it, possess it, flaunt it and gloat over it lecherously.
The circus on Valentine’s Day is driven by imperatives of the capitalistic marketplace ordering us to ‘shop till you drop’ to prove you love enough. This commodification of love exploits a basic human emotion in order to make big business. In the process, love is reduced to chocolate bars, rosebuds, balloons- or diamond rings and designer dresses- according to income bracket, social class and of course, taste. 'Money is the name of the game', they say...
In a class discussion when I mentioned to my students how Valentines Day goes against the spirit and ethos of Islam, a student candidly retorted, ‘But it does not harm anyone’. Certainly it does not, at a fleeting look. However, deep within, when we become part of it, we concede that love is a ‘thing’ to be flaunted and bought with money, not made out of real, lived experience of sharing, giving, forbearing, forgiving, growing, treading life’s jagged paths together with a hand to hold, a shoulder to lean on. We negate the fact that love is made and found and relished everyday through little things you cannot buy with money; garnered painstakingly through smiles and tears and wounds and fears. In the process of celebrating this ‘harmless’ festivity, we actually condone the cruel, horrible things that go on outside the gates of girls’ colleges in the city, and inside young lonely hearts. I remember how in my college days girls used to talk of the surprise gifts from ‘secret’ or ‘known’ admirers and the 'less fortunate’ ones shrank into themselves with shame and a haunting sense of loneliness and inferiority- often in the physical sense. I found it heinous. The balloons and red-shirted urchins rampaging the streets and marketplaces tell me it is far worse for young people today.
Mark Vernon writes in his remarkable article, ‘Is Romantic Love a Bad Thing?’:
“I suspect that the desire for a peak experience of love has eclipsed the fact that love is primarily about others. The romantic myth would have us fall in love with love, paradoxically not with another. This twisted love whispers that it does not much matter who you fall for, only that you fall in love.
There is a spiritual dimension to this romantic addiction too. The philosopher Simon May has proposed that while many have given up on God in the West, we still long for the unconditional love that God used to offer.
But godless, we seek instead unconditional love from our fellow humans. We make them gods, and of course they fail us. And then love turns to hate. It's a desire that, because of the excess, destroys love."
Ibrahim A.S- seeking spiritual fulfilment and coming to rest in the embrace of the Divine- had declared, “I love not that which fades away.” (The Noble Quran). Selfless love that heals and gives and forgives arises out of this complete self-surrender encountering and recognizing the Perfect, Absolute Truth which Muhammad (PBUH)-bloodied and wounded at Taif had called 'The Light of Thy Countenance that rends all darknesses.' Right after this heartfelt exclamation, he had managed to forgive those that had pelted stones and hurled abuses at him. One can understand why the festivals of Islam include compulsory charity and sharing of joy with the less privileged: heart to God, hand to man.
Modesty, said the Prophet (PBUH) is the distinguishing trait of Islam. Modesty implies revulsion towards exhibitionism and obscenity; it implies protection of the private, it implies dignity, humility, quietude, sincerity, purity. It is the crowning glory of a believer. The uproarious celebration of Valentine’s Day betrays the essence of modesty. It is a mindless aping of a culture entrenched in the Overblown but Minimal Self.
The age demanded an image
Of its accelerated grimace,

Something for the modern stage,

The age demanded chiefly a mould in plaster, 

Made with no loss of time,

‘All things are a flowing’,
Sage Heraclitus says;
But a tawdry cheapness
Shall outlast our days. 
Decreed in the market place.

(Ezra Pound: Hugh Selwyn Mauberley)

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Of being a woman...


Maryam Sakeenah

In her article 'The Balancing Act of Being Female', Lisa Wade talks of how as a woman one has to conform to expectations of behaviour in varying situations; how it is a daily battle to play up to the demands an oversexed society puts on women. From dress to demeanour, all is sized up and judged for social appropriacy: when being flirty may be appealing, and what crosses the line into 'asking for it.' At the workplace it ought to be 'proper' but not in the least 'prudish', and a slight misdemeanour may just spill it over into inappropriately 'cheeky' and hence wholly undesirable.

It is a lot of pressure which most women agree to subject themselves to as they dress in the rightly sized heels to convey the attitude the occasion demands. Often, the pressure from the society is not recognized as it is mistaken for the woman's freedom and natural right to look good and feel desired. However, this may make women spend more than their ability to get that right sort of look to make them win the nod of approval from a society that objectifies femininity.

On the flip side, the pressure it builds on women who may look different, to conform and look like who they are not, is brutally oppressive. One of my teenaged students stopped me on my way to class, sniffling and holding back the torrent of tears, desperate for help. She said she wished to end her life because 'everyone hates me and makes fun of me because I am ugly and I am not feminine enough.' The girl was a brainy, hardworking one scoring excellent grades usually, but suffered terrible pressure from peers because she did not dress or wax or style her hair like other girls her age did. I was revolted by our collective inability to accept human beings as they are without trying to smooth the rough edges to make us all clones of the ideal stereotype set down by society.

The ideal stereotype is reinforced relentlessly through advertisements and the entertainment industry that creates images that exercise enormous influence on our minds. Grotesque billboards stare down at the city telling us how 'Slim is the in thing', while T.V commercials tell us that not having the latest brand of cellphone or the fairest skin tone makes one highly ineligible for marriage; and that people who stutter stand no chance at all for their appalling, socially incorrect inability. The images, stereotypes and values created by the entertainment, cosmetic and the advertising industries are brutally insensitive and build pressure on women to look, dress, act a certain way or be condemned to social marginalization. The materialist-commercial ethic  values physicality over and above all else, and this is far worse for women due to the commercial obsession with the woman's body for selling soap or cooking oil or cellphones.

The pressure this builds plays havoc with individual lives as it smothers the natural diversity of human beings. God made us in varying shapes, sizes, colours and personalities simply because that is how the world was meant to be. The colours made by God are painted in a tawdry plastic hue in one unvarying, flat stroke of sameness. Women mutilate their own bodies to feel more accepted: botox, nosejobs, liposuction and plastic surgeries have been steadily on the rise in this society.

In the context of all this, the Muslim veil takes on significance. For me, it has always meant a refusal to subject myself to judgement by a commercialized, oversexed society. It is immensely liberating from the pressure of having to conform to the social standard of how I ought to look. It is a refusal to allow myself to be judged merely by how I look or what I wear, a refusal to be subjected to the lustful stare of an onlooker. I spend far less on my clothes, hair and makeup than most women in my income bracket. The veil for me is liberty. Breaking me free from the fetters, it raises me onto a more spiritual and intellectual plane, and this defines my social interaction while deflecting attention away from physicality.
But then again, to be judged as more pious and holy than my veil-less counterparts is equally disconcerting. I wish we could just learn the simple lesson that human beings are more than the sum of all the clothes they wear.