A fair-skinned thin woman is dressed in a red pheran with a veil on her face. She is surrounded by many other women in a marriage set-up. But they are all silent.
On the evening of October 2, 2019, Raw Mango – a high end textile brand – released these images from their latest collection, Zooni along with a video which ends with: ” Zooni…because Kashmir is about its people. Which needs to be seen and heard.”
Amidst the silent women, the only voice that could be heard was of the brand’s and its staged aesthetics.
Soon after, Raw Mango made it very clear that their collection, and its campaign on social media, had nothing to do with voices from Kashmir.
Meanwhile, congratulatory messages started pouring in from all corners and many started asking for the prices of the garment. They were not only praising the brand for launching a “stunning” collection but also making “such great efforts to save the culture of Kashmir.”
These voices were not only cringe worthy but also exposed how people prefer to engage with those from the oppressed communities and culture. Apparently, nobody questioned the authenticity of how the brand represented a Kashmiri woman. To them, the imagery matched the age-old trope of pristine mountains and demure fair women of the Valley.
Two decades of oppression has no place in this narrative. It simply doesn’t exist for us.
While there were a lot of supporting voice, there were many – including myself – who called out the brand for appropriating a culture of a community which is under a brutal siege at the moment.
Next morning, Raw Mango took down all the images due to the backlash.
I was more than surprised than relieved when I saw people’s reaction. Even though the backlash was strong, the supporting voices were in the majority which included many celebrities.
Ever since they took down the collection, Raw Mango has edited their statement thrice, reducing “assumption of intent” in the last line, to”‘intent” and later omitting “intent” altogether and including “request from Avani Rai”. Avani Rai, daughter of photographer Raghu Rai shot the collection for Raw Mango.
Although we don’t know what actually made the brand take down the pictures, we should appreciate their swift action without engaging in a war of words with the people who called them out.
The principal photographer has, since then, been at the receiving end of the backlash. She has come out multiple times to explain her position on the matter.
We don’t really know if they learnt any lesson but where do go from here?
Criticism drawn by Raw Mango is rightly deserved but it has to be viewed from the overall ecosystem of how corporate houses exploit cultures to earn profit. And they do so without engaging with them in any meaningful manner.
Let’s take the phrase “assumption of intent” from the brand’s statement. The intent, here, is questionable because the brand failed to start any conversation about what it means to preserve a culture in one of the most conflicted and militarised zone.
When I first saw the image of the bride in the collection, I was reminded of my first visit to Srinagar in summer of the year 2013. I spoke to my Kashmiri friend’s mother about how similar and different our cultures were.
The conversation soon went to weddings, and she told me how militancy has altered their traditions and cultures. How, for almost a decade (during the 90s), no weddings would take place during the night because of the curfew – imposed after 4 pm almost every other day. Therefore, weddings had to be compressed into an afternoon of quick rituals.
Hence, those who say that they are engaging with Kashmir’s culture while ignoring the region’s conflict is only doing so because the intent is to appropriate the culture and make profit.
Raw Mango’s insensitivity should not be viewed in isolation and instead, should be first understood and then critiqued. We all would have perhaps lapped up the collection if it was launched six months ago, completely ignoring the fact that even without the current siege and blockade, Kashmir has been burning for more than three decades now.
So, is it just the timing of the collection’s release that we are condemning?
Raw Mango is not the lone culprit here.
It is just a social symptom that legitimises such insensitive behaviour because, you know, a man has to earn his bread.
When we criticise only the brand, we lose an opportunity to carefully look at our society that breeds this insensitive and apathetic behaviour.
If we start unraveling the journey of all the clothes we wear and all the food we eat, we’ll find that almost everything is linked to oppression of extremely vulnerable communities whom we don’t see or hear about.
Hence, we must criticise and attack the system that enables and encourages this.
Bhawna Jaimini is an architect and researcher based in Mumbai
Featured image credit: Instagram/@RawMango