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Opinion News
April 26,2016

Down in the weeds

Afiya Shehrbano

I only watch movies on airplanes. A few years ago, despite not being a George Clooney fan, at 35,000 feet it seemed only appropriate to watch one called ‘Up in the Air’. George Clooney plays a downsizing expert who specialises in a sensitive and personalised but effective method of firing employees. He is horrified when a perky, young employee and Ivy League graduate (Natalie), wants to replace his system and fire people using technology and over the internet.

Despite her qualifications and efficiency, Natalie despairs over personal choices and failed relationships. The contrast between the twenty-something Twitter and text-obsessed generation and the older generation is the more interesting theme. This is brought out most effectively in a dialogue with Clooney’s love-interest and frequent-flying fellow traveller, the older woman, Alex. One exchange between the two women goes like this:

(The younger) Natalie: “I thought I’d be engaged by now. I thought by 23, I’d be married, maybe have a kid, corner office by day, entertaining at night. I was supposed to be driving a Grand Cherokee by now.

(Older) Alex: Well, life can underwhelm you that way…

Natalie: I don’t want to say anything that is anti feminist. I really appreciate everything that your generation did for me.

Alex: It was our pleasure.

Natalie: Sometimes it feels like, no matter how much success I have, it’s not gonna matter until I find the right guy…. In a perfect world, he drives a 4 runner and the only thing he loves more than me is his golden lab. And a nice smile. What about you?”

Suppressed memories surfaced. Images of several younger Pakistani women and former students I may have mentored over the years sprang to mind. They would seek me out not for my political or academic prowess but for help with similar dilemmas and seeking personal, rather than political/professional, solutions.

Disguising my obviously deflated ego, I’ve lectured them about how lucky they’ve been compared to my generation. I’ve rolled out the well-rehearsed comparative lessons; we grew up in Zia’s dark dictatorship staring expectantly at the rainbow spectrum card that tantalisingly preceded PTV’s daily evening transmission. In the background the nerve-grating sitar music played repetitively. Maddeningly. Yes, evening – only. Waiting – just to watch 10 minutes of some Looney Tunes cartoon show before the Marde Momin, Ziaul Haq, would come on just to repeat, ‘I’m here and That’s All Folks’.

I’ve guilted them about growing up with anti-evolutionary purple dinosaur birthdays and Musharraf’s counter-revolutionary enlightened moderation which turned Pakistan into a ‘war on terror’ killing field.

Then I’ve guilted them more – for beatings taken by the previous generation of women activists to prevent Gen Zia’s attempts to enforce the dress code of chaddar and chardivari. All that so young women can now, in satirical revenge, voluntarily and enthusiastically embrace hijabs and veils – just to prove their pietist choice and agency. Like Alex, I feel like saying to them, “you’re welcome”.

Barriers have been broken, laws reformed, glass ceilings cracked, sexualities liberated and yet, we face the same themes, same issues, in different wrappings. While we fought against the grain, this generation accommodates and wants a multigrain future. For us, men, mullahs, money and the military were the nemeses. Certainly not equally nor all the time. But today’s generation cannot pin their grievances down for too long on any entity because their biggest nightmare is of falling prey to ‘binaries’. Foucault haunts them more than facts.

They can’t decide if Fazlullah is responsible for the assassination of the polio workers or Hoodbhoy. The same applies to drones. Everything is complex and subjectivities are at stake. They’re confused about whether Malala is the agent for the imperialist West, or for the Pakistan military, or is she just a double-agent? They’re convinced that Mukhtaran Mai was a secondary victim of NGOs who propped her as the brown woman who needed to be rescued by the white West. But there is no ambiguity in their minds that Sabeen Mahmud was a ‘pure’ victim. She was one of us, after all – by virtue of class and politics of technology.

For my era, drawing room chatter was a sign of failure – of compromised and ineffectual politics. But for a younger generation, collectivism is defined by how you frequent the right chat-rooms. This can be a virtual visitation. My generation would recoil at the notion of accepting an arranged relationship in real life let alone forging a political following over the internet. Yet, this cyber-generation has seamed a self-congratulatory, self-perpetuating community who meet over Twitter and Facebook in like-minded bliss. They do not debate – they just love or abuse each other in 140 characters. The loved leaders retweet the adulation while the abused claim the insult like a badge of honour and evidence of their subversive identity.

Amongst the like-minded there is lots of praise heaped on each other. Films are made on issues that have already been written about, filmed on and even used to lobby and expose violations and fight the government. But the remakes of today are applauded and acclaimed as if this is a new revelation and reinvention.

It’s the same with public writing. There is no questioning of the value of sharing random thoughts and observations that have turned newspapers columns and literature festivals into blog spaces. There is no value for social sciences – just socially entertaining thought-pieces.

So, when the fledgling Left party activists ask why, in a political vacuum, they can’t induct more members or mobilise more activists to politic with them down in the weeds, I can only suggest that a new generation would rather be ‘up in the air’. In the film, at his motivational keynote speech, ‘What’s in your Backpack?’, Clooney asks his audience, “How much does your life weigh?” And at the end of his speech he advises his listeners that, “You don’t need to carry all that weight. Why don’t you set that bag down?” It seems to me that a new generation in Pakistan already has. Everything they need is in their phones, including their politics.

The writer is a sociologist based in Karachi. Email: afiyaziayahoo.com


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