The Islamic New Year has already begun. Around the globe, Shiites are observing ceremonies to commemorate the martyrdom of the prophet’s grandson Hussein in the battle of Karbala. These ceremonies are central to Shiite identity globally. The rich variety of these traditions worldwide provides a window into the diversity of Islamic religious expression.
Last year, I travelled to Hyderabad, India, to observe local ceremonies during Muharram, the first month of the Islamic lunar calendar. I had previously documented Muharram ceremonies in Indonesia in 2009 and I was inspired to see what present-day Muharram ceremonies looked like in India. The ceremonies in Indonesia originated in India. Sepoy Indians under the command of the British in the nineteenth century transported the ceremonies throughout Southeast Asia. The ceremonies proved popular throughout the Indo-Malayan archipelago, but believing that the ceremonies had connections to Mohammadean secret societies and Chinese Triads, British colonial powers sought to extinguish the event. Muharram public rituals survived only in two locations, Pariaman and Bengkulu along the Western coast of Sumatra, but only because Sumatra was handed over to the Dutch in 1824. In other locations Muharram ceremonies might have continued but they changed to become unrecognisable from their Indian origins. In Pariaman and Bengkulu, Sunnis and Shiite Indian descendants have continued contemporary interpretations of Muharram ceremonies that have come to include diverse performing arts and symbolic processions.
The Islamic lunar calendar is shorter than the Gregorian calendar and it was around this time in November last year that I arrived in Hyderabad, India, for the month of Muharram. I arrived in Hyderabad the day after mob violence near Charminar, an iconic landmark in the middle of the Old City of Hyderabad. Police barricades and fences had been set up around Charminar and vehicles were stopped from approaching the building. Reading newspaper articles and watching television reports made me feel tense about being in this foreign location. Schools and colleges had lower attendance rates due to the commotion, but on the whole little tension was evident among the people of Hyderabad. Numerous people I interviewed asserted that Muharram is a sacred month for all Hyderabadis not just Muslims. Although Shiite minorities originally stimulated Muharram ceremonies throughout India, today the ceremonies involve Sunnis and Hindus as well (Cole 1988: 115-117; Pinault 1993: 160). The disturbance at Charminar came at the end of five testing months for city policemen and while they remained on high alert, the city was thankfully a pleasant place to stay for the duration of my fieldwork.
With only a month to spend in India, fieldwork was an intense period of data collection. I began interviews the moment I landed in Hyderabad city. I was fortunate to have been put in contact with several locals and despite a busy schedule, I also managed to visit the Golconda fort, Ramoji Film City, and even the 18 meter high statue of Gautama Buddha in the middle of Lake Hussain Sagar. The most important cultural visits, however, were to the Ashurkhanas that are spread across the whole city of Hyderabad. The Ashurkhanas are places of mourning erected in veneration of Hazrath Imam Hussein and his 72 companions who were martyred in the battle at Karbala in Iraq centuries ago. Inside each Ashurkhana are placed sacred objects that represent the Battle standards used by Hussein and his companions. Many Shiite families will have a special room for their own Alams, as well as make trips to visit the Alams in the various Ashurkhanas throughout Hyderabad. The Ashurkhanas are not only important locations for Shiite Muslims, however, they are also important sites of cultural heritage for all the people of Hyderabad. The Ashurkhanas were a creation of the Qutub Shehi from Persia who once ruled over Hyderabad for nine generations in the 16th and 17th century. Shiites are not the only people to be custodians of the Ashurkhanas, some Ashurkhanas are looked after by lineages of Hindu families who have passed down caretaker responsibilities from father to son for several generations.
What I quickly learned about Muharram in Hyderabad was that studying the public rituals was strongly connected to studying the histories of the city, not just the cultural heritage of Shiite communities. I say “histories” in the plural, because so many people involved in the Muharram ceremonies recount various parts of the history of Muharram, which is strongly connected to Hyderabad’s Shiite past. Shiite families also told stories about their Alam heirlooms, stories which were strongly connected to their own family lineages. The Alams are made of metal and are symbolic of the Karbala flagbearers with names often inscribed upon them. These objects and their histories make the story of Karbala more intimate and personal. The ceremonies and observances during Muharram offer an opportunity to reinforce personal connections with the past, cultural representation among the Shiites, and the legacy of Shiite history in Hyderabad city.
Muharram commences with ten days of Shiite ceremonies. Perhaps the most well-known of four sacred months in the Shiite calendar, Muharram public rituals are famous because of breast-beating, weeping, wailing, self-flagellation and sometimes even self-mortification with razors, flails and knives (see Chelkowski 1979: 2-3; Hasnain and Husain 1988: 145; Pinault 1992: 135, 180). In parts of the Middle East, Muharram-related events can be a source of conflict between Sunni and Shiite Muslims (Fazel 1988: 49) with some processions becoming violent (Halm 2007). Sunni Muslims observe the death of Hussein but do not condone acts of self-mortification exhibited by some Shiite groups (Korom 2003:62, 75). In various parts of the world, Muharram events have been interruptive to social hierarchies (Mishra 2008: 81) and catalysts for political dissension (Fazel 1988: 50). Sadly, Muharram ceremonies last year in Dera Ismail Khan in Pakistan were sabotaged by terrorism. When they are not disrupted, Muharram ceremonies have significant bearing upon religious, political and social spheres of human activity (Asad 2003; Fibiger 2010). For Shiite men and women, the stories of Muharram are a source of role models and a lens through which they interpret their present-day social situations (Deeb 2006; Fibiger 2010). Muharram ceremonies shape personal experience and dramatically impact upon social and political worlds. Outside Iran, Iraq, Bahrain and Azerbaijan, Shiite communities are generally a minority. Being a minority adds to the emotional experience of remembering the loss to a larger enemy force at the Battle of Karbala.
With the persecution and displacement of so many Shiite communities worldwide, we might like to stop and enquire how Muharram ceremonies are being observed in refugee camps across the world.
Over the first ten days of Muharram, Shiites will meet up to recount the tragedy of Karbala. Men’s groups and women’s groups will congregate at private residences, mosques and Ashurkhanas to pay their respect to Alams, listen to Marsiya elegies, pay attention to Bayan sermons and Noha poetry, and engage in Matam mourning. These events are called Majlis and are held all throughout the day. Devotees might attend several Majlis events in a day with increasing frequency before the tenth day of Muharram. I found people to be very welcoming and consider myself privileged to have been invited to attend several Majlis to listen to the Marsiya and take part in the Matam. Men and women will often hold majlis separately. If men and women participate in the same Majlis, a curtain will separate them. These events involved ritualised narrations and chants of the Karbala story that increased in speed over time. Over the course of a Majlis call and response chanting would increase in tempo until people were eventually swept up in emotion, beating their chest with their open palms and weeping with the overwhelming sadness of Hussain’s martyrdom. My description does little justice to the emotional experience. The orators are religious leaders, called Moulana, and well-respected scholars who have expertise in recounting the stories of Karbala. With supplicant hand gestures, emotional prosodic tones, and sorrowful facial expressions, an expert orator can lead an audience skilfully through the painful story of Hussain’s stand for justice. Cries of “Hussain” will rhythmically echo throughout a Majlis group and audible sobs will wash across the room. The Majlis rituals have their own history that is reverently observed with bowed heads and earnest hearts.
Although Muharram ceremonies continue for more than just the first ten days of the Islamic New Year, the tenth day, the day of Ashura, is the most deeply rousing. Majlis rituals are conducted with increasing frequency before the day of Ashura and the rituals are conducted under increasingly trance-inspiring conditions. In jam-packed rooms with fans turned off during the daytime and lights turned off during the night-time, men will gather to participate in recitations, chanting and rhythmic breast beating. The events are simultaneously very moving but also quite casual. Between bouts of weeping and wailing, boys and men will chat with each other about ordinary matters and even joke with each other in a lighthearted fashion. Predominantly younger men engage in the most energetic Matam displays with older men testifying to their own years of selfless mourning. The groups exhibit a strong sense of community building. These groups also facilitate the displays of piety which culminate in processions of self-flagellation and self-mortification in the afternoon of Ashura.
Between the ninth and tenth day of Muharram, I accompanied a young devotee as he travelled by motorcycle around the various Ashurkhanas, Mosques and private residences where he paid respect to Alams, listened to speeches, and participated in Majlis. Barefoot and dressed in black, it was a pilgrimage of sorts. At the various events and locations, we were frequently offered food including Tabarok, a milk and almond sherbert, and Biryani, the local rice specialty. All through the night, the streets of the Old City were well lit. People were cooking food, preparing drinks, and playing chants loudly through makeshift speaker systems.
Some devotees will not eat during the night in respect of Imam Hussain. The lack of nourishment adds to the immersive experience of the chanting and breast-beating. In the lead up to the final procession on the afternoon of Ashura, the lack of sleep and the act of participating in numerous Majlis from dusk till dawn is quite an intense experience. There are numerous processions around Hyderabad but the biggest is called the Bibi Ka Alam procession and starts its journey in Dabirpura and continues toward Chaderghat. The Bibi Ka Alam procession is huge with hundreds and hundreds of men being led through the street by a famous Ashurkhana custodian, Aliuddin Arif, who guides an elephant and collects donations and garlands and also distributes gifts of coconut and blessings. Accompanying the elephant were four Mahouts and a medical team. The parade used to involve two elephants, but one of the elephants has passed away and law only allows the procession to include the remaining elephant for the remainder of its life. Women and children also participate in self-flagellation and self-mortification but generally in more private spaces. A ritual cut of the forehead is not uncommon. Prior to the procession the streets are sprayed with water to cool them down, but also to help stop the spilt blood from congealing on the street. After the procession, the metallic smell of blood can make observers feel quite faint. The procession takes about an hour to pass any particular point with groups of men walking past and stopping for brief bouts of body cutting. Some will hold razors between their fingers as they beat their bare chest, others will swing flails or even hold swords over their head to cut their back. More than once I had to kneel down and look away to stop myself from fainting. To stop people from becoming too swept up in the rituals, other participants will spray rose water on the devotees to cool them down. The rose water stings and stops the most energetic Matam participants from hurting themselves too badly. The procession is also closely surveyed by police and medical staff. More than a few times during the procession, Matam participants were grabbed by their friends and taken to a medical van for first aid treatment and basic rehydration. The number of incidents, however, was surprisingly low given the large number of people engaging in this ceremony. After the procession finished, shops and restaurants opened their doors once more and life in Hyderabad began again as usual.
In cities such as Hyderabad and Lucknow in India, Muharram ceremonies involve Shiites, Sunnis and Hindus and also embrace the involvement of people from other religions including Christians. Everyone is welcome to join in the mourning. While these ceremonies display substantial hybridity, they have also become significant sites of religious identity, ethnic representation, and community building for local Shiites (Pinault 1992). In an edited volume called Human Rights, Culture and Context, Talal Asad describes the self-flagellation rituals of Muharram in a discussion about how conceptions of cruelty, pain and torture change across cultural contexts (1997: 111-133). The argument is familiar to anthropologists. Asad calls for more attention to analysing the thought and behaviour of another culture on its own terms. Reading Asad’s chapter inspired me to think about the rituals of pain in my own culture. In Australia, men and women will go to the gym to rip muscle tissue on various equipment in order to build more toned and attractive physiques, they will subject themselves to potentially harmful surgical techniques, and even undertake arduous cosmetic treatments with the painful practice of waxing being a well-known example. While rituals of pain during Muharram are in worship of religious values and ideals, so many rituals of pain in my own culture are in worship of aesthetic desires. I risk depicting a dichotomy based on a functionalist perspective, but the contrast between self-flagellation in remembrance of martyrdom and body reshaping in pursuit of beauty does invite deeper reflection on rituals of pain.
Shiite religious practices in India are well documented (e.g. Cole 1988; De Tassy 1995; Hasnain & Husein 1988; Pinault 1997). However, the first and only English article about Muharram ceremonies in Indonesia was published 27 years ago (Kartomi, 1986). The ceremonies have changed significantly since Kartomi’s introductory research on the event in the 1980s. A paucity of historical and ethnographic research exists about the Muharram ceremonies outside of Iran and India, with a written ethnography about a form of these ceremonies in Trinidad published in a book by Korom (2003) and the history of these ceremonies in Surinam published as an article by De Boer (2001). Margaret Kartomi recently revisited her work on Muharram ceremonies in Sumatra in her book, Musical Journeys in Sumatra.
From Persia to the furthest satellites of the Muslim world, Muharram ceremonies are diverse, rich and varied. In the city of Hyderabad, for example, Muharram ceremonies involve vocal chants and rhythmic body percussion. Along the Western coast of Sumatra, on the other hand, Muharram ceremonies are accompanied by a plethora of musical and dance performances. From public rituals of self-flagellation in India to symbolic processions in Sumatra, the diversity of religious expression in mourning the martyrdom of the Prophet’s grandson Hussein annually every Muharram is testament to the fact that no religion is monolithic.
Here is a look at Muharram ceremonies in other parts of the world:
Muharram in Pariaman: Islamic New Year in West Sumatra, Inside Indonesia
Muharram in Lucknow:
A brief history of Muharram
“Islam—resignation to the will of Allah—denotes the religion taught by Muhammed, the Prophet” (Hasnain and Husain 1988:137). The followers of Islam are divided into two main sects, the Sunnis (those of the Path, traditionalists), and the Shiites (followers of Ali) (1988: 137). After the Prophet died in 632 AD traditionalists (who came to be known as the Sunni) succeeded in electing three consecutive religious leaders; Abu Bakr, Umar and Usman (Hasnain and Husain 1988: 137-138). For Shiites, however, it was Ali bin Abitalib, the cousin of the Prophet and husband of his only daughter, Fatima, who they maintain was the first legitimate Imam explicitly nominated by the Prophet (Hasnain and Husain 1988: 137; Thaiss 1994:39; Suharti 2006:iv). Accordingly, the Shiites reject the first three religious leaders recognized by the Sunnis (Hasnain and Husain 1988: 137-138). Ali only became official leader of the Muslims more than two decades following the death of the Prophet and was assassinated after only five years of rule (Thaiss 1994: 39-40). Ali’s eldest son, Hasan, temporarily succeeded him but almost immediately abdicated his position to the governor of Syria, Mu’awiya, who had earlier challenged Ali’s right to govern (Thaiss 1994:40; Nakash 1994:141). Mu’awiya possibly made a false promise to revert the leadership back to Hasan after his death (Nakash 1994: 141). However, Hasan never assumed this position again as he was poisoned eight years later by his wife at the rumoured instigation of Mu’awiya (Ibid.).
During the 60th year of the Islamic lunar calendar (60AH/680 AD), Mu’awiya died and his son, Yazid, took over the leadership of the Muslims. Hasan’s younger brother, Hussein, who no longer felt bound to Hasan’s agreement with Mu’awiya, undertook to avenge his father’s death and to advance his claim to leadership. Accompanied by his family and a small party of about seventy companions, Hussein set out from Mecca to Kufa. At the beginning of the 61st year (61AH/680AD), during the month of Muharram, Hussein and his escorts were intercepted by Yazid’s sizeable army in the desert plain at Karbala, near the present-day city of Baghdad. There, they were deprived access to fresh water and Hussein was demanded to renounce his opposition and unconditionally submit to Yazid. Though defeat was certain, Hussein refused to pledge loyalty to Yazid. Hussein and his followers managed to survive the burning desert sun and the shortage of water and supplies until the battle that took place on the tenth day of Muharram, a day which came to be known as Ashura. During the battle, Hussein witnessed the murder of his son and then Hussein himself was killed, his body mutilated, decapitated and spread across the battlefield. (Thais 1994: 39-40; Nakash 1994 :140-141; Hasnain and Husain 1988:137-138; Jafri 1979:174-221; Chelkowski 1979:1-2)
Scholars of Islam contend that “The tragedy of Karbala played the greatest role in the growth of Shiaism” (Hasnain and Husain 1988:143), that “no other single event in Islamic history has played so central a role in shaping Shiite identity as the martyrdom of Husayn and his companions at Karbala” (Nakash 1994:142) and that “the popular Shi’ite Islam annual Muharram pageantry helped greatly in spreading Shi’ite doctrine across the Iranian plateau” (Chelkowski 1979:256). Quite soon after the death of the grandchild of the Prophet Muhammad, Imam Hussein, Karbala became a place of pilgrimage and veneration (Chelkowski 1979:2; Thaiss 1994: 40). Ashura, the tenth day of the month of Muharram, became an anniversary of voluntary self-sacrifice among Shiites known as Ta’ziyeh in Iran, Muharram in India, Hosay in Trinidad (Korom 2003:1), Tajiyah in Surinam (de Boer 2001), Tabot in Bengkulu, Southwestern Sumatra (Widiastuti 2003) and Tabuik in Pariaman, West Sumatra (Suharti 2006).
All Muslims observe the death of Hussein (Korom 2003: 62). The eighth Shiite imam, Alî ar-Ridâ (Halm 2007: 26), provided strict guidelines to observe Ashura with grief and weeping, which would be rewarded with “a blissful eternity in paradise” (Korom 2003: 57). Those who did not follow these guidelines would join Yazid in the “deepest pit of fire” (Ayoub 1978:151). The Sunnis commemorate Ashura as a distinct tragedy in the history of Islam, but they do not condone acts of self-mortification exhibited by some Shiite groups (Korom 2003:75). In Bombay, Muharram-related events have been catalysts for political dissension (Fazel 1988: 50) and sites of conflict between Sunni and Shiite Muslims (Fazel 1988:49) but the processions have allegedly only become violent when Shiites feel provoked by disrupters (Halm 2007:81).
From Persia to the furthest satellites of the Islamic world, the Ashura observances have spread and “assumed many forms, reflecting the diverse cultures and ethnic groups among which they developed” (Nakash 1994:142). In Iran, annual mourning processional ceremonies were well established by the tenth century AD and have been performed with great pageantry and emotion ever since (Chelkowski 1979:2-3). In India, celebrations of Ashura were stimulated by a minority sect of Shi’ite Muslims and today involve Sunnis and Hindus (Campbell 1988; Cole 1988:115-117). Hindus will often visit Shiite shrines and offer homage to Hussein during the month of Muharram (Pinault 1993:160). From India, Ashura has spread further and become a popular pan-Indian festival in places where Indians went as indentured workers and where Shiites were a minority (Wood 1968:151). In Surinam, for example, the festivities were practiced regularly until the 2nd World War after which time the number of Shiite practitioners fell and the tradition lost popularity, being last seen in 1987 (de Boer 2001). In Trinidad, the festivities became part of the carnival period festivities and assumed the name Hosay, supposedly as a derivation of the name, Hussein (Korom 2003). Tabuik in West Sumatra has formed in a distant outpost of the Shiite world (Kartomi 1986:144) where a predominantly Sunni community continues a unique expression of the Muharram observances.
Present day Muharram ceremonies date back to at least as far as the tenth century Shiites in Iran (Kartomi 1986:144). The mourning processions were later developed in Persia after 1500 AD, and then through Persian contact with India became a recent unique Indo-Muslim culture that cannot claim great age (Ibid.). The earliest roots can be traced even further back to pre-Islamic Persian legends. Muharram ceremonies found ready ground in the ritual plays of Sasanian and Parthian tragedies of ancient Persia (Yarshater 1979:89) and the origin and development of the indigenous ritual drama of Hussein can be drawn from Mesopotamian, Anatolian and Egyptian myths (1979:94). Pre-Islamic Persian legends with themes of redemptive sacrifice that venerate deceased heroes, find continuation in Hussein’s story (Chelkowski 1979:2-3). Supporters believe that Hussein’s suffering and obedience to the will of God gave him the exclusive privilege of making intercession for believers to enter Paradise (Thaiss 1994:40).
Selected Newspaper articles:
Sajjad Shahid, Hyderabad embraces the Muharram saga, Times of India, 18 Nov 2012, http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/hyderabad/Hyderabad-embraces-the-Muharram-saga/articleshow/17262854.cms
Sajjad Shahid, Muharram rituals enrich Telangana culture, Times of India, 5 Dec 2011,
Kaniza Garari, Hyderabad Ashurkhanas Await Renovation, Deccan Chronicle, 8 Nov 2013,
Hisham Barbhuiya, No trace of Alam stolen 10 yrs ago, Deccan Chronicle, 24th Nov 2012,
City Observes Muharram, photo series, Deccan Chronicle, 26 Nov 2012,
City observes Muharram, Deccan Chronicle, 26 Nov 2012,
Images from the procession courtesy of Som Banerjee. I am indebted to a large number of people who so generously shared their time to teach me about the Muharram ceremonies, to put me in contact with knowledgeable locals, and to have helped me navigate this incredible event in Hyderabad. I have not named these kind people here for privacy issues and any mistake in the representation of events is of course mine.
Asad, Talal. (1997) On Torture, or Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment. In Human Rights, Culture and Context. Wilson, Richard, London: Pluto Press, pp. 111-133.
Asad, Talal. (2003) Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Campbell, S. (1988) Carnival, Calypso, and Class Struggle in Nineteenth Century Trinidad. History Workshop, 26, 1-27.
Chelkowski, P. J. (1979) Ta’ziyeh: Ritual and Drama in Iran. New York University Press.
Cole, J. (1988) Roots of North Indian Shi’ism in Iran and Iraq: Religion and State in Avadh. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1722-1859.
De Boer, W. (2001) Tajiya, een verloren islamitisch rouwfestival, Oso: tijdschrift voor Surinaamse taalkunde, Letterkunde en geschiedenis, 20(2), 287-294.
De Tassy, Garcin (1995) Muslim Festivals in India and Other Essays, Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Deeb, Lara (2006) An Enchanted Modern: Gender and Public Piety in Shi‘i Lebanon. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Fazel, M.K. (1988) The Politics of Passions: Growing up Shia, Iranian Studies, 21(3/4), pp. 37-51.
Fibiger, T. (2010) Ashura in Bahrain: Analyses of an Analytical Event, Social Analysis, 54(3), 29–46.
Halm, H. (2007) The Shiites: A Short History. Markus Wiener Publishers.
Hasnain, N., Husain, S.A. (1988) Shias and Shia Islam in India. Harnam Publications, New Delhi.
Jafri, S.H.M. (1979) Origins and Early Development of Shiá Islam. Longman.
Kartomi, M. (1986) Tabut – a Shi’a Ritual Transplanted from India to Sumatra, In David P. Chandler and M.C. Ricklefs (eds) Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Indonesia; Essays in Honour of Professor J.D. Legge. Melbourne: Centre of Southeast Asian Studies, Monash University, 141-162.
Korom, F.J. (2003) Hosay Trinidad: Muharram Performances in an Indo-Carribean Diaspora. University of Pennsylvania Press.
Mishra, S. (2008) ‘Tazia Fiji! The Place of Potentiality,’ in S. Koshy and R. Radhakrishnan (Eds.) Transnational South Asians: The Making of a Neo-Diaspora. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Nakash, Y. (1994) The Shi’is of Iraq. Princeton University Press.
Pinault, D. (1992) The Shiites: Ritual and Popular Piety in a Muslim Community. I.B. Tauris & Co.
Pinault, D. (1993) The Shiites. Palgrave Macmillan.
Pinault, David (1997) Shi’ism in South Asia, The Muslim World, 87, 235-257.
Suharti (2006) Tabuik: Ritual Kefanatikan “Kaum SyiaÁh”Di Pantai Barat Sumatera Barat, Laporan Penelitian: Sekolah Tinggi Seni Indonesia Padang Panjang.
Thaiss, G. (1994) Contested Meanings and the Politics of Authenticity: The Hosay in Trinidad, In Akbar S. Ahmed, H. Donnan (eds) Islam, Globalization and Postmodernity. Routledge, pp. 38-62.
Widiastuti, W. (2003) Analisis Jaringan Komunikasi Dalam Mempertahankan Kepercayaan Terhadap Mitos Seputar Tabot Pada Kerukunan Keluarga Tabot Kota Bengkulu. Laporan Penelitian, Universitas Bengkulu.
Wood, D. (1968) Trinidad in Transition: the Years after Slavery. London: Oxford University Press.
Yarshater, E. (1979) Ta’ziyeh & Preislamic Mourning Rites in Iran, in Peter Chelkowski (ed) Taziyeh, Ta’ziyeh: Ritual and drama in Iran. New York University Press. pp.88-94.
Breaking news: Women can now drive in Saudi Arabia without going to jail! (But they risk getting a ticket.)
Saudi artist Saffaa just alerted me to a critical news item that the English-language media is not covering at all: women in Saudi Arabia can now drive without going to jail. The only penalty the Saudi government will now impose on women caught driving is to issue them a ticket for not having a license.
As Saffaa put it,
So women can now drive in Saudi without going to jail. Why isn’t Western media all over this news? Are they sleeping or this news isn’t as sensational as women going to jail for driving? Ah and yes no one had to burn a bra. Not a single one …
The news item in Arabic is here, reporting that the Kingdom’s Traffic Authority Director (I’m not exactly sure how to translate “mudeer `aam al-muroor“) General Abdulrahman Muqabbel has clarified to Sabq (the news agency reporting this) that women caught driving will only be ticketed for a traffic infraction (mukhalifa murooriyya faqat). Previously women caught driving were taken to the local police station where they were held until their male guardians came to pick them up.
Here’s a YouTube video taken by a woman in Jeddah driving and encouraging other Saudi women to get in their cars and drive. She says, “Right now, I’m on Malak Street, and I’m driving, and there’s nothing, nobody is stopping me, nobody is cursing me, nobody is photographing me, I’m just taking this video to say to girls, Let’s go, darlings, out to drive… but you must have a [male] guardian in the car with you! Ours is behind me [the camera shifts to the back seat and a male voice says, "yeah"]…”
There are multiple similar videos now going up on YouTube of women driving and urging their compatriots to do the same, and many more Saudi women who are not taking videos but who are out driving, exploring the new boundaries around Saudi women’s use of public space.
Tricycle has a preview of a new documentary film on Jodo Shinshu Buddhism in America. Looks like it will be a very interesting film.
In 1898, a group of young Japanese immigrants founded the religious association “Soko Bukkyo Seinen-kai” (Trans. “San Francisco Buddhist Youth Association”). Responding to their request, the Nishi Hongwanji Temple in Kyoto, Japan, headquarters of the Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha school of Buddhism, began to dispatch Japanese priests known as Kaikyoshi to the USA the next year. In the years that followed, a national organization called the Buddhist Mission of North America (BMNA) would take shape, eventually growing to become one of the largest Buddhist organizations in the United States with over 60 temples nationwide.
It seems that Australia’s Coalition politician Joe Hockey has an intellectual brother in the Republican Party!
Historian Zach Schrag (who has published a groundbreaking book on the history of ethics review, Ethical Imperialism) just told me about an American politician who is encouraging his constituents to search through National Science Foundation grants and highlight ones that they believe are a waste of tax dollars. Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor promises that with his YouCut Project, ”Together, we will identify wasteful spending that should be cut.”
What’s more, Cantor helpfully suggests several keywords that you might use to search through the NSF database for “wasteful” research, including:
- social norms
And, of course
I’m not even kidding.
Last week, during the final throes of election campaigning, Tony Abbott and the Coalition attacked four Australian Research Council (ARC)-funded research projects as “futile” and “wasteful,” and promised that such research would not be funded under a Coalition government. My project on sexuality in Islamic interpretations of reproductive health technologies in Egypt was singled out for particular ridicule.
In so doing, the Coalition inadvertently highlighted the absurdity of having politicians judge the merits of academic research.
My ARC-funded research project that the Coalition has criticised looks at how medical authorities and religious authorities in Egypt interact to influence Muslims’ opinions about reproductive health technologies. I’m looking at 3 technologies, specifically: emergency contraception (a.k.a. the morning after pill), erectile dysfunction drugs (e.g. Viagra), and hymenoplasty (hymen reconstruction surgery, usually undertaken to make a woman appear to be a virgin when she marries). These are somewhat controversial topics in Egypt because they’re connected with sexuality.
Now, new reproductive health technologies tend to elicit debate in society because they trigger existential questions: about when life begins, about what right humans have to meddle in natural human processes, about women’s sexuality and gender roles, and about the relationship between religion and medicine. IVF and cloning are good examples of this.
These case studies boil down to a fundamental question: to what extent do religious leaders affect what the average lay Muslim does and thinks about sexuality and reproductive health? If, for example, a religious authority says that hymenoplasty is permissible or not permissible, do people listen? Do they care?
My preliminary research suggests that no, they don’t — at least, not when it comes to hymenoplasty. Most lay Muslims I have spoke with either don’t know or don’t care what their religious authorities say about hymenoplasty.
In Egypt, three leading Muslim clerics have issued controversial fatwas on hymenoplasty. Thomas Eich describes these in his article “A tiny membrane defending ‘us’ against ‘them’.” The first was former Dean of the Women’s Islamic Law (shari`a) Faculty at al-Azhar University, Su`ad Salih, who ruled in February 2007 that hymenoplasty should be allowed not only for survivors of rape (which religious authorities had already approved), but also for women who had had sexual intercourse consensually and then ‘repented their mistake.’ Controversy ensued, along with attacks on Salih’s authority and ability to interpret Islamic law.
In short, we have three leading Egyptian clerics saying that hymenoplasty is permissible under Islamic law. And yet when I conducted on-the-ground research in Egypt in 2012-2013, almost every single lay Muslim that I interviewed claimed that hymenoplasty was both religiously forbidden and a sin!
In other words, Egyptian Muslims tend to only follow fatwas that accord with what they already believe about religion.
by Veronica Escalante, who is doing the Master of Applied Anthropology and just returned from fieldwork in Ambon where she focused on children’s narratives about the religious other.
Over the last decade, Moluccans have given fuel to their age-old reputation for being rough and inclined to bellicosity, due to a protracted regional conflict between Christians and Muslims since 1999. This reputation has a long history but has emerged with new force throughout Indonesia since the conflict. Also people in the region employ this stereotype to explain the violent clashes in this out-of-the-way province of the nation. In contrast, traditions of siblinghood such as pela and current local efforts at reconciliation challenge the stereotype. While aggressive behaviours and attitudes can often be observed in the region, acts of kindness and support are just as visible. A representation of this dualism in the behaviours and attitudes of Moluccans is the sago palm, which has a hard trunk covered by spines on the outside and a soft white inside, from which people make a starch that is the base for sago porridge (papeda), a traditional staple.
The waitress came over and saw the four-month-old baby lying in her mother’s arms, smiled and bent over to kiss him on the forehead. The mother welcomed the gesture and started chatting about how she had been. The waitress only knew the mother from the coffee shop, but by looking at them interacting you would have thought they were family or at least very close friends. This type of interaction between people is not uncommon in Ambon. The anthropologist Bartels (1977), among others, has described mechanisms of support that occur in the region. The most well known is the communal practice of pela. This tradition comprises alliances between villages that are sealed by drinking each other’s blood, and through which the villages swear to protect and support one another. Such practices established a sense of community that was further strengthened by handing down historical narratives of siblinghood within Maluku and by songs such as the popular song titled Gandong (‘brotherhood’).
While these practices have attracted considerable interest from academics (Huwaë 1995; Sholeh 2013), little has been said about the new stereotypes of Moluccan character that have emerged since 1999 conflict. Because of the riots and people’s attempts at reconciliation, Moluccans acquired at least two new narratives about their character: the first is of being a bellicose and conflict driven people; the second tells about a strengthened identity of kinship. While both narratives existed before the conflict, they have been partly reaffirmed and, at the same time, taken on slightly new meanings. Both descriptions of Moluccans can be related to the behaviour of people in the region as well as to their attitudes towards conflict and reconciliation. These behaviours have lead to the idea that there is a contradiction or dualism of Moluccan character. Jack Manuputty, a pastor and peace activist in Ambon calls this the dualism of Moluccan character. It is similar to the binary relation between land and sea, anger and joy. Stanley Ferdinandus, founder of the local NGO Heka Leka (www.hekaleka.org) refers to sago trees as being a key symbol of this dualism.
Moluccan character in daily behaviour
Narratives of Moluccan identity as violent are apparent in everyday occurrences. In a recent research trip to Ambon it did not take me long to learn about the reputation people from the Moluccas have in Indonesia, and even between themselves, as being untameable people. An informant whose family served in the Dutch colonial army described that this notion was already common even before the Dutch colonised the territory. She described how her grandparents told her that people from the Moluccas were actually recruited by the Dutch to serve in the military and work as security because of their belligerent nature. Similar ideas are still common in Indonesia. For example, an informant from Sulawesi who moved to Ambon when she was 18 years old described to me how she did not want to live there because of this reputation of the Moluccans. She thought that Moluccan men were stubborn, aggressive, and rough. To many outsiders this stereotype is easily confirmed by the way that Moluccans talk and move. They tend to be loud and make relatively excessive arm movements. As a newcomer one may see such gestures as expressing anger and next wonder why people would be so upset. On the streets, almost without exception drivers of vehicles continually honk their horns, and ignore transit lanes and traffic lights. However, when getting to know people they appear to be very warm, hospitable, emphatic, and kind.
Mutual support and empathy in Ambon go way beyond common courtesies. For example, while I was there, everyday someone would accompany me to where I wanted to go and help me with translations while not accepting any financial compensation I offered. Moreover, people would often invite me to eat and sleep in their houses. They even went out of their way to take my husband fishing while I was doing research. On a daytrip with some friends from Ambon to Saparua Island we encountered a couple of tourists from France. My Ambonese friends invited them to stay in their house on the island free of charge, showed them around all of the twelve villages there, and even organized activities in and around Ambon during the following days. These kinds of courtesies are not only offered to foreigners but are part of everyday actions between Moluccans. For example, in the urban neighbourhood of Galunggung the Holle family hosts free English classes for all kids in the neighbourhood twice a week. During Ramadan they even invite lots of children to break the fasting in their home.
The Sago Palm
The apparent dualism in the character of Moluccans can be symbolised by the sago palm. The sago palm has spines from stem up to the outer branches. Looking at the tree you would not dare to come near it, much less touch it. However when you cut the tree and split the trunk you will find that it is very soft inside. The inside is filled with starch that is used for making sago porridge, a popular staple in the region. With the recent conflict came a narrative of Moluccan identity that may be represented by the sago trees. The conflict began in 1999 and was officially ended in 2003 but violent clashes and bombings still occurred until 2011. The conflict generated a common perception of Moluccans of being prone to conflict. Even though scholars have examined the multiple political and economic reasons for the conflict (Von Benda-Beckmann. 2007: 284; Bertrand, 2001: 58-88), as well as the external interventions that maintained the conflict (Stern 2003: 63-84), the conflict generated clear divisions between Christians and Muslims and new visions of these communities (Turner 2003: 258).
People from the two religions now live completely segregated and there is a constant fear that the conflict may resurface not so much because of religious differences but because of the belligerent character of Moluccans. For example, the notion that Moluccans are a fierce people is also very popular among youth. While asking young child soldiers involved in the 2011 violence about the reasons of their involvement, Jacky Manuputty, a local pastor and peace builder, was told: “You had your turn to fight, now it is ours”. However, conflict also made it necessary to strengthen the idea of brotherhood and the meaning of kinship for forging a sense of community. The dream of peace and return to traditional practices of pela and gandong began to flourish during and after the conflict. However, pela and gandong took on new meaning as alliances between the two religions (Bartels 2003: 14). The intention of achieving a Moluccan brotherhood after the conflict can even be discerned in the musical productions of youth. They created songs referring to unity in identity, such as Satu Darah, meaning ‘One Blood’.
The aim of achieving unity is not exclusive to ethic Moluccans but expands to embrace people who are not ethnically Moluccan to avoid the ethnic discourse that was present in the beginning of the conflict in 1999. One example of the efforts to include non-ethnic Moluccans is in the adaptation of pela to soa as described to me by the Baileo Maluku Network. While pela only applies to people who are ethnically Moluccan, the village of Paso generated a similar alliance called soa with people who were not ethnically Moluccan. Similarly, efforts to bridge the now segregated Muslim and Christian groups also demonstrate the importance of siblinghood in Moluccan identity. For example, the organization Heka Leka that facilitates various activities to unite people from both religions recently joined seven groups of children both Christian and Muslims to celebrate Ramadan. The Centre for Interreligious Dialogue is doing similar efforts with teachers, government officials and youth. These efforts include overnight stays at each other’s houses, giving experiences of siblinghood a whole new meaning.
The contradiction of a reputation of violence and brotherhood as the main attributes of the people from Maluku is present in conflict and attempts for peace. Just as a sago tree, when observing recent actions of Moluccan people, on the outside all we see is the conflict, but deeper probing reveals the vulnerability of a people who dream of brotherhood.
The culture of Moluccans is neither violent nor peaceful; it does not reflect conflict or brotherhood – it is both. Moluccan behaviour resembles the sago palm, which can harm and injure, while the glue found inside the trunk can unite people of all ethnic groups and religions. The narratives that define Moluccan identity have changed since the conflict of 1999. Not only have they contradicted the belief of Gandong being at the centre of their behaviours, giving way to a discourse of bellicose Moluccans; but they have also generated the possibility of the emergence of a discourse of Moluccans as peace builders and brothers. Their recent history has reshaped the way in which they are seen and understood, generating a new horizon of possibilities of actions of violence and kinship.
Bartels, D. (1977) Guarding the Invisible Mountain: Intervillage Alliances, Religious Syncretism and Ethnic Identity among Ambonese Christians and Moslems in the Moluccas. Ithaca: Cornell University
Bartels, D. (2003) ‘Your God is No Longer Mine: Moslem-Christian Fratricide in the Central Moluccas (Indonesia) After a Half-Millennium of Tolerant Co-Existence and Ethnic Unity’, in: A State of Emergency: Violence, Society and the State in Eastern Indonesia. Sandra Pannell, ed., pp. 128-153. Darwin: Northern Territory University Press
Turner, K (2003), ‘Myths and Moral Authority in Maluku: The Case of Ambon’, Asian Ethnicity, 4, 2, p. 241, Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost, viewed 26 July 2013.
Von Benda-Beckmann, F. and von Benda-Beckmann, K. (2007) Social security between past and future: Ambonese networks of care and support, Berlin: Lit Verlag.
Bertrand, J. (2001) ‘Legacies of the Authoritarian Past: religious Violence in Indonesia’s Moluccan Islands’, Pacific Affairs. Ontario: University of Toronto, pp. 57-85
Stern J. (2003) ‘Demographics’ in: Why religious militants kill: Terror in the Name of God, New York : Ecco, pp. 63-84
Huwaë, S. (1995) ‘Divided Opinions About Adatpela: A Study Of Pela’, Cakalele, Vol. 6 (1995), Pp. 77–92
Sholeh, B. (2013) ‘The Dynamics of Muslim and Christian Relations in Ambon, Ea Indonesia’, International Journal of Business and Social Science Vol. 4 No. 3; March 2013
by Eleni Christou (one of our former Master of Applied Anthropology students at Macquarie University)
Our clothes are travelers. Born to factories in distant lands, most of our clothes have already travelled thousands of kilometers by air, land and sea before settling in our wardrobes. Consumers are fairly aware of where clothes originate, but the continuing journey of our used clothes is less publicised. The majority of Australians donate their old clothes to charity or textile recycling organizations. However, after undergoing a stringent selection process determining their future path, our used clothes begin new travels across suburbs, states, and to locations a far as market stalls in Africa. Clothes are far from lonely when they travel. Sources vary, but approximately half of what is donated to charity organizations will journey to exotic destinations some of us can only dream of. With the popularity of low priced, rapidly produced and ostensibly cool Fast Fashion, the volume of clothing and distance they travel is set to increase. The redistribution of used clothing to people in need, to the wardrobes of ethically driven (and often fashion conscious) consumers or to textile recycling plants is imperative. The extensive travelling of our clothes owes not only to advances in manufacture and design, but a shift in consumer purchasing behavior. Use value and longevity of a garment is not the only criteria consumers assess, fashionable capital is also a quality on which we base our clothing decisions.
The following article will discuss the influx of clothing circulating in the marketplace, mainly due to the disposable nature of trendy fashion in the last decade. Arguing that the throwaway nature of Fast Fashion clothes creates challenges for textile recycling and redistribution, this article will discuss the charity store donation and sorting process. With a large proportion of used clothes exported to overseas, excessive fashion consumption is influencing a decline in indigenous and local textile industries of developing countries.
Fast Fashion Dies Young
Eighty billion garments are produced worldwide every single year (Siegle, 2011:74). As the production and design processes of the Fast Fashion industry evolve and progressively become more sophisticated, volume is set to increase year on year. Fast Fashion has revolutionized the clothing industry, accelerating the design and manufacturing stages of production. Expressed through low priced clothes mirroring current trends from catwalks and style setters around the world. Fast Fashion’s design and production model seeks to transform ‘high fashion’ style into common trend, convincing consumers that what is demonstrated on the catwalks actually represents popular fashion. With an emphasis on rrefurbishing looks on a weekly rather than seasonal basis, Fast Fashion brands render a limited life span on the garments they sell.
Fashion brands in Europe and the USA are world leaders in the Fast Fashion industry. In particular, Zara, Topshop, H&M and the low end store Primark, are labels all renowned for recreating and selling runway trends and cutting edge designs. In order to respond to every single modification in popular trend, time to market, (the period in which clothes are designed, produced and couriered to the retail store) has been reduced from weeks to days. Topshop has cut their production time from nine to six weeks. H&M, launching fashion that was effectively disposable, cut its lead-time from design to rail in just 3 weeks (Siegle, 2011:21). Spanish fashion monopoliser, Zara dominates the Fast Fashion industry. Zara manufactures small quantities of each style, ensuring its collections are considered ‘exclusive’ and thus creating an anxiety among consumers that they may ‘miss out’. Zara stores receive new fashion pieces twice a week. Each style is only received once and Zara does not reproduce past designs. The limited range of Zara styles encourage consumers to visit stores frequently, and replace their wardrobes just as often.
Hidden workers and planned obsolescence: Fast Fashions bread and butter
Competition between retailers means that high fashion clothes and styles are being produced at affordable prices, making trendy clothes accessible for most budgets and tastes. However there is a human face behind rapid manufacture. Fashion brands go to great lengths to distance their product and the consumer from the people that actually make these clothes (and their skills which are often attained through heritage and traditions). Even though workers possess the unique craftsmanship to produce such clothes, it is most likely they will never be able to afford them, nor experience them displayed in department stores and boutiques across the world. Branding, labeling and trends tend to hide or eliminate any evidence of the lives and history of the workers.
This multimillion dollar fashion export industry is powered by an approximate forty million garment workers, working out of 250,000 garment export factories (Siegle, 2011:41). This army of workers covers the vital point of the production process where the clothes are actually made – the crucial element that makes the nature of these clothes both fast and cheap. Bangladesh produces 1.5 billion jeans every year, India manufactures 7 billion pieces of Western clothing annually and in China, by 2002, 20 billion garments were being manufactured each year (Siegle, 2011:39). Workers in garment factories, or sweatshops, are subject to dangerous working conditions, long hours, low pay and lack union representation. Additionally, clothing manufacture is often outsourced to ‘home workers’. This employment is often hard to trace back to a particular brand due to the employment of faceless middlemen and a complex production line created by the Fast Fashion industry. Home workers represent the unseen, the isolated and the bottom rung of the global fashion industry, they are responsible for sewing, beading and embellishing many thousands of garments every month (Siegle, 2011:51).
Keeping Fast Fashion alive, the sweatshops churning and the home workers employed is the concept of ‘planned obsolescence’. This is the practice in by which goods are designed and produced to have a limited lifespan yet still need to be replaced regularly. The trend of throwaway fashion owes much to the increases in clothing purchase frequency and a real reduction in price levels (Birtwistle and Moore, 2007:211). The Fast Fashion industry excels in the implementation of planned obsolescence. Minor embellishments and amendments to designs are made at ever increasing intervals, ensuring their time as ‘cool’ is limited; marking indelibly if a piece was purchased during an earlier fashion cycle. In fact, Fast Fashion retailers such as H&M, Topshop and Zara sell garments that are expected to be used less than ten times, at very competitive price points, further contributing to the disposal of garments that may have only been worn a few times (Birtwistle and Moore, 2007:211).
Charity stores and the redistribution process
This disposability of clothing has resulted in a number of challenges for charity and textile recycling organisations. Donations have increased in size and in frequency. But, while the volume is increasing, the quality of the donations is decreasing. Charity stores are now competing with the low prices of Fast Fashion clothing and struggling to sell excess stock. Based on my research among two Australian national charity organizations, the following section will provide a general description of the textile recycling process in Australia and the challenges disposal fashion has imposed on the industry.
Clothes and accessories available in charity stores are sourced in four ways: corporate donations, third party recycling firms and public donations. In an attempt to contribute to the overall appearance and profit of the store, some charity organizations also purchase heavily discounted new clothes and accessories from brands eager to rid themselves of slow sellers and inter-season stock. Products acquired, include shoes and handbags utilized to compliment current stock and trends. All donations, or purchased stock undergo a stringent grading process. Clothes are assessed for their resale value and thoroughly checked for rips and stains and sorted into three categories, A, B and C grade. A grade garments are in good condition or valuable, making them suitable for resale on the shop floor. B and C grade garments are those which are soiled, deemed too old or washed too many times. B and C grade garments are transferred to recycling centers where they are inspected and either reincarnated for industrial purposes (such as rags) or sold on to third parties specializing in exporting clothing worldwide.
The sorting stage is a lengthy process and most sources of stock come with their own set of challenges. Corporate donations, although they could be perceived as a gesture of goodwill and a contribution to the overall profit of the charity, are effectively a means of disposal for companies with excess or faulty stock. Corporate donations are often samples, end of season stock, or over runs (excess stock of a particular style). Conditions of corporate donations often require charity stores to remove the clothing brand tag before resale. The sourcing of clothing from third party is also a gamble. Stock is received in secure bags and charity stores are unable to view the contents prior to purchase, meaning clothes received could be damaged or unpopular.
Donations from the public reveal the impact of disposable fashion on charity stores. Firstly charity stores are receiving an increasing amount of poor quality items. A representative of an Australian charity organization found that, in the last 5-6 years, the quality of worn clothing is deteriorating as the life span of a garment is reduced. The low prices of disposable fashion present strong competition for charity stores, challenging their position in the affordable fashion market. Fast Fashion clothing also has an environmental impact. Due to the nature of Fast Fashion material, much of what is donated is synthetic, difficult to recycle and products that are cotton based are hard to reuse (Britten, 2008). The receipt of unworn clothes with price tags still attached is increasingly commonplace for some charity organizations, suggesting consumers are tiring of clothes at a faster rate and before they are even worn. Although these may pieces may be valuable for resale within charity stores, such excessive consumption is sustaining demand for the Fast Fashion industry. Furthermore, as clothes enter and exit the fashion market rapidly, their belonging to a particular trend is easily identifiable. Once clothes are donated, they may have long lost their appeal.
The proportion of donated clothes retailed through charity stores differs slightly, depending on the source. According to Siegle (2011:218), only 10% of UK donations are sold through stores, while 50% is exported to developing countries. Lee (2006) states that 25% of what recycling companies buy from charities is used as a commodity in an international trading economy. Hansen, Transberg (2004:3) suggests that charitable organisations are the largest single source of the garments that fuel the international trade in second hand clothing, consisting of between 40 and 75% of trade. Distributed via export and shipping firms, the lowest quality clothing goes to Africa, the medium quality to Latin America, while Japan receives the highest proportion of top quality items (ibid). A simple google search reveals the number of Australian companies that export used clothing and accessories to countries such as Africa and the Pacific Islands.
Shipping and exporting firms make serious profits from the international used clothing trade due to a demand for European style clothing and fashion in Africa, Asia and the Pacific. Karen Transberg Hansens’ research: Second Hand Clothing Encounters in Zambia (1999) details the demand for Western clothes in developing countries. Second hand clothing is seen in Zambia as a very special commodity, in fact it has its own name, Salaula. The term specifically refers to the process of imported used clothing from the West and sold in local markets. This term also graphically captures the practice of consumers selecting garments to satisfy clothing desires and needs (Hansen, Transberg, 1999:343). In Zambia, this type of clothing is seen as exclusive and an important imported commodity. For the anthropologist, the clothing offers special exposure on the interaction between the local and the west and because of the way, as dress, it mediates both individual and collective identities and desires (Hansen, Transberg, 1999:343). However, in order for the process to be successful, the sorting of clothes must adhere to specific guidelines. Developing countries are increasingly faced with the issue of receiving clothing that does not suit their climate or style (Siegle, 2011: 220). For example, African countries receiving European winter clothes that do not suit the continent’s warmer climate.
However, there is an adverse effect exporting used clothing imports on the domestic textile and garment industries. Many African countries originally had fairly well developed indigenous markets for textiles and clothing, particularly for handcrafted or hand tailored clothes. Sadly, these markets have virtually disappeared in the last few decades (Lee, 2006). Due to the poor quality and high price of locally produced garments, Zambians from most walks of life have continued to shop from Salaula throughout the 1990s (Hansen, Transberg, 1999:350). In order to prevent a decline in local textile industries, some countries have taken drastic measures to end the importation of used clothing. Many countries strictly forbid the import of used clothing, while others restrict the volume or limit it to charitable purposes rather than for resale. Used clothing imports are banned in Indonesia because of the threat they pose to local garment production (Hansen, Transberg 2004:4). Mali charges import tariffs on second hand clothing, seeking to reduce its volume, with the aim of protecting the domestic textile industry (Hansen, Transberg 1999:348). However, these measures have birthed an illegal second hand clothes trade and exporters now attempt to smuggle used clothes countries with restrictions. The Nigerian customs service has seized numerous containers of prohibited goods, including used clothes entering with false customs declarations (Hansen, Transberg 2004:4). The impact of disposable fashion is evident when countries treat the illegal ferrying of used clothes in the same manner they would view the importation of illicit substances or arms.
The allure of Fast Fashion is increasingly evident in our everyday lives. In January 2011, Kmart launched a low budget line of jeans priced at $10. By August 2011, Kmart had already sold almost half a million pairs (Collier and Winslow, 2011). Similarly, retail grocery giant Coles, launched a budget clothing line in August, 2011, with the majority of clothes priced below $25 (Baker, 2011). Although these jeans may pass Australian quality standards, do they meet ethical standards? Kmart’s $10 jeans were produced and manufactured in China and Bangladesh (Collier and Winslow, 2011). Incidents such as the recent collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh, killing almost 1000 workers suggests the manufacturing process remains largely unregulated.
There are some brands taking measures to gain accreditation from ethical fashion industry bodies, claiming transparency within their production processes, such as the fashion industry advocacy body Ethical Clothing Australia (ECA). Ginger & Smart, Collette Dinnigan and Cue are among companies involved in long term ECA efforts to encourage fashion companies to become transparent with their production processes. Additionally, the ECA also requires companies to become compliant with its accreditation and labeling systems (Safe, 2011). Accredited brands are able to display an ECA trademark on Australian-made products, providing consumers with a way to identify and support ethically manufactured garments. On an international scale, clothing companies have taken similar steps in the last few years to become more transparent. Major brands such as Nike, adamant they have applied enough pressure on issues such as child labour, insist it is in decline in the garment industry (Siegle, 2011:60). To the merit of morally conscious consumers and advocacy groups, there are numerous movements dedicated to the eradication of sweatshop culture and the slowing down of consumerism. Some examples include; War on Want, Labour Behind The Label, Buy Nothing New and No Sweat.
Pledges to regulate the garment manufacture industry are integral to the workers employed, ensuring safety at work, ample payment and regular working hours. However, excessive consumption sustains the disposable clothing industry. Fast Fashion has created a new formula for how fashion is manufactured and available, perpetuating an expectation among consumers; for clothes to be low priced and delivered quickly. Reassessing our purchasing behavior, and buying clothes, when they are necessarily, ensuring they are durable and made to ethical standards could slow down Fast Fashion. But, while demand exists, our clothes will continue their extensive travelling, with their redistribution directing their journey, often passing by or settling in the regions they originated from.
Baker, Michael. 2011. Coles: a wolf in cheap clothing? The Age: 26.08.2011
Birtwistle, G and C.M. Moore. 2007. Fashion Clothing – Where Does It All End Up? International Journal of Retail and Distribution Management 35(3):210-216.
Britten, Fleur. 2008. Is Recycling Your Old Clothes Worth It? Times Online: 25.05.2008
Collier, Karen and Elouise Winslow. 2011. Discount Denims fool fussy fashionistas. Herald Sun: 06.08.2011
Lee, Mike. 2006. The Truth About Where Your Donated Clothes End Up. ABC NEWS (USA) 21/12/2006.
Safe, Georgina. 2011. Protection For Those Behind The Seams. Sydney Morning Herald: 29.09.2011
Siegle, Lucy. 2011. To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out The World? London: Fourth Estate.
Tranberg Hansen, Karen. 1999. Second Hand Clothing Encounters in Zambia: Global Discourses, Western Commodities, and Local Histories. Africa: Journal of the International African Institute 69(3):343-365.
Tranberg Hansen, Karen. 2004. Helping or Hindering: Controversies Around the International Second-Hand Clothing Trade. Anthropology Today 20(4):3-9.
Buy Nothing New Month: http://www.buynothingnew.com.au/
Ethical Clothing Australia: http://www.ethicalclothingaustralia.org.au
Labour Behind The Label: http://www.labourbehindthelabel.org/campaigns/itemlist/category/220-clean-up-fashion
No Sweat : http://www.nosweat.org.uk/
Is it just me or is the push towards an open access mentality in academia gathering steam? Recently, we’ve had the encouraging news that the Australian Research Council has introduced an open access policy for research it funds and the Obama administration has backed open access for federally-funded research.
It also seems that academics are becoming increasingly unwilling to participate as free labour in a system that generates extremely high profits for the big academic publishers. Most recently, the entire editorial board of the Journal of Library Administration quit in protest over the licensing agreement imposed by the publisher, Taylor & Francis. According to the agreement, authors had the choice to either wait up to 18 months to put their work in an open repository or pay a $3,000 fee to “unlock” their work.
In the field of anthropology the journal Cultural Anthropology has announced that it’s going full open access by 2014, the OA journal HAU appears to be going from strength to strength and there are a range of new journals seeking to make anthropological research public. One example is Global Ethnographic, a new OA journal that seeks to convey anthropological perspectives to as wide a public as possible. In contrast to most journals they seek contributions of no more than 3,000 words, preferring even shorter ones. They would appear to be trying to fill a niche between a more traditional peer-reviewed journal and an anthropological blog, encouraging more digestible chunks of writing with more popular appeal. I was also very happy to see that one of the first contributors was Macquarie’s own Paul Mason, with a piece on Intracultural and Intercultural Dynamics of Capoeira (PDF).
Along the same lines, but even closer to the popular end of the spectrum is the resolutely upbeat Popanth (Hot Buttered Humanity). Publishing articles in the 800-100 word range, they are aiming to provide bite-sized, and easily digestible, chunks of anthropological goodness.
On the whole I think this is all very encouraging, and it also shows the great diversity of attempts to openly communicate non-monetised anthropological knowledge, from traditional journal formats through to publications that are experimenting with niches somewhere between the established journals and the anthro blogosphere. It goes to show that we shouldn’t generalise too much about such things as the relationship between quality and open access. There are just too many different models being tried out right now. But I think we can generalise about a broader cultural shift in which we are seeing the reinvigoration of the idea that scholarship is a public good and should therefore be “out there” in whatever form that might take.
Okay, the blog has been inactive for a while but I’d like to try and breathe some new life into it. To kick things off, here is a nice photo essay doing the social media rounds at the moment. The photos, which show children from a range of countries with their most “prized possessions”, their toys, give us an interesting view into their lives through their material worlds.
The project’s author, Italian photographer, Gabriele Galimberti, sees this study as anthropological in nature and he argues that children’s relationships to their toys can throw light on both universalities and differences in the experience of childhood. For example, children are all the same in that they essentially want to play,
But it’s how they play that seemed to differ from country to country. Galimberti found that children in richer countries were more possessive with their toys and that it took time before they allowed him to play with them (which is what he would do pre-shoot before arranging the toys), whereas in poorer countries he found it much easier to quickly interact, even if there were just two or three toys between them.
The photos are very effective at conveying at a glance all sorts of information about the lives of these kids, including contrasts in living conditions, income levels and the gendering of childhood. There is also something quite intimate about the shots of the kids with their favourite loot which also helps to convey that stuff is never “just stuff” but an integral part of how we make, and are made by, our material worlds.
But as well as intimacy the essay is also testimony to the ubiquity of capitalism. All the kids display stuff that was made in factories, even Chiwa from Malawi, in one of the more poignant images, standing among the mosquito nets in what appears to be a very basic brick hut, showing off a couple of stuffed kitties and a plastic dinosaur. It might seem like an obvious point, but all these kids are making their intimate worlds with objects that begin their lives as mass-produced and anonymous commodities. I wonder if it’s this fact which cause the photos, even those showing kids in relatively affluent contexts, to evoke a certain pathos in me?
Plastic is ‘highly visible’ in food packaging, plastic carry bags at the check-out and the many applications of plastic in the food and beverage service. Due to these consumer experiences, plastic is often linked with notions of disposability, convenience, and low financial cost. Our interactions with them are for short periods of time, and often taken for granted. Similarly, since plastic has found its place in every-day consumer products, and the banal and mundane functions of daily life, plastic often fades into the background, ‘invisible’ until attention is brought to it.
Commonly, we understand the things we buy, use or get given as ‘objects’. Dichter points out that the objects we own reveal a great deal about ourselves, and that studying objects is a useful way to find out about people and gain insight into, as he puts it, “the soul of man” (Dichter 2004: 91). Traditionally, the study of material culture has focused on ‘objects’ and their relationship with humanity. However in this case, my interest lies not the object itself, but the material it is made of – plastic. Having a design background, I became interested in the impact that this material has on the culture of Sydney.
Bottles and Health
Bundanoon is a country town, southwest of Sydney, and in July of 2009, the town was the first in Australia (possibly the world) to ban the sale of pre-packaged, bottled water. Wingecarribee Shire Council installed several public water fountains, and the town’s retailers removed bottled water from their shelves. This response was sparked by commercial interest to extract spring water within the Bundanoon precinct (Roderick, 26 September, 2009). The townspeople found the idea of an international company taking their water, processing it on a separate site, and then selling it back to them in their local shops ridiculous. Local businessman, Huw Kingston is quoted in Southern Highland News: “If we were saying we were against water extraction, the logical step is to say no to the end product” (Murray, 9 July 2009). Huw led the petition against Norlex and the ban of bottled water in the township. Since 2009, several schools and universities across Australia, which are small towns in themselves, have adopted similar bans in a stance against the environmental impacts of bottled water (list of schools and universities are on www.gotap.com.au).
In 2008, research into use of public water fountains was commissioned by Do Something, a not-for-profit organisation that works to create positive social and environmental change. The study found that 85% of Australians do not trust the water that comes out of old-fashioned water fountains (Manly council website). Concern over water quality and cleanliness has led to a reduction in the use of public water fountains. As a result, water fountains have disappeared from public precincts over the years. Do Something’s study also linked these statistics to the increase in Australia’s use of bottled water. In conjunction with Do Something, the Manly council chose to take a stand against bottled water. Manly council has installed over twenty public water stations along Manly Beach and surrounds, to encourage a culture of re-filling and re-use. I have personally re-filled my drink bottle in Manly, and appreciate the convenience.
The Manly water fountain initiative was trialled with six water stations, before installing more, upon its popularity and success. Manly Water estimates that from August of 2008, when the stations were installed, and the time of review, May of 2009 the six water fountains prevented the purchase of 150,000 litres of bottled water. This potentially translates into a quarter of a million plastic water bottles removed from the waste stream. The council also reports that there is a 15-29% decrease in volume of garbage collected in the area where the water fountains are, presumably due to the drop in the consumption of plastic bottles (Manly council website).
Four years ago, I started carrying around my own refillable drink bottle. I still have the same one. I bought it because I had joined the gym, and it became a necessity. The gym has conveniently placed water stations throughout, and the idea is that you can take a sip there, or fill up your bottle and go about your work-out. Of course, the gym also sells bottled water at the front reception, but who would spend $3, when you could get chilled, filtered water for free? I also received a free drink bottle with their ‘welcome pack,’ but I couldn’t use it. I didn’t like the ‘plastic’ smell. And I wanted to avoid the ‘plastic’ taste that I had experienced in the past. In the interim, I maintained the option of refilling one of those disposable spring water bottles, which I had saved several weeks before. However, I was hesitant to continue with this practice as I had heard you shouldn’t re-use them – that chemicals in the bottle can leach into the water, which obviously would be bad for you.
Whilst checking into the gym a couple of weeks into my membership, there was a new line of drink bottles on display. I was attracted to the shiny silver one – not plastic! (Well the lid is plastic, but the body is metal.) It was only $5, so the smart thing to do was to commit. I had to commit to a new way of life. I started bringing my bottle with me wherever I went, not just to the gym. I fill it at home before a day of shopping and hope that I find a place to re-fill — which is often hard. Some takeaway places like McDonald’s and most coffee shops don’t mind filling your bottle as long as you’re paying for something else. I have my bottle on me in class; I use it throughout the day at work. And I even use it whilst I’m at home.
Both Manly and Bundanoon highlight the environmental debates prevalent in our society today. We are challenged to reduce our environmental impact by changing our consumption habits and in particular, by cutting out plastic. Plastic is a very large part of our material reality, yet we often do not give it a second thought. Plastics are currently used in the value chains for a majority of manufactured products in the world. They have been on the forefront of product innovation and development for more than 150 years. Plastic has found its place in nearly every sphere, field and profession. Our modern technological and social ‘advancements’ would not be as they are, without the help of plastics. Plastics have helped fade class distinctions and raise living standards. Ironically, plastic was first sought out as an ‘environmentally friendly’ solution, it stopped the slaughter of elephants for ivory, it increases manufacturing efficiency, and reduces costs. However in our minds, these positives are outweighed by the negative environmental and health impacts of plastic we have heard about in the media.
Like many of the people I’ve interviewed, I don’t actually think about plastic all that much. Yet on the occasion I do, my thoughts are both negative and positive. Plastic bags, bottles, disposable plates and spoons come to mind… The hundreds of Lego blocks my brothers and I would build up and break down, as children. I am reminded of plastic Coke can rings strangling albatross, penguins and sea turtles. I laugh about the huge collection of plastic bags my mother stores in the garage, which I’m sure dates back to a time even before I was born. And as I have grown up and matured in a world with plastic, I honestly can’t imagine a world without it. I could really identify with Susan Freinkel’s book, Plastic, A Toxic Love Story (2011, Pg 2):
It wasn’t clear to me just how plastic my world had become until I decided to go an entire day without plastic. The absurdity of this experiment became apparent about ten seconds into the appointed morning when I shuffled bleary-eyed into the bathroom: the toilet seat was plastic. I quickly reversed my plan. I would spend the day writing everything I touched that was plastic… Within forty-five minutes I had filled an entire page… I’d never thought of myself as having a particularly plastic-filled life. I live in a house that’s nearly a hundred years old. I like natural fabrics, old furniture, food cooked from scratch. I would have said my home harbours less plastic than the average American’s – mainly for aesthetic reasons, not political ones. Was I kidding myself?
I too have furnished my home and bought my appliances seeking to create a look and feel, in which I generally avoid plastic. However, I can say that it is hard to avoid plastic completely, many objects disguise their use of plastic very well and in some instances I actually prefer the plastic option. When I made the commitment to my re-usable drink bottle, I was definitely aware of the positive environmental impact I was making by consuming fewer plastic bottles, however it was not the only factor in my decision making process. I weighed up usability, practicality, cost and aesthetics. I also asked myself if I could do it – was I able to make room for remembering, maintaining and re-filling a bottle in my life? Disposable bottled water have become a popular convenience, especially as public water fountains have slowly disappeared. Whether we deliberately avoid or are ignorant to the presence of plastic, plastic has become essential in our day-to-day lives. We have come to rely on this material. It has become so ubiquitous that we are often blinded to its omnipresence in our lives. Yet ironically, on the other hand, plastic is a glaring point of contention in environmental debates about bottled water, plastic bags, and waste management – all of which skew our overall perception of plastic.
My respondents identify the place, look, feel and even a sound of plastic. They recognise that objects have a mix of materials, can distinguish between them, and employ a ‘litmus test’ – flicking and tapping to positively confirm the presence of plastic. We further explored where plastic is accepted and rejected – where, when and why. I found it interesting to discover a link between notions of disposability, convenience, and its impact on other products when presented in plastic. We see that plastic is not acceptable in certain forms. Strong resistance or expressions of distaste is evident when my respondents were offered an engagement ring made of plastic. There is discord between the temporality, convenience, ‘cheap-ness’ and ‘fake-ness’ of plastic, with objects of high value and status. We find a disconnect with the value, wealth, status and purity, required to qualify as a bottle of wine, a car or tea-pot.
Freinkel (2011) claims that plastic is modernity’s partner, with which we have a love–hate relationship. Many of my respondents feel the tension between modern conveniences and the ten minutes it takes to drink a takeaway coffee, and the apparent tens of thousands of years it takes to break down its packaging – making it a mathematical, environmental and moral problem. This tension between convenience and culpability is what Freinkel describes when she says we have a love—hate relationship with plastic. We enjoy the conveniences, the advances in technology and the efficiency that plastic presents, but hate the responsibility and environmental consequences that come along with its use. Plastic has shaped a ‘disposability’ and ‘convenience consumerism,’ which has warped into a ‘hyper-consumption’, an unsustainable practice threatening our planet.
Despite the fact that my respondents are often blinded to the amount of plastic that surrounds them, they are quite aware of the environmental costs of plastic. Though they may not articulate this awareness in extreme consumption and disposal practices, my respondents have expressed a latent concern about the environment and social mores surrounding plastic bags, bottles and plastic’s inability to biodegrade. Plastic has been almost demonised in the media, and by proxy we become bad people by using it. This causes a strong sense of guilt in using plastic. Bundanoon’s ban on bottled water, the ‘green bag’ campaign and Manly’s installation of water stations are examples of plastic being caught up in the greater appeal for humanity to consume resources and energy in a more considerate way. Cutting back on the use of plastic bags and not buying bottled water are just two suggestions to do so. My respondents all espouse the need to recycle and the danger of plastic bags in our waterways, but concede that convenience often weighs heavier in their decision making process.
What I discovered in my ethnographic research is that we desire a discharge of the environmental debt, which we accumulate in the use of plastic. My respondents attempt to discharge this debt by re-purposing plastic bags for the lining of rubbish bins, and re-cycling in specialised collection bins. In spite of these practices, remnants of guilt remain – as if my informants feel that what they are doing is not enough. However, my respondents concede that convenience usually outweighs their social conscience, and choose not to do much more. Mathematically and morally things still may not completely cancel out, but we have yet to find a convenient alternative.
Adler, R & Coster, H, 1956; Plastics in the Service of Man, Pelican Books, Baltimore
Appadurai, A 1986; The Social Life of Things, Cambridge University Press, New York
Australian Government Productivity Commission; Chemicals and Plastics Regulation Research Report, Feb 2008
Belk, R W. 1988; Possessions and the Extended Self. The Journal of Consumer Behavior
Dichter, E 2004; The Strategy of Desire, Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick (Originally published in 1960 by Doubleday & Co)
Freinkel, S. 2011; Plastic A Toxic Love Story, The Text Publishing Company, Melbourne
Roderick, L, 26 Sept 2009; Bundanoon Gives up Bottled Water, Illawarra Mercury
Murray, R; 9 July 2009, Bundanoon Bans Bottled Water, Southern Highland News
GoTap – Accessed June 2012
Manly City Council – Accessed June 2012