Disrespecting Pheran

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On December 21, a knot of locals and some outstation tourists donning different designs of pherans gathered at Srinagar’s commercial nerve centre Lal Chowk to celebrate the International Pheran Day. A life-size cut out of the Prime Minister Narendra Modia placed in the area was also draped in pehran. The event received good media coverage and it dominated the news cycle at least for a few hours. The age-old knee-length robe is now worn by the people in different parts of the world as a fashion statement. Kashmiri diaspora, modern technology and travellers played a crucial role in its diffusion across the globe. However, despite the promotion and attention it received , pheran has faced much disrespect and humiliation over the last many years. It is perhaps the world’s only costume that has been scorned and even perceived as “threat” merely for its size and style. Even some scholars have argued that it was introduced to make the people of Kashmir slothful. This argument, however, was billed as silly by geographer and archaeologist Sir Marc Aurel Stein.

Many regular pheran wearers could recount stories of humiliation associated with the donning of this attire, which holds a deep cultural significance for the people of Kashmir.

The cloak, worn usually during the winters to keep the biting cold at bay, has once again hogged attention after an official was placed under suspension for donning while on duty.

The order issued by a Divisional Forest Officer likened the official with a shepherd, a remark perceived as both casteist and classist. It triggered an outrage among the shepherds who took to social media to voice their displeasure. Former Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti and CPI (M) leader Mohammad Yousuf Tarigami also criticised the move.

The fact, however, remains that the attire has nothing to do with a particular socio-economic class or a community. It has been embraced by all and sundry living in the region. The old generation of Kashmiri Pandits, even after their migration from the Valley, continue to wear it.

Although the department later issued a corrigendum, expunging the word “shepherd” and ordering an enquiry, it highlights the insensitivity of senior officials towards culture and identity. This is not the first time that such an order was issued by a senior government official. The controversy surrounding the attire goes back to 2018 when an officer from the Department of Education issued a directive prohibiting its staff from wearing it. However, intense backlash on social media spurred the official to rescind the order. In 2021, a group in Jammu demanded a ban on the attire following the killing of two policemen in Srinagar.

The sartorial preferences, particularly those associated with one’s culture, need to be respected and protected at all levels. Unnecessary meddling in them is bound to undermine individual choices and cultural identity. There is a need to address prejudices associated with traditional attires. It is not only the question of donning pheran, but also a broader issue of cultural identity, dignity and individual choice.


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