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(Khaleej Times dated 27 March, 2023)

It might sound like ‘unsophisticated’ taste, but, for me, the Ukay-Ukay stores that are tucked in the markets of Dubai hold great interest. To the uninitiated, these are tiny outlets that overflow with secondhand stuff —mostly garments brought from various parts of the world, and sold at throwaway prices.

The word ‘secondhand’ might evoke both suspicion and loathing in high-end customers, but stores like Ukay-Ukay are the genesis of what is now an evolving trend: upcycled fashion. Having been fed with lessons of recycle, reuse, reduce for eons now, and loaded with sustainability sermons that at times sound like platitudes, I have found the concept of reselling used clothes only to be an extension of the flea market where everything that can be used again is sold.

Upcycling is where new fashion is recreated by repurposing textiles and clothing, not by breaking them down into components and making a new product from scratch but by redesigning existing material into newer styles. It gives the concept of putting old things back into purpose a whole new meaning, if one ignores the concerns of taking hand-me-downs and worn material that once belonged to someone else.

In the long parleys we have had on ‘environmental sustainability’ as the sole course of action we could take to make future life on earth possible, we have tended to gloss over little things that matter. We have stared at the big picture for far too long, often without a clear goal plan.

To laymen, the technical terms that define sustainability mean little; what will inspire them to take legitimate action are initiatives that are recognisable in their everyday scheme of things. Speak of carbon management, green energy, energy efficiency, circular economy, conservation, and watch them raise a brow, nod and walk away in partial or no understanding of how grave the crisis we are currently going through is. They need to be spoken to in a language that they can translate into positive action, which is how we can stall the degeneration of our planet. It is in this context that I find the concept of upcycled fashion intriguing and positively implementable.

Fashion brands across the world have now adopted upcycling in a major way and are creating luxury couture from existing materials. And believe it or not, Gen Z is becoming increasingly conscious and responsible in their fashion choices and is giving sustainability a leg up by opting for outfits that have been made from so-called trash.

Refurbished fashion might sound like trivial theory but scratch the surface and one will know that the amount of textile that goes into landfills are as humongous as plastic, and most fabrics contain non-biodegradable elements like polyester, acrylic, elastane and PVC which will choke the earth for hundreds of years. As common citizens, dumping fabric might be the biggest disservice (after indiscriminate plastic use) we might be doing to our planet and to our future generations.

That our clothes can denude the earth is a thought that makes me want to take the upcycling initiatives around the world seriously. Perhaps it is time for us to chuck fast fashion where we discard clothes we consider out of vogue and adopt more accountable ways of lending our wardrobe for future use in some part of the world. It is estimated that upcycling could reduce the environmental impact of the fashion industry by up to 30 per cent.

It is an initiative that not just big brands and fashion houses alone can assume; it is a pledge that we must take in our individual capacities to make sure that the clothes we no longer wear go to a place where they will be revived in a new form.

It is not going to be easy to establish a system and machinery that will smoothly transfer all unwanted clothing into the upcycle chain. It is a process that will require earnest investment and planning by those who see the scope in it. It warrants a commitment from us to not buy more than what we need, and to not dump that which we do not require in recycling bins where they will get mutilated and be rendered beyond use.

The first step we could take with our limited capacities would be to accept that secondhand clothing is not lowbrow; and to create an ecosystem where pre-owned items could be exchanged, handed down or bought without shame. Local designers and tailoring houses could start soliciting old but quality clothes and fashioning new ensembles out of them.

For starters, I am considering pulling out a huge stack of new, unused dupattas, shawls and stoles and looking for ways to upcycle them. Given our entrenched biases, it won’t be easy to find takers, but I am going to have a crack at some rehashed regalia next.

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(Column in Khaleej Times dated 9 March, 2023)

It was Day 2 for me as a visitor at an international photography exhibition in Sharjah, and I was lingering in a young African photographer’s booth, marvelling at the depth of human storytelling in his pictures. As I began to converse with the lensman, an Emirati woman joined us and began to speak eloquently about photography and her desire to tour Africa. Turned out that she was Suaad Al Suwaidi, the first female Emirati wildlife photographer with an elaborate body of works behind her.

Given the fact that the number of women who take up wildlife photography are fewer in comparison to men, I was amazed and impressed that a woman in a hijab and abaya could be out in the wild, freely hunting for photo-ops of creatures and creating a niche for herself in the profession. I realised what a long-distance women, especially those in this region, have come in breaking the time-worn constructs about female prowess and how they are creating new templates for women in the workplace.

Looking around, I am acutely aware of the fact that a lot has changed from the time I wrote my first essay about women’s liberation way back in 1989. At that time, it was a movement in its infancy, which gained momentum with the growth of technology and media, and now stands at a point where women fearlessly lead power wars, capture citadels and topple the apple cart of male domination across occupational domains.

Yet, a couple of questions nag me every time I see a woman of content and courage making the headlines for her professional accomplishments. Have women really crossed the threshold and entered the other side of history? Is this what women really want: these larger-than-life contours to fit into and feel liberated?

I live in the UAE, which is highly reputed for women’s safety and a lot of importance is placed on upholding the dignity of women in the public space. But often, I wonder how many women in the world can proudly claim that her life and honour are safe on the streets and in the confines of home. In so many societies women are still considered infra dig and incapable. In so many countries are women subordinate to men, in some cases even subjected to outright slavery and dishonour!

While we have been busy celebrating the accomplishments of women in the mainstream arenas, millions of women continue to suffer atrocities that defy common justice. From being trafficked to being sexually abused within marriages, from being beaten in the name of spousal privilege to being denied basic rights — there are huge pockets in the world that harbour female stories of misery and manipulation. For every tale of redemption and victory that we gloat over, there are a dozen sob stories that remain unspoken. Somewhere in between the triumph of a few in setting glorious examples and the abject failure of many to break the shackles is the reality of women today. Aren’t we putting too much spotlight on the victories (hard-won doubtless)? Isn’t the flipside getting shrouded by the shadows they create?

We don’t need statistics from the UN or other stock-taking agencies to tell us the real story behind our open elation, although the numbers can ratify assumptions of continued assault on women’s virtues. We have had enough extolling, and it is time for us to ask the right questions. Are we women being allowed to live our lives without fear of being discarded, disregarded, and despised? Are we women equally given the freedom to exercise our choices about not just what will go into the cooking pot today, but also with regard to her own definition of a happy life? Do we enjoy the freedom to say ‘no’ when we want to and still gain the respect and love of the man we declined?

Until we have a satisfactory answer to the above questions, we cannot claim to be either free or equal to the rest of the world. Equality is not about being able to earn as much as men, or claiming spots in areas that were once male bastions. It is about a woman having the right to live happily and in peace, and to be given the space to build and realise her dreams without being castigated or questioned.

There is no doubt that women have ripped many a fence and walked boldly into the wilderness, but those are still in the minority. Until every woman in the world can openly proclaim that she has lived a life that she has always dreamed of, that she has not faced coercion or subjugation, that she has viewed the world through her own eyes and not through the prism of prejudice, that she does not feel stereotyped, that her body, mind and spirit aren’t beholden to anybody, the celebration of Women’s Day will be a tad short of achieving its ultimate purpose.

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(Opinion column in Khaleej TImes daed 21 February, 2023)

‘What you do in the next few weeks will decide how successful you are in life. There is no scope for failure,’ a teacher reportedly said, addressing her class about the forthcoming boards exams.

It is hard to say if the statement sounds ominous, advisory or downright bullying, but a classroom of sixteen-year-olds sat in stilled silence, not disregarding the gravity of what they had just heard but fretting inwardly that their teacher had put them on an ultimatum. Buck up or back out.

It is that time of the year when lakhs of highschoolers feel flogged by the pressure of board exams. Year after year, students travel this rocky road, saddled with expectations of parents, fears of their own and steamrollering by teachers. And every year, good students pass out, with varying degrees of merit, find their way in life and make inroads into their career - some with relative ease, the others with extra labour. Yet, they all make it in the end. They all find their niches. So, what was the teacher’s ultimatum all about? Why is there so much panting over what is probably the first major instance of self-assessment the children are putting themselves through?

Every year, around this time, I dwell in uneasy exam thoughts on behalf of millions of students who are busy tying up the final knots to take what they have been made to believe is a ‘make or break’ test in their life. It is with great sympathy that I assess the children’s state, neither undermining the value of education nor belittling the importance of exams in their lives. But it rankles me that children are made to believe that these board exams will be a barometer of their intelligence, self-worth and social growth, and above all, an indication of how well or ill they do in their lives in terms of wealth generation, social status and happy living.

To be fair, parents have toned down their voices in the past few years after debates over children’s mental health gained primacy and instances of teenage depression peaked following exam and admission stress. Despite significant decrease in the decibel levels, undercurrents of fear and foreboding continue to plague students, thanks to covert references to the board exams being a determining factor that builds careers. Students are still keyed up to breaking points and we, as parents, teachers and guardians, need to find definitive ways to relieve them of the pressure.

A little stress will always work as a motivation; a spur in times of looming lethargy, but what I see among many students, even those who have supportive parents, is a mindset that does not allow them to grow into their best versions. It is here that we adults must step in and be a beacon to them, guiding them through their crucial junctures, not by placing excessive importance on performance but by giving them insights into what is good education and how it is in the learning that the merit lies.

We are all eager for our children to build impeccable futures, but as people who have walked many miles crossing puddles and pitfalls of every conceivable kind, we also know that life can be quirky, delivering loose balls at times, and googlies at the others. To make our children cognizant of this eccentric nature of life and to teach them ways to cope when things go awry is what we must focus on, even when they are burning the midnight oil for an exam that several years down the lane will only be a statistic that no one will remember.

Like many other tests in life, the board exams are just one of those check posts in life that we need to pass through. They allow our children to enter the next phase of their lives and explore newer things. It does not determine their prospects in the larger scheme of things, nor stall their progress even if they fall short for some unpredictable reason. It is a pitstop in their journey to wherever they want to go based on their interest and inclination, and our duty is to give them the confidence they need to take bold decisions and action.

As parents, we have no right to imply that their failure will bring us social shame; that their percentiles determine our worth as successful parents. We have no license to terrrorise them into becoming geeks with Google prospects. As teachers, we must not let their stress and fear drive our KPI indices and appraisals. If there is anything we can do for them in these testing times, it is to reassure them that no matter what numbers they receive, life will always find them ways to thrive if they are willing to strive without giving up or going astray.

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