India Part 5: Values, Beauty, and Theft

Things have been quite hectic for me on camp recently. And much of it has to do with different people’s moral perceptions. I as a Muslim, follow – as best as I can – a specific detailed moral code. Non-Muslims on camp (absolutely everyone else) also have their own moral awareness and principles. Sometimes, our moral opinions see eye to eye, and sometimes there are differences to various degrees. We would all think favorably of someone who gave gifts in charity, for example; or think badly of someone who stole a mobile phone. In terms of differences there are also many. Intimate relations before marriage is a big one. For Muslims its not cool, for those with more secular values it is, and is largely celebrated. The extent of freedom of speech, or freedom to offend is another example. But these don’t represent the biggest gap between Muslim values and general secular ones. No. The biggest difference between the Muslim view on some moral matter relating to the day-to-day, and the corresponding secular view has got to be on the issue of backbiting – to talk negatively about someone behind their back. It’s analogous to eating your dead brother’s flesh in the Qur’an and is said to be “worse than adultery” by the Prophet. In the secular world – it is like discussing the whether. It’s hardly even seen as a ‘bad’ thing. Now of course, not everyone thinks it’s OK, and there are many people of all backgrounds who look down on it, but generally speaking, pointing out someone’s faults, or making an unflattering comment about them when they’re not around is a branch of standard conversation. And this little camp here, is proof and testimony to this. Indeed, I was a victim of slander. It was spread around camp that I was trying to seduce different girls, and so instead of only getting annoyed at it, I confronted every individual who I was meant to have ‘sleezed’ over face to face. They didn’t know what I was talking about. It turns out there was a main individual who was a major source of discrediting me – the same girl that doubted my sincerity before. Thankfully, I forced out the truth by voicing the rumor myself to virtually everyone on camp just to expose how ridiculous it was. Everyone then turned to question her, which suffocated her and made her feel guilty. We now actually have a good relationship.

My views on the irrelevance of teaching English to these village kids has changed somewhat. I’ve now come to see that education – irrespective of the subject matter – gives a lot more to these kids than academic content. It gives character and discipline. When I look at some of the uneducated girls or boys in the village there’s something incredibly ‘scatty’ about them. Like, really uncontrolled and all over the place. I’d do a good impression but can’t show you now. But when some of the educated boys come through in their little school uniforms (blue shirts, khaki coloured trousers and bare feet) there’s something so dignified about them. It’s like education has taught them self-control, patience and respect. This realization has helped me teach with more zeal. Teaching has been good and Amida has been making steady progress. I felt like I reached a landmark a few weeks back when, in one of her reading sessions, I wrote a longer word for her to read. She stared at it for a little while and uttered in and Indian accent.. “ye… yesterday?” I was so happy. Especially considering that she couldn’t read the word “am” when we started. Her pronunciation was great too. We’re now going through kids books picking up new vocabulary along the way. It’s been beneficial for me also in the sense that everything she is learning in English, I am memorizing in Hindi, so that I can test her on it. It’s going to be a real shame that it will all end when I come back to England in a couple of weeks. Amida is incredibly graceful about her disability. The other day she was building a house for her brother beside her own. She would move on one arm and one leg back and forth across the sand picking up sand stones, and pile them up to construct walls of a new house – or at least the beginning of it. I felt that I wanted a home there too. She wears a purple Indian style dress now.

Strolls around the village have generally done me good. One day, when Amida was visited by some of the village women for chit chat – rendering my teaching services on hold – I walked to the out skirts of the village and followed a small path into the unmanned natural distance. The area around the village in which we teach is much more vegetated than the camp area. There are trees, bushes and hills, though it is still generally dry. Terrain consisted of uneven rocks, and dry grassy patches which all reflected the intense heat of sunlight. I walked continuously in an unknown direction for a good 30mins till I came across a flock of 150 sheep and goats being led by an 18 year old shepherd named Kareem. I asked if I could join him, and talked with him in what little Hindi I knew. He explained that he would walk with the animals from sunrise to sunset everyday. There was endless, untouched natural existence in every direction as all 152 of us made our way up an inclining hill, which elegantly revealed a picturesque lake in the distance. I stood in the shade of a tree close-by as the animals drank and ate around the lake for a good 20 minutes before being taken to their next destination. I stayed behind alone. The lake water was clear – possibly the first clear water I had seen in India. I prayed the noon prayer, dabbled in the lake, and laid in the sun alone till a next flock of goats and sheep came with their shepherd. Time to go. I tried to head back in the direction that I had come with the shepherd but failed miserably. I really wasn’t around when God was blessing people with a sense of direction. Again, nothing and no one was around and the flocks were way out of site. Just when my steps in any direction were becoming arbitrarily chosen, I heard my name being shouted by some of the street kids from the village. They had come far out to harvest grains for their livestock and were heading back in with their hands full of a certain green plant. I helped them carry their load and was escorted back just in time for the bus’ arrival to take us back to camp.

In other news, my phone was stolen within camp grounds. My £450 Nokia N900 super computer phone – jacked. I was seriously pissed off. It had diaries I had kept, all my images and videos of India, which I was looking forward to show everyone, my poetry, thoughts etc. I would care a lot less if I’d lost or broken it, but just the idea of someone’s hands snatching it from a table in the canteen while it was charging is just low. I felt like I never wanted to own anything valuable ever again. A lot of people tried to help me though. I made friends with a guy here called Aziz who was introduced to me through a local tok tok driver, Musa. The latter saw me as a practicing Muslim and therefore wanted to introduce me to another practicing Muslim, Aziz – his friend. I met Aziz in a mosque here and was invited to his humble abode one day where I met his little son. Aziz is of average height, slim build and probably in his mid-late 20’s. He has a very confident way about him. As he sat me down for something to drink, he went off to change out of his traditional Indian clothing for work. All the houses I’ve visited here are incredibly simple: stone walls, dusty bed, old pots, pans and occasionally an old dusty TV. He came back shortly afterwards dressed as a Police Man. He had been working in the Police for 8 years. This explained his confidence. On one occasion, he took me to an Islamic shrine on the back of his bike and didn’t seem happy with what was going on there. There were Hindu men and women on site who were taking photos in holiday snap-shot fashion. I couldn’t understand a word he was saying but he sounded unhappy and everyone in the shrine went quiet. He was in plain clothes at the time but spoke with authority in a way that made everyone make way for him. He later explained that he was telling them not to treat this place like a picnic spot. When Aziz heard about my phone being stolen on camp, he wanted to do everything in his power to get it back for me. One of his ideas was odd, to say the least. It was communicated through him and the Head Executive on camp: “They read Qur’an, and then thief will appear in nail”, Aziz pointed to his thumb nail. “…But only a child can see it.” I looked at Aziz, who waited for a response from me, then at the Head Executive on camp who was looking at me, nodding his head as if it was a solution that I should have thought of myself. I was obviously quite surprised. I know we believe as Muslims that the Qur’an has medicinal ‘powers’, but this sounds a bit too surreal. Even so, I accepted the offer. The process apparently had to be done by someone who had memorized the entire Qur’an. The only problem was that this person was out of town at the time.

So I continued to be pissed off because of my phone. JJ lightened the situation for me along with Josh, another male volunteer and 3rd of 4 members of our musical group, The Desert Boys. Josh is a good looking, fair skinned, dark haired, music graduate. He plays a variety of instruments very well and has a great sense on humor. I recall him saying on one of our musical/chill-out sessions together that “everything in life is a distraction, from alcohol to orgasms.” He followed it up with saying that he didn’t know what he was being distracted from, but that’s how he feels. I felt no impulse to give him my opinion on this matter and appreciated the point for what it was. So anyway, on the black day that my phone got stolen, JJ and Josh spent about 2 hours deciding and debating over which fictional detectives they would be since they would carry out their own ‘investigation’. They settled on a couple of characters from the US drama, “The Wire”. They then went around camp in the dark shining their torches on the most unthinkable ‘suspects’, blinding them and mockingly interrogated them in a way that really lightened up my mood. JJ would occasionally shine his torch on his own face from below claiming, “Don’t worry, we’re on the case” before disappearing into the darkness. Oddly enough, an actual ‘lead’ was drawn from this comedy sketch which pointed to the Night Watchman’s son: a thirteen year old scruffy-looking farm-boy who wanders in and off camp ground who was seen once with an ipod which he in no way could afford. Aziz wanted to search the entire camp – staff and volunteers individually, but I thought that would be too much. He came in and questioned some staff anyway in plain clothes. Still annoyed at my phone being stolen, I looked at all the staff on camp with suspicion and hardly wanted to say hi to any of them. The next day at school, I wasn’t in the mood to teach. I asked my supervisor if I could leave and go for a walk around the village for a while. On my return from my walk, my attention was caught by a large goat laid down on its side making repetitive screaming noises. It looked like it was in pain. As I circled around it, I noticed what I can only describe as a small bubble coming out from its rear end. I re-assessed the size of its stomach and came to the logical conclusion that it was hungry.. oops, no.. pregnant! The goat was in so much pain that it was rubbing and hitting the side of its head against the sand and stones beneath it. Slowly, and little by little, a see-through jelly bubble was being forced out with a moving creature inside. I’d never seen anything like it. Some street children thought it was funny to try and prod what was coming out with sticks, but I scared them off. Then an old Indian woman in an old dusty purple gown came over, lent down by the goat and delivered the baby with help from one of those street kids. The boy tossed the wet, feeble, mucus-covered lamb in front of the head of its mother as she commenced to constantly and compassionately lick the sticky wet substances off her newborn. The love from mother to child was so strong, necessary, and instinctive, that it made me think of the innate creature-love that our mothers must have for us underneath all the attributes that make us human beings. At this point I realized that all my anger and sadness about my phone was killed at the sight of this birth and the love that followed. It was a lesson much appreciated and well timed.

India has traditional values when it comes to women. This is good in many respects but unfortunately has a negative consequence also. Current Muslim countries are guilty of the same thing. Basically, instead of traditional values on women bringing about noble, dignified, respectable men, it produces pervy natives who think every Westerner is willing to have sex with them. It is so annoying. You’d be sitting in an internet cafe, and the conversation with the dude who runs it would go something like this: (Indian accent) “Ooh so you wolunteer, huh?”, “Yes”. “How many people you are?” “About 48 of us.” By this time I’m wondering if he’ll allow me to add on the internet-time that he’s about to take up with this conversation at the end of my timed-session. He’d continue with great subtlety: “Many girrls in your camp?” At this point my face drops in a sigh as his would brighten with a smile. Then at some point they would use the term “jiggy jiggy” which sounds ridiculous enough when its not said in an Indian accent, and I would want to leave. Why do traditional values on women breed perverts in the modern world? Possibly because the teaching of such values are incomplete in that women are taught to be ‘women’ in a certain way, but men are not taught to be men in any way. Instead they are left morally unchecked with little respect for the opposite sex. It seems to be a general problem in many poor, conservative countries.

I’m learning a lot about myself out here. One of the most solid traits that I seem to be known for, is being dangerous/adventurous. It seems like a new trait, but I guess in London, there’s no real need for the trait to ever surface because everything is so ‘civil’ and controlled. I’m also picking up a few new skills. One being learning to play the guitar. We have so much free time here and two guitars kick about the boys room so it made sense. I’ve learnt to play my two favorite songs of all time: ‘Street Spirit’ by Radiohead and ‘Drugs Don’t Work’ by The Verve, and have not really felt inspired to learn anything else. They’re both quite depressing, which possibly reflects something about me. I’ve also learnt how to ride a motorbike. (This is omitted from Mum’s email- so do not tell her). I took out a scooter first, then a crappy kick-start bike with gears, and now I ride the best electric-start bike on rent. As the Bike Rent Man offered me his best bike he laid down a helmet for the first time and offered me to take it. In my head there was a toss between ‘safety’ or ‘fun’. I chose the latter, but I am careful. Have I mentioned the cows that are EVERYWHERE in India? Like literally in the markets on the roads, pavements – its like they own the place and life just goes on around them. It seems like some kind of Cow Paradise here. I wonder if the cows over the border in Pakistan have heard and are trying to make a break for it. I’ve also revisited that wind turbine on a few occasions and have scaled its height and even stood on its head. It is amazing. I lay down on its small platform and saw so many constantly moving stars in the sky and thought I was tripping out. It’s the only place out here where you are not bothered by people, flies or mosquitoes since none of them will travel that high.

Anyway, sorry for the delay, will try and update again sooner.

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The Dogma of Advertising & Consumerism: What freedom are we calling for? P.4/5

As the call for freedom in the Middle-East cements itself into Western culture, some of us continue to question the extent to which a culture so consumed in consumerism is able to make such a call. This is considered in light of major and more nuanced social and psychological problems that arise from such ‘freedoms.’ In what follows I wish to highlight a few of these disturbances, which are often overlooked.

It’s not clear how many advertisements we are exposed to every day. Taking into account the average hours of TV viewing, radio listening, newspapers/magazine reading, internet surfing, public street and transport use; common estimates range from around 250 per day on the conservative side, to 3000 and above. Regardless of which is more accurate, there’s no doubt that being exposed to adverts is an extremely significantly common and almost necessary part of human experience in the modern world.

As well as showing us products, adverts also present us with values, ideals and social standards. They draw upon major personal themes such as beauty, happiness, love, companionship, sex, and self-image, in a positive but unrealistic light to promote their product. As a consequence, these adverts are potentially shaping us towards mental states, which are in fact, quite inhibiting, insecure, and unhealthy.

A common psychological principle used by advertisers is that repetition constitutes mental conditioning. Studies show that the more something is repeated to you, the more you will believe it. So whether it’s “I’m lovin’ it”, “Have a break, have a `Kit-Kat”, or “Washing machines live longer with Calgon”, the mere repetition of these messages is able to motivate potential buyers and construct certain ideas in their minds with added cognitive and emotional associations.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with such methods. Psychotherapy typically uses the brain’s ability to re-condition its associations to heal people and make their lives more fulfilling. This, however, is done with both consent and good clinical intention. Advertising is a different story altogether. A company’s main purpose is to sell a product and make money, even if that means falsely creating insecurities in people and offering their product as a solution.

The link between psychology and consumerism was expanded on in the early 20th century, when Sigmund Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, used Freud’s ideas regarding primitive hidden sexual and aggressive forces to show corporations how to link purchasable products to unconscious desires. As a result, the insatiable fantasy and anticipation of buying a product became more pleasurable than actually possessing it. This would ensure that people would keep buying irrationally, giving rise to a consumer culture.

Bernays, who worked closely with numerous US presidents and large corporations, was one of the first to use psychological methods such as celebrity association, product marketing in films, and to link products to male or female power. In his book Propaganda (later Public Relations) he causally explains how, in many instances throughout our daily lives, “we imagine ourselves free agents”, but are “ruled by dictators exercising great power”. “A man buying a suit of clothes” he explains, “imagines that he is choosing, according to his taste and his personality, the kind of garment which he prefers. In reality, he may be obeying the orders of an anonymous gentleman tailor in London.” Bernays then explains how the gentleman tailor in London is part of a wider network utilising the psychological methods listed above. Thus, even our consumer choices are largely an illusion of freedom, as clarified by the official “Father of Public Relations” himself.

The values being presented to a nation through major advertising come in all shapes and sizes. Constant images of happy, smiling, healthy people with buyable products both insists on a materialistic existence, and promotes the idea that if you want fulfilment, you need to buy things. As a result, our worth is valued more and more by what we own as opposed to what we do, or who we are. Self-gratification is also excessively promoted by the advertising culture, encouraging a focus on our own immediate desires as opposed to our relations with others. Whenever displayed, family and friendship ties are seen as outlets for gift giving, while intimate and traditional ‘special occasions’ have been mutilated into wholesale consumer events. Not much is offered for the integrity of the self. Morally reflective messages are usually only found in charity ads, which, although might be sincere, share the principal goal of encouraging some partition with your finances. Thus, your worth still depends on what you can spend.

Sexualization and Body Dissatisfaction

An increasingly concerning issue regarding images in advertising is the consistent connection between women, sex, desire, beauty, thinness, and happiness. This collection of associations is one of the most oft-repeated and overtly used advertising methods that modern society is exposed to multiple times a day. It’s now so commonly used that we hardly even notice it.

The American Psychological Association defines ‘sexualization’ as: “when a person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics.” Sexual objectification shares a similar definition, and is theoretically accentuated in a consumer-advertising context, where, not only is the individual sexually objectified in the way the body is presented, but also in the fact that they are associated with a purchasable object. Moreover, studies have confirmed that images which sexually objectify women have led to them being seen as “less human”, lacking “mind” and morality, and has caused men to grow indifferent to women’s experience of pain.

The phenomenon of ‘body dissatisfaction’ is defined as the perceived difference between one’s own body image and the ideal body image established and maintained by commercial media. Countless psychological studies show that this ‘dissatisfaction’ is a precursor to both eating disorders and psychological disorders such as depression, low self-esteem, anxiety, shame, and even self-disgust. What permanently cements these disorders into Western culture is that the gap between the reality and the ideal can never actually be closed since the beauty standard set by popular culture is impossible to attain. It has been argued that the female body-type typically portrayed in adverts is genetically true to some 5% of the female population, while photoshopped images and the portrayal of eternal youth further distances the ideal into an ever-higher fantasy. Insecurities are moreover ignited by evidence showing that men who are exposed to “media-perfect” beautiful women tend to view real life average females as significantly less attractive. This would theoretically include their own partners.

Although men are not exempt from an increased sexualisation in advertising, it is still nowhere near as prevalent as the sexualisation of women. Moreover, due to both the dissimilar perceived ideals and physiological differences of each gender, it is highly unlikely that men will ever be affected in the same way, despite the rise of the metrosexual man. A longitudinal study shows that when girls reach puberty, natural increase in body mass at this age distances them from the thin ideal, significantly increasing the chance of psychological and eating disorders. Boys, on the other hand, tend to grow closer to their bulkier ideal at puberty and thus show no increase in body dissatisfaction during adolescence. The gender bias is further confirmed with national stats from the UK and US showing that around 90% of cosmetic procedures are carried out on women, with breast implants being the most common, and vaginal modification being one of the fastest growing.

Most critical to the concept of freedom is how the beauty standard is imposed upon children, especially young girls. As one psychologist puts it: “the current aesthetic model for women, characterised by skinniness, is internalised early on, before the age of 10, and remains throughout adolescence.” Since children are below the age of responsible choice, freedom is entirely undercut, directing them to a series of potentially life long social and personal disorders and harms. Although a causal link has not been confirmed, this may well contribute towards explaining the belief that women are at least twice as likely to suffer from depression than men.

Of course, for the majority of major towns and cities in the Middle East, the caution is too late. The presence of multi-national corporations and the electronic mediums through which they advertise, have long been a part of Arab urban culture. “Thin and sexy” images of women in public are indeed rising, and Arab manufactures are quick to create equivalent products, which are no doubt having the same effects on their own children as they are on children in the West (Fulla is just as abnormally thin as Barbie). But in many cases, it’s not to the same degree. Strict values of individualism haven’t completely taken over the culture in the Middle East and it’s fair to say that some inhabited areas are completely untouched by commercialism. Traditional values of selfless hospitality, genuine respect for elders, and community spirit, still strongly subsist in non-consumerist communities scattered throughout non-Western lands. The spreading of modern Western values of freedom – of which consumer choice and abundant advertising are integral parts – tends to inverse these values producing opposite social effects.

In conclusion, meaning is derived from our associations. And advertisers are proving incredibly successful at shaping these associations for the sake of commercial and financial interests. While they may not always anticipate the negative effects, there’s more than enough evidence to suggest that the spread of consumer culture, along with its accompanying adverts, promotes far more social problems and insecurities than it does freedoms.