In April last year Sumaya Teli, a British Kashmiri now living in the USA, wrote a blog piece about Pheran. It was weeks after she attended Kashmiri Gathering of North America (KGNA), which is one of the biggest annual gathering of Kashmiris in West. As the discussion during the gathered veered from politics to curbs to need to traditions, pheran also cropped up in discussion as women talked about ethnic dresses. People accounted numerous benefits of the traditional dress.
Sumaya, who is founder and writer at mamanushka.com, a popular lifestyle blog rooted in experiences of being a western global Muslim, Woman and Mother, got an idea for her next feature.
"When I attended my first KGNA conference last year in Philadelphia I wanted to show my readers the beautiful pherans I encountered there – just because pherans are a huge part of my life – and our blog is a reflection of our own experiences put out in a beautiful way. This was a more interesting way to introduce my favourite item of clothing to our readers and i wrote a 'street style' post on the pherans that some people were wearing at the conference," said Summaya from Boston. "The response was huge. Till this day, that post is still one of the most popular and most read."
The article introduced Pheran as an exotic piece of garment that is unique to Kashmir. Right from its history, design, embroidery, gender specificity and other aspects, the article described pherans completely together with photographs of pheran wielding women from Kashmir and USA.
This year KGNA decided to hold a fashion show and organizers Naira Tariq and Rahat Sheikh, approached Summaya to source pherans for it. Next came tie-up with designers of Tul Palav in Kashmir and gorgeous velvet pherans with Tilla work reached them in due time.
The fashion show was a showstopper as both young old wore them with confidence on the ramp.
Iqra Ahmed, designer of Tull Palav in return for her gorgeous pherans, asked Summaya to photograph them for her. "Apart from the fact that the mere thought of photographing pherans fills me with more excitement than I ought to admit, I knew everybody would love to see them too! So of course I agreed," she says. "I already had my friend Sabra down as the perfect model and we gathered a couple more fellow pheran affectionados who would be up for taking a few photos."
Photo shoot has her own idea and they stole time from KGNA meet to hit the beach along the Pacific.
"We donned pherans on top of what we were already wearing. This is actually one of the best things about a pheran – the fact that they are supposed to go over your comfy outfit and are a one size fits all," she said.
Summaya styled each pheran with traditional Kashmiri jewellery and in one case wrapped shawl on a models head in what is nowadays considered a very old fashioned style – mostly seen on more 'mature' women in Kashmir and even then mostly in villages. Summaya thinks that it is a lovely and unique way of tying the hijab. With different combination the exotic dressed young Kashmiri women hit the beach.
Rahat Sheikh, a friend of Summaya lent her distinctively lovely necklace from her personal collection and together with pherans, the combination looked brilliant.
Despite all of them being on a super-tight schedule, taking a few photos turned into a full on outdoor photoshoot in Long Beach Los Angeles!
The models included Sabra Bhat, a Management consultant & Digital health strategist, Maysa Bhat a third-year Dental student, Faiqa Anbreen an Aerospace Engineer and Zairah Sahaf a Data Scientist currently working on cutting-edge AI technology.
In one of the photos, a pure silver headpiece tied on scarf is actually necklace. "It was sourced by a jeweller from Sopore from amongst the Gujjar craftspeople. This nomadic tribe of Kashmir are the only ones who mostly make these now. The necklace is part of a set with the the bunches of hooped earrings worn here by Zairah (in green) underneath her skull-cap type hat ( also designed by Tul Palav -after a traditional topi worn by women in Kashmir called kasaabe' )," explains Summaya.
Regarding the selection of beach for the photo shoot, Summaya said, "my vision was Pherans and the Sea. Kashmir has no beaches of it's own, since it is a Valley surrounded by the Himalayan mountains so I was looking forward to the incongruity of the 'look'. Don't you think the photos ended up coming through as wonderfully freeing in spirit?"
The models were equally ecstatic. "Wearing Pheran on a Pacific beach gives me a feeling of debunking all those negative notions that I have heard getting associated with it while growing up in Kashmir. Wearing pheran outside Kashmir on the foreign lands is giving it a recognition, " said Faiqa a rocket scientist in the making currently doing a PhD in engineering and computational mathematics. "From another perspective, wearing pheran on beach is representing how despite the occupation – it is not stopping Kashmiris from achieving big."
The shoot also generated interest among passerby. A professional photographer working with models spotted the shoot and went on to give tips to the Kashmiri ladies for striking right pose. It was interesting for Americans to see women in exotic clothing on the beach and some complimented them by calling them Persian Princesses.
"A passerby called us 'Persian princesses and even when we corrected them to 'no- we are Kashmiri – they replied 'ah Kashmerian.' This is what gave me the hook for my post. It just came to me 'we need to take kashmiri back,'" said Summaya. "I knew this idea of taking back your identity from forces that are trying to eradicate you would find resonance in many be they Kashmiri or non-Kashmiri – but as I was writing this post I felt compelled to dedicate it, as I say in the post to the kool kashur kooris – the women of Kashmir – from the saints and poetesses of past, the multi-faceted- talented creatives of today and to all the women of Kashmir, who on enduring pain and loss still emerge graceful, strong and true torch bearers for their cause.'
Summaya is of the opinion that Kashmiri has to aggressively guard their language, cultlture and traditions as it will keep Kashmir alive under all circumstances.
"For someone in LA or London or Lahore to look at this ensemble and say 'Kashmiri' (not kashmirian or Cashmere? 'like the wool?') I want Kashmiris who have dismissed the pheran as old fashioned, to see themselves in this and recognise the precious garment they have folded away in their mother's and grandmother's trunks," writes Summaya.
During the last decade the Kashmiris settled in various parts of the world, particularly in USA have managed to gather together at a platform.
KGNA has been at the forefront of this mission. As they say a Kashmiri is always a Kashmiri and no matter where he goes, he can't be immune to happenings in Kashmir.
Though there are lot of problems, but Summaya feels hope remains evident in the next generation. She sees any kind of creativity as assertion of being a Kashmiri. "With its language, culture and national integrity under threat, it is heartening to see the next generation of Kashmiris step up and take on the challenge in ways they know how. These young people have worked through financial losses caused by frequent internet bans across the region due to political unrest. They keep working through physically and emotionally draining situations to bring Kashmir to the world. Not every warrior carries a sword. Some carry a pen, a needle, a paintbrush, a camera, an idea," she opines.
This year the programme during KGNA meet had multiple themes like Is Independence possible for Kashmir, Is it important to marry within the community and Has the Kashmiri American Community done enough?
"The wazwan, people speaking Kashmiri language and donning Kashmiri attires, made me feel I was in Kashmir. I walked away with beautiful memories and great friendships, smiles Faiqa, who attended for the first time in the annual meet.
There were emotional scenes too, as almost every eye was moist when Nahida Nazir, a Kashmiri doctor in Los Angeles, enacted in the play 'Bea Chu Shahid – I am the Witness.'
"You had to have been there – I can't really describe the play and do justice to it but what I can say is that, that night we all wept together. Everyone in that audience. I felt like that was something that bonded us even closer together as a big family.
But like much of the paradoxical reality of Kashmir, there was laughter and beauty and lights and festivities as well as this sobering piece of art, that touched us all," said Summaya.
This year's KGNA meet, which was attended by over 500 Kashmiris, emphasised on the importance of preserving the Kashmiri language. It revolved around the saying, "if you have to kill a nation take away their language, culture will follow, so will the country."