I am currently at the West-Asia North Africa (WANA) Forum in Amman Jordan that is sponsored by the Nippon Foundation on the subject of Social Identity and the Regional Common. I spoke on the topic of "Capitalizing on Contested Identities in this Innovation and Digital Age" in the morning session on a panel that was comprised of some fascinating people listed below and Chaired by the Royal Highness El Hassan bin Talal of Jordan and Chairman of the WANA Forum.
- Fredrick Chien, Chairman of the Cathay Charity Foundation, Taiwan
- Mona Makram-Ebeid, Member of the Advisory Board to the Supreme Council of Armed Forces, Egypt
- Munira Shahidi, Chair of the Shahidi International Foundation for Culture, Tajikistan
- Omar Christidis, Founder of ArabNet, Lebanon
- Munir Fasheh, Founder of The Arab Education Forum, Palestine
All these panelists talked about aspects relating to how this region could experience transition and the role of identity in this process. Below are some of my thoughts that shaped my speech on this topic where I extrapolated on the harnessing of contested identities for novel business opportunities in these emerging markets
A professor I met a few years ago at a conference in India came to visit me in the Netherlands as she had just moved to Europe. She and I were having dinner when of course I asked her what prompted her to move. She shared the news that she married a man who was doing his postdoctorate research at a cancer lab that was situated in Leuven, Belgium. Of course I asked how they met. She went onto explaining that her parents did the work for her. They went online the popular matrimonial online site called shadi.com and looked for a man for her. But what guided their search? Well, apparently caste was of most importance. They looked for a man who was of the same caste as hers, Brahmin, the priestly upper caste and from Mangalore in the South of India. They also consulted the astrology charts. And of course, he was to be of good financial standing and have potential for earning. He fit the criteria. They then contacted him and expressed interest. He responded positively. She said things have changed though these days. ‘It’s rather modern you know,’ she said. She did not right away meet him like in the traditional arranged marriage classic scenarios where parents meet and approve or disapprove of the match. She instead started IMing him and skyping before they both decided that the families should meet. After a few months of digital romancing, they were happy to proceed to the next level. He flew down and the girls parents and her went to their house to make this formal. Shortly after, came marriage.
Now this seems to be an interesting case of multiple and contested identities, one may argue. To start with, there is a strong identity of caste, in this case the upper caste Brahmin or priestly caste. There has been strong belief particularly in the West that with modernization, education and globalization, these particularities and local practices will fade away. However, its far from gone. In fact, a few years ago, the digital boom in India not only created the typical outsourcing hubs but also e-entrepreneurship to satisfy social needs such as this which is highly lucrative. From one website a few years ago, this practice has burgeoned into several competing matrimonial websites such as Jeevansathi.com, 123Matrimonials.com, to IndianRishtey.com.
And if we are to open a newspaper in India, you would see two to three full pages on horoscopes and astrology related matters. Then there is the regional identity as they both are Mangalorean and share the same dietary and linguistic and other social preferences. The tightening of community along regional lines has become more paramount in this fast changing world. Migration patterns and diaspora communities reflect this need to serve as a social glue. Localizing ones identity is becoming more of a pathway into tight and intimate communities to strengthen their social capital. And of course there is the upper class and well educated identity that comes with its privilege and international access and exposure as we can see here in this case where she is now part of this global diaspora. So from being deeply local to being highly international oriented, one can well rest a case that this is indeed a case of multiple identities.
Now why would this be a case of contested identities? Did this professor demonstrate a struggle with these multiple identities? Did she express deep anguish with such different roles of being educated, international oriented and being traditional by subscribing to the arranged marriage through caste and astrology? There is belief that as education increases, so will our courage to dispel traditional practices that have anchored us or chained us perhaps. There is belief that traditional practices evoked traditional identities which fragments us as communities, societies and nations and in this global era, it is paramount to move forward and not be entrenched in the old ways of belief and ritual. It seems that identity has found its way somehow on the evolutionary chart where the end point is something of ‘beige,’ where the starting point seems to be more of a spectacle of color.
Just to clear matters up, the professor was by no means troubled by these multiple identities. In fact, it seemed rather natural to her and social media was a mere facilitator of this seamless way of being. It appeared to be more content than contest in nature. Yet, others may perceive this as deep contradiction which brings me to another point. Identity is not something which is intrinsic and innate but that which is perceived by oneself and others. So why should it matter if someone else perceives this as a contested identity? It would theoretically not matter at all. However, practically, based on the position of the group perceiving it, it would matter a great deal or be of complete inconsequence. For those who have the power, be it governments, business groups, social groups of higher standing, policy makers, consumers, and the like, these issues can reach center stage.
While undoubtedly the hierarchy of identities have had serious political, social and cultural ramifications, I focus on the side that has often been overlooked, its potential for innovation. Take business for example. Why wasn’t match.com , a company with 20 million members in 25 different countries, the platform that initiated shadi.com or other such Indian matrimonial sites and instead left a space for more home brewed Indian companies to enter the fray? That brings me to the third point which is that multiple identities can be seen as problematic say for documentation purposes, for surveys, for politics and interest groups, for sharing of resources and the like or can be seen as an opportunity. Stereotypes can offend undoubtedly but can also provide the opportunity to compete with company giants with narrowed worldviews. In fact, local knowledge of caste and astrology and other categories that matter to the Indian demographic has been harnessed by local entrepreneurs. They have seen that in this information age, it’s not just about how much information is accessed but rather how relevant is this information to their target group that gives them a competitive edge. How information is indexed, searched for, organized and connected is very much a big business and essential if local communities are to stay competitive in this global and innovation era. So basically, diversity of identities, if harnessed and catered to rather than being looked at as mainly problematic can open new avenues and opportunities for business practice. Instead of balancing the traditional with the modern, we need to recognize that diversity is opportunity, not a hindrance.