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Our ideas of progress and tradition are defined not only by what they entail, but also by how they form. The medium of knowledge is also as important as the content of it. On familiarising ourselves with this idea, it is natural to be conflicted about the values of tradition and progress. How then do we navigate through our past, present and expected future?   

Often when we talk about concepts like modernity or progress, it is as though they emerge from the supposed “West.” Our understanding of these ideas is not only defined by their content but also by the means through which they reach us. “Progress” is what the “western” world or those who go to the west represent. Modern, in a very non-literary sense, is a characteristic assigned to that which is the opposite of tradition. For example, the usage of a matka for water cooling would be traditional, an RO water-purifier with XYZ advanced technologies would be modern. Perhaps here, modern is synonymous with the way forward, and tradition is something that has been left behind, outdated


Looking at this dialogue between two opposing ideas is fairly simple in one-dimension, which is considering the world has agreeing notions on both. That, however, is not the case. In a world of contradictory identities belittling each other, individuals and communities often turn towards traditions to find their roots and understand themselves. It is only natural then, to hold on to ideas that make one feel grounded, ideas that allow them to make sense of their existence. The problem lies in the truth that humans are social animals, and when one is a part of a family or community in which they live, contradictions arise in an individual’s sense of freedom and existence. Especially In a country like India, where family rather than the individual is the smallest unit of society, existence as part of communities is given supreme importance. It is nothing new or surprising to witness this clash of ideas pertaining to traditions and norms between individuals of a family, mainly between generations and genders. 


Speaking of India and looking at it through a postcolonial lens, the history of colonisation has been one of erasure, violence, subjugation, and change. After the colonial period ended, it was normal for people to dwell back onto their roots trying to come to terms with the rupture in their past, hence, leading to an identity crisis. This is done by glorifying Indian traditions and vilifying the western ones. While this may be alright for some sections of the society, it isn’t preferred by others who had been subjected to oppression way before colonialism became a reality. Women, for example, have always been oppressed by the existing customary patriarchy and then by colonial patriarchy which either fetishized or demonised them. Holding on to traditions for them might be suffocating, more so when they are forcefully and involuntarily made to hold on to them. 

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Similar is the case when we look at the African traditions, as we know them through the writings of certain postcolonial African writers. In their writings, there is always an attempt to go back to explain how the African society functioned, glorifying how men and elders of the community had absolute authority, with no regard for the oppressed situations of women. African women writers have significantly pointed out that the African traditions of the past were ignorant of women’s position in society, especially in postcolonial times  where efforts were made by the leaders of the African nations to erase everything that was remotely colonial and go back to the Africa of the pre-colonial times. This paved the way for numerous dictatorships which African nations were subjected to. Looking at the situation closer to home, clearly there is an effort by the authorities to “protect” their women. This has been the case with all the authoritarian regimes that have come to power based on the promises to restore the “traditions” of society. General Zia’s regime in Pakistan laid immense pressure on women to behave according to Islamic traditions. 

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The pattern that these examples wish to point at is that whenever there is a conversation about restoring tradition, it is the women who are asked to follow certain rules. The question then arises how do women and other such sections of the society that face oppression, both in traditional and “progressive” societies, navigate through this oppression and formulate their ideas of what progress looks like. Is moving towards progress equivalent to losing touch with your own history? In order to hold on to your roots does one have to encounter oppression? And the most important question of all- if our idea of progress is defined by the West, how organic is it? Is that not an entailment of ideological oppression too?

Alfisha Sabri is a student pursuing Literature from the University of Delhi.  

Edited by : Samra Ejaz

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of The Jamia Review or its members.

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Written by Alfisha Sabri

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Literature: A Mirror of Life and Legacy