Of “Cowfies,” Convention, and Consumption

October 2014: We seem to have hit a new low in Bangladesh’s online social media narrative in this past week, one which defies all hitherto construed contours of conventionality.

I’m talking about the “cowfie” that has descended on this Eid-ul-Adha in Bangladesh, a trend that I am hoping will be as fleeting as the horrendous vuvuzelas in South Africa during the 2010 World Cup.

The first vestige of selfies gone wild was revealed to me when I opened up Facebook in the two days leading up to Eid. I expected the usual mass greetings that we, as imagined online communities, are wont to bequeath to all we know.

These days, for my mostly 30 something friends, social media seems to involve baby updates, travel excursions, house purchases, restaurant reviews and check-ins, news commentaries, and occasionally inspirational quotes – and sometimes selfies taken with all the above.

While millions around the world have just completed the holiest Muslim yearly pilgrimage, the Hajj, which requires them to walk for miles in the parched Arabian sun, one of Bangladesh’s more prominent companies, seemed to have hit upon a goldmine of social media attention, by inventing what the corporation’s Facebook site calls a “cowfie,” that has been encouraging Bangladeshis to submit photographs to earn a smartphone.

The picture in my newsfeed was of a bull with great tusks, and a group of boys posing in front of it as they clicked their photo next to it. The photograph had approximately 10,000 likes in this seemingly successful trendsetting campaign, which is a competition that the company has started.

Curious and shocked, I searched through the hashtag “cowfie.” In seconds, a beheaded cow with its tongue sticking out, and other such disturbingly graphic images revealed themselves.

After 10 photographs, I realised there was one overarching factor in all the photographs I encountered: usually people were plastered next to worn out cows that looked as though they were about to keel over. I was disgusted with myself for even investigating the matter, and told myself that I had been asking for it. But the truth was, I had not.

The company’s paid advertisements had delivered the competition to my computer window, and Facebook had decided I was somehow the demographic this would appeal to. I am not sure how it drew this conclusion, but then again, Facebook tried to suggest that my petite size zero self go on a diet, and constantly eggs me to rate cities – as though cities are like restaurants, definable by a tourist, traveller or inhabitant’s sole encounter with it, as profound as these encounters
may be.

Now the reality of the “cowfie” has been thrust upon me, I am concerned about the uncomfortable parallels you can draw with how it speaks of exponentially increased over-sharing online that I have previously not encountered in my 9 years of using Facebook.

It needs some examination in the context of the convention of the selfie culture we have all succumbed to. Doing thus gives us a context of the normalised actions connected with a word that is uniquely popular, but which really must have some limits in its expression.

Cows, consumption, methane

With the “cowfie,” death has finally crossed one of the last remaining barriers of human sensitivity. What used to be a very private experience of sacrificing animals in the name of religion, has reached new contours of publicity, and once again highlights how bedraggled animals take centre stage, in a global culture that has found new and unchartered expressions of celebrating the auspicious and pious Islamic religious holiday, known as the bigger of the two Eid festivals.

In my youth, of the two Eids, this Eid, known as Eid-ul-Adha, was the more sobering holiday. In this context, isn’t the commercialisation and veneration of consumption that underlies this competition, one that can then be considered undignified and bestial?

While it is not up to me to say who should afford a cow and who shouldn’t, Quranic scriptures speak at length about showing kindness to animals, and the second chapter of the Quran, Al Baqara, is even named after the cow.

Nowhere in the Muslim doctrines or the hadith does Islam insist on sacrificing in the name` of God, unless those performing the sacrifice can provide a dignified death to the animal. By extension, what is a dignified death without a dignified life of being able to eat well in one’s life? Consider the ultimate ramifications of the “cowfie” competition – we are exchanging a photo of an animal who will die in exchange for a mobile phone.

How does taking a “cowfie” with bedraggled animals relate to giving animals respect and dignity with their death that is propagated hence through Islam? It does not. It speaks of a culture where death and violence is so normalised that you wonder why you don’t even flinch at television reports of death and violence.

It’s the remnants, some 50 years after cable television delivered the Vietnam War as nightly coverage on American television, of a ritualised and growing global culture of consuming violence, and engaging with it in exponentially far reaching ways, allowing our images and news to let us consume death and become immune to it.

I’m a beef lover, and I’m not saying that you should be out of touch with where you get your food and the constant cycle of life and death that underlies our food consumption, but you should be able to choose whether ritualised violence is forced upon you.

It shouldn’t be an option that you have to deliberately “unlike” and “unsubscribe” to (because “disliking” of course, is too strong a word for our social media providers to digest about what we think about them).

Your subscription to violence should not be just a given assumption. You should be able to scroll Facebook without dead bulls, and distinguish between slaughtering in large farms to sacrificing in the name of religion, and the responsibility you hold, when the latter is done in the name of religion.

If you are going to eat it, you should be able to see where your food comes from, but there are some limits to this logic. It is advisable, just for the sake of personal health, to take an avid interest between food consumption, and the constant cycles of life and death that is all around us, sustaining our food intake.

Hence, as difficult as it was to endure, I have watched many sacrifices made over the years, watching the blood from beheaded cows reddening our driveway and seeping down into the drains.

Even though I was yet to encounter the concept of massive farms and slaughterhouses at the time, I was eventually also surprised to find that heart disease is the leading cause of death in Bangladesh. Red meat such as beef is one of the leading causes of cardiovascular diseases and high cholesterol worldwide.

Also, methane is a heat-trapping gas that is emitted by cows and has been linked by researchers in significantly increasing global warming and weakening the atmospheric layers. If we’re not going to reduce our consumption of beef though, shouldn’t we at least aim to allow the animal to live and to die with some dignity?

And while we’re learning about how methane is detrimental to the world we live in – just for the sake of survival, reduce our intake of this animal, which is supposed to be the product of striving and exercising faith to endure – not something to show off, in a commercialised form?

The Selfie Gone Wild

When the selfie was included as a word in the Oxford English Dictionary in early 2013, I watched an eruption of selfies take place amongst those in my social media profiles.

As someone who has always glanced over the shoulder before hurriedly taking a selfie prior to this inclusion of the word in the English language, watching intellectuals and social pundits hotly debate the selfie’s role in defining social belonging and normalcy became all the more fascinating. I even embraced that there’s something fun in the experiment of trying to get everyone into the frame, including the photographer.

Everyone’s been taking selfies – it’s the constant in a culture that is so tweet happy that they’re likely to simply tweet “it’s a gorgeous day outside,” instead of actually going outside and experiencing the gorgeous day.

From US President Barack Obama and George Bush, who partake in selfies frequently, to Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina who took her first public selfie that we’re aware of this July with BBC reporter Sabir Mustafa in London, selfies have become a thing to contend with.

Ellen Degeneres’s much-tweeted Oscar photograph with celebrities ranging from Brad Pitt to Julia Roberts squeezed into a tiny space speaks of a larger trend that has been maximised by celebrities, creating exponential reach with the high distribution and shares that they garnered.

The Boundaries of Convention

In my opinion, the recent contest lacks the compassion and dignity which should be shown to an animal being sacrificed. What is even more troubling is seeing how bedraggled animals have taken centre stage in the recent “cowfie” efforts, which brings back a question that not just Bangladeshis, but everyone in the world should ponder – why don’t we, as communities, aim to give cows the free range and dignified lives that they deserve before we consume them?

There is no dearth of grass in Bangladesh. Hence, do we really need to encourage the killing of malnourished cows that would not even be able to feed the poor. On a practical level, it would reduce the chances of cows being diseased, and allow them to live a dignified life up until their death?

We should respect the animals we sacrifice, but 2014 has proven that we are far from this. All signs of taste are finally put to rest with this “cowfie contest.” The cows we eat are beings that we’re responsible for until its death, and if we’re going to eat them, we should know what the health and atmospheric implications our food has on us.

When some of us embrace and capture the experience of buying scraggly animals to honour the demands of our religion, we are not being religious, we only reflect the quick manner in which we support violence, and extend the convention of simply embracing social media in all its forms as legitimate and appropriate.

It’s time we learned to push past such a mindset. Consumption can take many forms. It’s time we took a look at ourselves and stopped commercialising and franchising everything we consume, including our religious obligations. At some point, when you commercialise and publicise everything you do, you’re not experiencing – you’re simply gloating mechanically, no differently from a robot.

-A version of this article first appeared in the Dhaka Tribune on October 15, 2014

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