A Borderless World
The Hindu-Muslim divide is one of the most prominent cultural rivalries that exists today. Fueled by years of fierce riots, staunch violence, and state-perpetuated discrimination, children born into Hindu and Muslim households virtually grow up in an environment that constantly antagonizes the other culture. Although peace and coexistence once existed in the Indian subcontinent, that just isn’t the reality anymore -- and as such, it’s high time that an effort be made to reconcile these tensions. For recent digital exchange program participant Devangana Raga from India, the program offered her an opportunity to do exactly that: approach the Hindu-Muslim divide with a more objective perspective.
Devangana is Hindu teen from India that currently lives in the United States -- Illinois to be exact. Constantly moving between India and the U.S. throughout her life, Devangana explains that she has an interesting background to approach this issue from because of her experience with both her homeland and the diaspora. She partook in the exchange program during the Fall of 2019 because of her vying desire to participate in an exchange program and since she couldn’t do an actual one being an international student without a U.S. citizenship, there couldn’t have been a more perfect program for her.
Devangana poses for a picture with her mother and sister at her home in Urbana, Illinois.
Devangana was paired with a Muslim teen named Shihab Wazir, who lives in Gilgit-Baltistan, the northern-most region of Pakistan. The northern region of Pakistan is arguably one of the most undiscovered areas of the country, with cities like Karachi, Islamabad, and Lahore stealing the spotlight more often than not. The one exception -- of course -- would be when discussing the highly polarizing region of Kashmir, a Himalayan state that is currently divided between both India and Pakistan and is a zone of active military conflict. Despite the media’s fixation of the constant violence and military clashes in the region, Devangana was able to see Shihab’s hometown for the true beauty it encapsulates.
A picture of Devangana's partner, Shihab, giving a presentation at his school in Pakistan.
Over the course of the program, Devangana and Shihab were encouraged to send videos of their family, school, community, and food to better understand each other’s life. Devangana explains that, by far, her most memorable moment of the exchange program was watching Shihab’s video of his school.
Shihab attends Aga Khan Higher Secondary School and as Devangana describes it, the natural beauty of the school’s surroundings is utterly mesmerizing. A quick Google search of the school reveals a light-gray building with mustard accents that sits at the base of a towering mountain. The rocky outcrops and ragged edges are softened by a slight dusting of snow, creating the illusion that the mountain’s bold silhouette is a silent observer of the still, morning air. Like thorns rising dramatically out of the Earth’s crust, the mountains had this dreamy, breathless quality superimposed on a DaVinci-esque sheet of blue sky and feathered clouds. Perfection.
A picture of Shihab's village in Gilgit-Baltistan, nestled among the Himalayas.
Despite the obvious cultural barrier between them, Devagana explains that connecting on more universal topics like school and nature helped her feel more comfortable conversing with Shihab throughout the course and breaking some of the stereotypes between Hindus and Muslims. One of the major reconciliations that Devangana recalls she made was regarding the social values in their communities. Through what she has seen regarding the conservatism in Muslim women's clothing, the history of polygamy, and general treatment of women, Devangana wanted to know more about how her views on women differed from Shahib’s. Especially given the fact that he comes from a tribal region in Pakistan, she expected there to be a noticeable difference between their thoughts on women in society. To her genuine surprise, they both shared many of the same views regarding women and their role in a community.
Once the program came to a close, Devangana recounts that she noticed that there were not many differences between herself and Shihab, despite coming from two completely different geographical, cultural, and religious backgrounds. In fact, she explains how she has helped many of her friends and family reconcile differences between Hindus and Muslims in hopes of uniting the two communities and bringing them closer together. As a current digital exchange program facilitator, she also tries to emulate a strong leader by fostering collaboration and cross-cultural understanding.
In just the span of ten weeks during the beginning of her junior year of high school, Devangana has earned a completely new perspective on the differences between her community and Shihab’s. Transcending the media, preconceived stereotypes, and personal biases, Devangana works each day to pay forward the revelation she has had about the two cultures wherever she can, truly encapsulating the beauty of Project Exchange.