LIKE many other outrageous acts of our day, this one came to the fore via social media. A few days ago, Pakistani model Zara Abid posted photos of herself that had been taken for Nabila’s salon. The pictures, posted on the model’s Instagram account, show her with a skin tone many shades darker than her own (at least based on the other posts on her account). One can see that the model is affecting an African air, complete with her ‘enhanced’ skin tone.
The ‘blackface’ use of cosmetics to make the skin darker and effect cultural misappropriation of African tradition can be viewed as a racist act. In Pakistan, a country that is made up of brown people, it has been tolerated. But perhaps not so this time as several of the model’s tens of thousands of Instagram followers, along with many others, called her and the salon out for their depiction. It can be seen as insulting to those of African origin, with the dark skin colour as something that can be pantomimed, and made a set piece so to speak. And it was a slight to the many dark-skinned women of Pakistan, including models, whose actual skin colour could have been presented instead. The message that one gets is that dark skin is so terrible in its original existing form that even depictions of it have to involve some sort of fakery.
Inculcated in millions of women in the region is the belief that somehow they must transform their South Asian brown-and-bronze reality into a white fantasy.
Such is the lot of post-colonial nations. Pakistanis imagining themselves brown idolise fair skin and as a country think of themselves as more beautiful than Africans. Being a few shades lighter is thus imagined as a few shades closer to the old colonial masters, and thus several shades better than those who are darker. The racism of the colonists — who thought of all races that were darker than themselves as inferior (they continue to do so in their neocolonial reincarnations) — is thus absorbed.
In 2019, it is still being reproduced in photo shoots in which models, photographers and employers all thumb their noses at this sordid history of exclusion and degradation based on skin colour. The acceptable blackness that every dark girl looking at such photos is being told is the sort that can be washed away.
It is a terrible pity — just as Pakistanis (and Indians) have trouble accepting that they are not of some pure Aryan (and hence white) heritage. Most, if not all, have attached some lineage to connect them to the conquering Arabs — any link to something better than simply being South Asian, being brown or dark brown or black.
The consequences have been disastrous, and have inculcated in millions of women in the region the belief that somehow they must transform their South Asian brown-and-bronze reality into the fantasy of whiteness that is so iconised in the culture. To be beautiful, a girl — as she is told by culture and convention, by mother and sister — must make herself white.
Becoming white in Pakistan requires much effort and risk. For years, salons have offered whitening treatments that use all sorts of chemicals to bleach dark skin. Even worse, a whole variety of poisonous, mercury-laced whitening creams stand ready to be consumed by girls hoping to get a good offer of marriage. Eagerly, the cream is used to ‘open up’ the complexion in total disregard of the poison seeping into the skin, or the cancers and ailments and poisoning it can cause if used in high concentrations.
A dark girl — ie the fear that pushes the use of such creams — is as good as a dead girl. Better to be fairer and married then stay dark, which in the cruel racist lexicon of the country, also means ugly.
There is some hope from a somewhat unlikely quarter. Earlier this year, Zartaj Gul, Pakistan’s minister of state for climate change, said that ‘fairness creams were against the human rights of women’. Then some days ago, the minister held a press conference announcing that her ministry would be cracking down on companies that manufacture fairness creams containing unsafe amounts of mercury. Of the 57 companies that were scrutinised by the ministry, only three were found to be in compliance with health and safety guidelines.
Of course, it will take much more than just this to get rid of the white fixation. The Pakistani tolerance of blackface that led a model to be so ignorant in pretending to be ‘black’, reveals just how few Pakistanis connect society’s preconceived notions regarding colour to the history of inferiority heaped by two centuries of colonial rule. And it is a costly ignorance, not least because it prevents women from having a healthy self-image that celebrates their reality rather than some imposed version where whiteness is the sum total of attractiveness.
It is time that Pakistani women and girls started their own campaign, an organised boycott of products and companies that use only light-skinned models for advertising their products. In being the main household members that shop for goods and groceries, women possess tremendous consumer power. In social media, they have an avenue that allows them to connect with each other. Together, this can be used to harness a collective consumer boycott of television channels, companies and service providers (such as beauty salons) that promote whitening treatments, bleaching, and all and every method of making women look white.
Pakistanis are not white; they are brown to dark brown. This is our reality and it is attached to both males and females. Instead of trying to escape it and being full of self-loathing and feeling inferior because of it, it is high time everyone just accepted it. Brown is beautiful and black is beautiful. Constantly trying to transform ourselves to fit some imported and degrading idea of beauty is what is not beautiful.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
Published in Dawn, July 31st, 2019