Twenty-first century Pakistan may have experienced a socio-political awakening over the past few years — more importance is being given to individual rights, equal opportunities and political correctness. And yet, somewhere in the country’s collective subconscious, an ancient stereotype continues to live on: ‘black is ugly and white is beautiful’ or even, ‘black is bad and white is good’.
The tendency to equate fair skin with beauty is prevalent in many parts of the world but in the Indo-Pak subcontinent, this sentiment can most easily be traced back to pre-Partition colonial times. Back then, the fair-skinned gora British was the ruler and thereby symbolised the beauty, luxury and affluence that everyone was supposed to aspire to. The darker-skinned natives were, meanwhile, the poor serfs and underlings.That stigma about dark skin continues to endure in the present.
One only has to look at the thriving sales of fairness creams across the country to confirm this. The declaration that clear, unblemished dark skin can also be beautiful sounds ‘right’, but tap just beyond this politically correct stance and you encounter a mass mentality that is still smitten by fair skin.
This mindset, of course, needs changing. We live in times where it is becoming increasingly important to celebrate our individuality and to be proud of who we are. Colourism, whereby individuals are differentiated by their skin tones, needs to be negated. But it will take time — perhaps decades even — for the Indo-Pak subcontinent to become proud of its inherent tan skin tones, and to wear them proudly.
A recent controversy around the alleged use of ‘blackface’ by a fashion shoot brings to the limelight questions about colourism in Pakistani culture
In such a scenario, when one of the country’s foremost stylists puts out a shoot, where a model has ‘blackface’, it inevitably leads to protests of racism. This is precisely what happened recently, when model Zara Abid was given a darker shade for a shoot for Ali Javeri Jewellers, styled by Tabesh Khoja of Nabila’s.
Social media had a field day criticising the images. Why was Zara painted a darker shade when a darker-skinned model could have simply been hired for this shoot? Wasn’t this cultural misappropriation where, instead of giving a darker-skinned model a chance, a model with a lighter skin tone was preferred, even if this meant that she would have to take on a new skin tone? How could an established, critically acclaimed brand such as Nabila’s endorse a racist ‘blackface’ fashion shoot?
But first, what is ‘Blackface’?
To understand the reasoning behind these criticisms, it is important to understand the nuances that define ‘blackface’. The term can be traced back to 19th century USA, where white actors would be painted black in order to represent comical or inferior characters in charades and plays. It was indicative of the oppression that African Americans endured in this era, and how they were considered inferior and mockable to whites.
Over time, actors and models have continued to be painted darker when depicting a character that is evil, inferior or unwanted. Movies have featured black-faced witches and lecherous con-men, supposed to look all the more unpleasant by their skin colour, a deep, opaque black. In the late ’60s, Bollywood siren Helen danced to Aa Jaan-i-Jaan while a man, painted black, tied up in chains and trapped in a cage, lusted after her making wild, sleazy movements every now and then. More recently, the dusky-skinned Indian actress, Nandita Das, spoke about how she would usually be offered roles of low-caste characters because of her dark skin.
Closer to home, host Sanam Jung, in her morning show Jago Pakistan Jago, endeavoured to take on the supposedly “very challenging” job of making “dark women look beautiful.” First, models with fair skin were painted over with a make-up stick with a deep dark brown shade to it, and then efforts were made to beautify them. The message that rang out loud and clear was that making a dark-skinned girl look conventionally beautiful is very difficult.
In all these many cases, ‘blackface’ was done in order to make an individual look, or feel, inferior.
“There are no dark-skinned models in Pakistan!” — Nabila
In a similar vein, when stylist Tabesh Khoja decided to turn model Zara Abid’s face a darker shade through make-up it, too, was a form of ‘blackface’. But in his defence, Tabesh points out a major flaw in Pakistan’s current pool of models. “I’m distressed that I had to enhance Zara’s shade 6 [Zero Make-up] complexion into a shade darker due to the lack of acceptance by our local modeling agencies, who hesitate to have a pool of dark-skinned models … Why? Because we keep hearing the argument that ‘dark girls don’t sell’. Why? ‘Because clients don’t want dark-skinned models.’ As it is, girls aspiring to be models fight societal norms in order to pursue their chosen careers. This leaves the industry without a diverse skin tone representation of our indigenous population.”
Had darker models been available in Pakistan, would the team at Nabila’s have opted for them instead?
“Certainly,” asserts Nabila. “It’s a vicious cycle. Brands don’t want to use dark-skinned models. Even when they hire models with tan skin, they try to use make-up to make her skin look lighter in their fashion shoots. Due to this low demand, dark-skinned models usually aren’t successful in Pakistan. As stylists, this really limits the choices that we have.”
She continues, “The shoot with Zara Abid was a form of creative expression. I would never mock a skin colour and even my brand has always advocated that one should stay true to one’s natural skin colour. In fact, we only just added a ‘Mocha’ shade to my make-up retail brand Zero. I was once attending a morning show where I suggested that we should work with dark-skinned girls and recommend different foundations to them. The host turned round and said, ‘No, that won’t get us ratings.’ Since then, I haven’t attended that particular show.”
Why was Zara painted a darker shade when a darker-skinned model could have simply been hired for this shoot? Wasn’t this cultural misappropriation where, instead of giving a darker-skinned model a chance, a model with a lighter skin tone was preferred, even if this meant that she would have to take on a new skin tone?
On her Instagram, Nabila added, “Why do the [social media] trolls equate being dark with African? Have they not seen how dark and gorgeous South Asian women are? … Why do we still believe white is supreme? … The world is becoming a melting pot. No boundaries/no stereotypical features/no typecast roles.”
And What About ‘Whiteface’?
Model Zara Abid, meanwhile, put forward a point that she felt was very relevant to the local fashion industry: the predilection towards ‘whiteface’ rather than its blacker counterpart. She wrote, on Instagram, “I am the firsthand victim of discrimination and colourism that exists in society. The pictures shared of the shoot that have been circulating have been misconstrued and manipulated by social media users who are often too quick to jump to conclusions.
“Why didn’t people stand up when I was portrayed a lighter skin tone, and are only enraged when I’m trying to represent the darker side of the population? It’s high time we stop shaming dark skin and embrace it with open hearts and mind.”
It is also perhaps high time that we start shaming the unnatural whitening of the skin. Porcelain-skinned models dominate shoots for luxury lawn shoots and designer-wear and major actresses with huge fan followings happily become brand ambassadors for fairness creams. Ads on TV frequently narrate stories where no one is willing to marry a dark-skinned girl until she whitens her skin and becomes ‘lovely’. Also frequently on private cable channels are long make-up ads where a stylist ‘extraordinaire’ encounters a dark-skinned girl and proceeds to turn her a pasty-faced, ghastly — but supposedly beautiful — white. A golden wig of hair may even be added for the complete gora effect.
Even at fashion weeks, enterprises that are supposedly run by the country’s enlightened ‘upper crust’, models tend to be presented a few shades lighter than their natural skin tones. All this imagery — directly and indirectly — is only managing to feed the complexes of a nation that is dominated by dark skin. ‘Dark’ continues to be considered a taboo and fair skin persists as a benchmark for beauty.
If ‘blackface’ is a misappropriation that takes away opportunities from a certain ethnic group, then ‘whiteface’ is just as racist.
A case of context
Perhaps, though, imagery should be looked at according to the context in which it is placed. The Zara Abid shoot, discussed earlier, was a striking one and, in the absence of availability of dark-skinned models, was a celebration of how beautiful dark skins can be.
Decades ago, the late Moin Akhtar was perpetually in costume for his skits with Anwar Maqsood. This meant that he may be twirling a curled moustache or wear a police officer’s uniform, or paint his face dark while playing a Bengali. It would have certainly been more racially sensitive had an actual Bengali been hired to play the role rather than Moin Akhtar don ‘blackface’. But the former may not have had been able to have Akhtar’s miraculous comic timing and dialogue delivery.
In 21st century Pakistan, we live in times that are fortunately more culturally sensitive. We live in times where we have the opportunity to promptly call out racism and unfair practices via social media. But we also live in a time where we are more aware, where we can see things in context and make discerning decisions about right and wrong. We can target ‘blackface’ but we can also target so much more: the practice of rubbing dark-skinned newborn babies with ubtan so that they become fair, the myth that girls should drink less tea and more milk to achieve a creamy complexion, the prospective mum-in-laws who have no shame declaring that they want their future daughters or sons-in-law to be fair and tall.
We live in a time where we need to start ranting against colourism in general. It’s high time that we do.
Published in Dawn, ICON, August 25th, 2019