EVERYWHERE you look in Pakistan, it seems, a good woman is a fair woman.
It is she who smiles back at us from advertisements as she sells frozen chicken or from billboards as she recommends antiseptic soap. The fair woman is who Pakistani men want to marry, who Pakistani women want to look like; she dominates fantasy and fable. All Pakistani fairytales, one can safely assert, require that the heroine be snow white.
The quest to become fair is not just the stuff of imaginings, for where there is desire there is also commercial opportunity.
The skin-whitening industry, catering to the yearnings of women who wish to be fair, has in recent years gone from the hopeful peddling of ‘Fair and Lovely’ to potions, creams and treatments of increasing potency and questionable toxicity. The price is paid willingly by consumers all over the country for everyone, from the girl in the slum to the begum, wants to get the job done.
The disasters happening everywhere, from corner beauty parlours to high-end spas, go unmentioned and risks are routinely ignored.
According to specialists at the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences, the hunger to get fairer faster and for longer has resulted in women burning their skin from noxious acid peels and even suffering life-threatening side effects from steroidal creams.
Lesser remedies have their own burdens, containing large amounts of ammonia and hydrogen peroxide that can cause irritation, redness and skin ulcers while promising to deliver ‘freshness’ and ‘fairness’.
These dark facts, of course, are the concerns of the weak-willed, those not willing to commit completely to the attainment of beauty — which seems to be the same thing as having white skin.
Like sturdy weeds, the roots of the fever for fairness run deep in the soil of our post-colonial Pakistani psyche. The fair bride and the light-skinned model are in this sense manifestations of unmet longings and beliefs cherished over centuries.
White skin, many claim, means a connection to an Aryan heritage, a direct relation to the conquering hordes who came thousands of years ago. It also means distance from the native Dravidian race — the small, dark people who inhabited the subcontinent and toiled for centuries along its rivers and mountains.
Those dark people, it is assumed, are all on the other side of the border; being Pakistani means descent from Alexander and the Aryans.
If heroines and heroes are always white, villains are always dark. The ruling calculation of skin colour hence tabulated that what is dark is poor and dirty and what is white is pure and good; Pakistan is the land of the pure, and so we must all be white.
This crowning of whiteness as the visual symbol of a culture’s values is in our present moment even more invested with ironies than it has been in the past.
In the past century, the racial creation of whiteness is located most recently in the ethic propagated by the Nazi regime in Hitler’s Germany. In the rhetoric of the Weimar Republic, a true German whose genes deserved to be propagated was tall, light-skinned, blonde and blue-eyed.
These visible credentials were traced to an Aryan heritage and popularised as the image of a strong Germany rising from the ravages of the First World War. Hitler Youth, the younger arm of the Republic’s indoctrination machinery, put the tallest, blondest and most blue-eyed at the front of the line, making them the image of the Germany that Hitler promised would soon conquer the world.
In the run-up to the Second World War, everyone in Germany wanted to look Aryan; it meant they were safe and belonged to the ruling race. They never came to the subcontinent to swell their ranks.
But Pakistanis need no lessons from the Germans. The current tragic irony of our obsession with whiteness is invested in more recent history.
Not only do we have a legacy of colonial resistance, and a detailed history of exactly how the British — white and foreign — pillaged our lands, tinkered with our customs and tampered with our legal system, we have since their departure, fashioned much of our national identity on our hatred for the West.
Recent American overtures have served to re-entrench Pakistan’s post-colonial ghosts: roads being used to supply foreign armies as they were before, borders deemed negligible when they come in the way of the geo-strategic ruminations of fair-skinned superpowers.
But none of these impositions, all courtesy of the mostly white world, seem to have dulled the Pakistani obsession with fair skin. The reasons for this contradiction — a hatred of white people coupled with a reckless, limitless obsession to look like them — can only be speculated upon.
Perhaps, as many African post-colonial writers grappling with the same problem have suggested, looking like the people who once subjugated us is a remnant of Pakistani culture’s inability to move on from the idea that to be powerful one must look the part.
As Pakistani men search for their fair brides, and Pakistani children dream of fair princes and princesses, frowning confusedly at their own brown skin, they plant afresh the myth that to be good and strong they must also be white.
Beneath the obsession to be fair, then, lies a particularly noxious self-hatred; a skewed image of both reality and history and worst of all, a continuation of the enslavement that made colonialism possible in the first place.
As Pakistani girls bleach their skin, rubbing steroids and acids on their faces to strip them of pigment, to scrub them into the whiteness that they equate with purity and with beauty, they enact again the preoccupation of a nation unsure of its origins and its future.
Without the creams and peels and ointments, the coloured skin will always grow back brown and resolute, begging to be loved and acknowledged but failing again and again.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.