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.
‘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.
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 neo-colonial reincarnations) — is
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Zakaria is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
Source: The Dawn, Pakistan