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May 28, 2012 / Man in the Mirror

Violence is not our culture: “Fairness that changes your destiny”

Publication Date: 
April 15, 2012
Fauzia Viquar
“Your skin glows with a fairness that’s superior in all possible ways”.  This is the marketing message of a fairness cream advertisement spread over a quarter of the front page and the entire second/inside page of a leading Pakistani national news paper. The advertisement is directed generally at women who need to aspire to a fair complexion in order to receive privileges associated with the color. However, men will also be attracted to it due to the distinction that a fair complexion confers in a post-colonial state like Pakistan where the legacy of the British rulers remains strong even today.

If the size of the advertisement is an indicator of the revenue this fairness cream generates for the makers, there is serious cause for concern for human rights activists and proponents with respect to the overt message of the ad and the underlying assumption in it, that a fair colour is better than all other colours ranging from medium to dark.

The history of this colour superiority in Indo-Pak subcontinent can generally be traced back to Delhi Sultanate and its Turko-Afghan dynasties that ruled from Delhi. Three centuries of Persianized Timurid Mughal rulers from Central Asia known for their fair complexions and large, almond shaped eyes further entrenched the white colour superiority.

However, it was the conscious British global doctrine of racial superiority propagated throughout their empire that led to our colour colonial legacy thriving and growing alarmingly. Doctrine of racial superiority of White Anglo-Saxon people was introduced to facilitate dominance of that ethnic group, while purposefully excluding or in some cases in North America and South Africa seeking to eliminate other ethno-racial groups on the basis of differences that were projected as hereditary and unalterable. The climax of Western imperialism in the late nineteenth century “scramble for Africa”, India and other parts of Asia and the Pacific represented an assertion of the imperialistic ethnic claim of the White, Anglo-Saxons that they had the right to rule over Asians and Africans based on their racial superiority. An advertisement of Pears Soap from the late nineteenth century shows an African crouched in a corner with a hand extended towards a white British merchant receiving Pears soap. Caption of the ad states “The first step to lightening the White Man’s Burden is through teaching the virtues of cleanliness. Pear’s Soap is a potent factor in brightening the dark corners of the earth as civilization advances, while amongst the cultured of all nations it holds the highest place – it is the ideal toilet soap.” The British were promoting their ethno-cultural superiority through all available means.

Along with class, White colour was simultaneously associated with beauty. Imperialist nations like the British have described white as beautiful, civilized and virtuous and black as ugly, uncivilized or even evil in various historical accounts. Social, cultural and religious historiographies by Western scholars served to reinforce these stereotypes associated with colour to justify and maintain their privilege. However, while racial superiority based on physical and social constructs like colour and beauty was established by colonizers to justify and maintain their privilege, why is it that we continue to reinforce those stereotypes six decades after independence.

In pre-partition India the British deliberately created a colour divide among Indians by declaring the Punjabis a “martial race” and cultivating them over other ethno-racial groups. Sadly, we did not do away with the notion of superiority based on colour or physical appearance after independence. In fact, various political leaders and rulers in Pakistan perpetuated this racism for their own gains. The pride that West Pakistanis took in their light complexion, tall and sturdy build was used politically by Ayub Khan and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto to dominate all decision making institutions. Mr. Bhutto’s notorious slogan “Udhar tum idhar hum” that served as a basis of the breakup of Pakistan in 1971 invoked ethno-racial differences among others for division between Pakistanis.

In Pakistan, fair complexion has come to be associated with membership of a landed class and with affluence due to the fact that almost all landed and feudal families seek fair brides for their sons. This trend continued through generations with males seeking fair complexioned brides when their time comes to marry has perpetuated superiority of the fair/white colour and its aspiration has been carefully cultivated by large multi-national companies like Unilever.

There are multiple negative impacts of this intense cradle-to-grave racial socialization equating white colour with beauty. Firstly, it results in racial distinctions among people with the same history, culture and religion, causing Pathans to consider themselves superior to Punjabis, Baluch and Sindhis and former East Pakistanis to consider themselves superior to the “dark skinned Bengalis” unfit to assume leadership positions in the government and military due to their short statures and dark complexions.

Secondly, it creates inferiority complex among people, especially women who don’t have a fair complexion. Their self image suffers and they tend to focus on white colour as a dominant personality marker, disregarding other important aspects of personality such as intelligence, education and professional achievements. Thirdly, advertisements selling fairness creams create role stereotypes among women when they show how a darker girl gets marriage proposals and ends up getting married when she turns fairer with the usage of fairness creams. When these commercials repeatedly show women aspiring to land a successful proposal by lightening their skins, the message received by millions of Pakistani youth is that marriage is women’s ultimate ambition. Considering that Pakistani society is a fairly conserva­tive society where women are generally discouraged from participating in the workforce or in public life by their families and societal norms, many women will feel further discouraged to adopt professional roles. Roles shown in fairness creams TV commer­cials potentially strengthen the perception of women’s domestic roles in the society resulting in stereotyping of women as dependent (Courtney & Lockeretz 1971. Such TV ads deliver the messages to people in Pakistani society that white skin correlates with success, intelligence, social approval and beauty and that indi­vidual character and morality are secondary to physi­cal appearance (Sohail Kamran EJBO).

Now that Pakistan is free of colonial rule, we need to work on getting rid of colonial markers of privilege and change the mindset of our free nation. We need to discourage attitudes reflected in statements like “Fairness that changes your destiny. Now the distinctive pink pack and the signature “two faces” are becoming synonymous with giving flight to the dreams of the Pakistani female”.

 About the author: Fauzia Viqar is the Director Advocacy & Communications at Shirkat Gah-Women’s Resource Centre (Pakistan).


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