What do Mahira Khan, Ayesha Omar, Aisha Khan, Sohai Ali Abro, Mehwish Hayat, Urwa and Mowra Hocane have in common? Other than the fact that they have fronted Pakistan’s current crop of successful films (Bin Roye, Karachi Se Lahore and Jawani Phir Nahi Ani to name a few), it is the colour of their skin. All four actresses are milky white fair. While they are all beautiful and talented, it wouldn’t be wrong to assume that their popularity has as much to do with the colour of their skin as their acting abilities. It’s not just cinema though, switch on prime time television or flip through the pages of a magazine and the actresses and models that stare back at you will be predominantly light-skinned.
In a country where the majority of us are not born fair, this ‘white-washing’ of the entertainment industry might appear strange to an outsider but to us, the bias is all too familiar and frankly, inescapable. From the school playground to the job market, the colour of one’s skin becomes a defining characteristic of success and popularity, with fair being deemed beautiful and dark undesirable.
This obsession with fairness is widespread across South Asia, an unfavourable remnant of our colonial past. Most of the top Bollywood actresses are fair, whether it is Kareena Kapoor or Katrina Kaif and those who are born naturally dark-skinned resort to lightening techniques. According to Nandita Das, a strong proponent of India’s ‘Dark is Beautiful’ campaign, “there are no dark women in Indian films. Those who are what they call ‘dark and dusky’ have become progressively lighter and lighter with every film because of the pressures and cultural expectations. Either they were lightening their skin with cream or it was being photo-shopped in ads.” Think Kajol and Priyanka Chopra.
The stunning Nandita Das is at the forefront of the awareness campaign to fight against this prejudice which, she says, has driven women who don’t fall within society’s defined standards of beauty (i.e. fairness) to contemplate suicide. “I want people to be comfortable in their own skin and realise that there is more to life than skin colour,” she has said repeatedly.
Pakistan may finally have its own champion for the cause. Not two weeks ago, model Amna Ilyas lifted the Lux Style Awards trophy for Best Female Model and used her acceptance speech to send across a strong message. “When I started modelling I got praise and criticism at the same time,” she said on stage. “I was repeatedly told ‘aye hai yeh to kaali hai’ (oh but she is so dark). Thank you Lux for helping me believe in myself. This goes out to all the dark-skinned girls.”
The memory of the thunderous applause she received for those words brings a smile to her face a week later when we meet at her apartment in Lahore. “The hall went crazy,” she recalls happily as she lounges on a sofa in her living room, the trophy displayed proudly on the coffee table in front. “Funny thing is, I hadn’t really planned to say what I said or rehearsed it. Right before the show started, I was hanging around with my friends and we were joking about what I would say if I won. That’s when it hit me – I wanted to draw attention to this issue because it was heartfelt and something I believed in. I wanted to say it at a stage where I would be heard by everyone.”
When the show is televised across the country a few weeks on, the model’s message is likely to resonate with millions of Pakistani girls who have been the subject of discriminatory attitudes towards skin colour, and hopefully give them a ray of hope. For Amna’s story is no different from that of the average dark-skinned girl growing up in Pakistan, marked by cruel comments in school, unsolicited advice from family members, and even strangers, on ways to lighten skin colour and a belief that somehow, she just wasn’t good enough.
“I’ve gone through phases in my life where I have been constantly depressed. For example, I started out at the same time as Ayyan, who everyone knows is not only drop-dead gorgeous but also fair. We were contemporaries, yet for a period of time Ayyan was getting all the work and I was getting nothing. That was really tough. Luckily I had good friends to support and encourage me. Television and ad campaigns preferred the gora faces so I turned my attention towards editorial work and found my strength.”
A natural in front of the camera, Amna soon became the darling of photographers who adored her for her inherent sexiness, her unconventional beauty and her diligent work ethic. Still, she admits to having to work extra hard and taking on more experimental projects initially to counter what many considered her disadvantage, her skin colour. “Big-budget commercial campaigns were hard to come by in the beginning because the client would demand a fair, blue-eyed girl. I always found that to be hilarious yet disturbing, because why would you use someone who doesn’t even look like the majority of the Pakistani population to sell them a product? This is where the desire for unrealistic standards of beauty begins.”
Can one girl bring about a change in the prevailing mindset? It seems she can, especially if she is strong-willed and unwilling to play by the rules as Amna is. While local ad campaigns have in no way become celebrations of diversity, the fact the dusky model was the face of some of the most popular lawn and retail brands this year – including Gul Ahmed and Khaadi Pret – at least speaks of a move in the right direction.
In 2003, cultural anthropologist Susan Runkle studied contestants preparing for the Miss India pageant and found that skin-lightening was part of the training for every girl. She wrote of her findings: “I sat in on weekly individual sessions that dermatologist Dr. Jamuna Pai held with the contestants in order to examine their skin. Every single one of the young women was taking some sort of medication to alter her skin, particularly in colour, in the training programme.”
A decade on, things are much worse according to Amna’s assessment, especially for Pakistan. “India is still more progressive when it comes to embracing dark models and actresses. If you look at the current crop of girls in our country, all of them have had things done to their face and opted for lightening procedures, with the result that everyone looks the same. There is a lack of diversity that is just bland.”
With so much societal pressure to look a certain way, it’s not always easy to put up a fight and aim for ‘different’. She recalls her tussle with photographer Khawar Riaz, who was in the habit of whitening her face and body when shooting her. “One day, I just lost it and told him that I couldn’t do this anymore. ‘Show me as I am or take on a fairer girl,’ I said. It’s degrading because it hints at you not being good enough. As a model, I’m okay with whatever crazy make-up or hairdo a photographer wants but I will not let them change my skin colour.”
Not any more that is. She might be comfortable in her skin at this stage in her career but the rise to the top wasn’t without it’s ‘fair’ share of bad decisions. Ironically enough, one of the first ad campaigns that Amna signed was for the fairness cream Fair n’ Lovely. And since the model isn’t fair by a long shot, one can just imagine the kind of digital work that would have gone into making her look so. “I regret it now. I would never do it again. Back then, I was young and I didn’t realize that campaigns like this can have such a negative effect on self esteem.”
An 18-year-old can certainly be forgiven for being lured by the prospect of a lucrative commercial project when you consider that established stars such as Shahid Afridi, Shah Rukh Khan, Priyanka Chopra and Deepika Padukone have no qualms endorsing whitening products if it means big bucks. Not everyone is a Kangana Ranaut, who famously turned down a Rs. 2 crore endorsement deal for a fairness product earlier this year. “Ever since I was a kid, I have never understood the concept of fairness,” Kangana told the media. “Especially, in such a case, as a celebrity, what kind of an example would I be setting for younger people? I have no regrets about turning this offer down. As a public figure, I have responsibilities.”
For Amna Ilyas, it’s finally time to step up and set a similar example. The hardest part in the battle will be fighting not the client or the photographer but the public at large, who according to the model, is judgmental to the point of being cruel. “I usually don’t read what people write on social media about me but certain comments are hard to ignore. For example, one girl once wrote under a picture of mine: ‘You are so kaali. Are you Hindu?’ What does that even mean? Such people only strengthen my resolve to combat this ignorance. I want to show people that it is important to believe in themselves and to be okay with the way they are born.”