Rafia Zakaria reflects on the irony of Pakistan and India — quarrelling over territory, terrorists and a hundred other things — showing the same passion for a fair complexion.
A few weeks ago, the American feminist website Jezebel published an article about an Indian product called “Clean and Dry Intimate Wash” (Rupa Subramanya was the first to “Tweet” on the product); a skin lightener that allows women to bleach their intimate areas into fairness. “Fantastic,” lamented its author sarcastically; the world could now welcome another product that makes women feel bad about their bodies, invest in one more way to alter them. To someone like me, born and raised in Pakistan, encountering an American jab on anything Indian, offers some tantalising prospects nurtured by the fires of nationalism that burn on either side of these borders that the British left us. There is the urge to gloat, to spout out “no, no this would never happen in Pakistan” or smugly say ”well you know this is an Indian problem,” alluding of course to the lack of superficiality, superior ethics, and caste less equality Pakistan is so popular for.
Our pursuit of ‘whiteness'
But while an American might fall for such a fable, unable to distinguish fabrications in the sea of brown that is South Asia in the condensed western imagination, neither Indians nor Pakistanis can buy the lie. With our hostile histories, Indians and Pakistanis may disagree on borders and water treaties and terror suspects; but in denying our brownness and dreaming of whiteness, we are united. Indeed, “Clean and Dry Intimate Wash” could not be advertised in Pakistan as freely as it is being hawked in India, but if it made its way across the border, there would, undoubtedly, be a profitable market for it. The reasons for its popularity may be different, vestiges of caste and creed and Aryan associations among Indians: the desire to locate lineage in Arab conquerors in Pakistan. But even with missiles pointed and checkpoints manned, the most fervent Hindu nationalist and the most martial Pakistani colonel can agree that whatever else happens “the bride must be fair.”
While agreement can be established, contradictions remain. It was after all, a fetal India and Pakistan who won the 20th century's most resounding victory against white colonialism, showed down the British, sent them packing and put the full stop on the saga of the British Empire. It is India today that can mock by example all those who believed that democracy belonged only to the white, the rich or the elite; it is contemporary Pakistan wracked with casualties and plagued by terrorism that is standing up to the imperialist intrusions of the United States. If we looked at those portions of the story alone, we could never guess that our societies, with their robust anti-imperialist genealogies could indulge in the chemical absurdity of bleaching ourselves white.
These conundrums, shared by Indians and Pakistanis could be less annoying perhaps if their burdens were equally applied to all Indian and Pakistani citizens. However, in the subcontinent, the marriage of patriarchy and self-loathing has deemed that this is not to be so; from “Tibet Snow” in Pakistan, to “Clean and Dry” in India, to “Fair and Lovely” everywhere, the burden of escaping our burnished realities has been placed squarely on the shoulders of our women. And because all women must pretend that they and all their parts were born rather than bleached white, this war against brown is waged largely in secret. In beauty parlours and bathrooms from Kolkata to Karachi, brown women, both Hindu and Muslim, the very poor and the newly rich pay the price of a socially nursed delusion of whiteness, its imagined goodness, and its unquestioned purity. And as is the tradition of all patriarchal practices, some are more slyly marketed than the others; the man who made the commercial for this latest scheme to make women whiter, feigns innocence and denies complicity. It is all “overreaction” in his words. There is no connection at all with the peddling of “Clean and Dry Intimate Wash” to the brown man's quest for the best of both worlds; the conquest of whiteness without ever having to explain why he won't change a diaper or do the dishes.
In our yet unconcluded first century of existence, Pakistan and India have spent a lot of time arguing over differences, varying interests, old wounds and new tricks, unwarranted armed overtures and all the tragic rest. On the issue of race it seems, our challenge on either side of the border is the same; the task of accepting without shame or subterfuge our pigmented reality; ending our quest for whiteness, so that we can finally become brown.
(Rafia Zakaria is a PhD candidate in Political Theory/Comparative Politics at Indiana University, Bloomington. E-mail: email@example.com)