Bigotry is universal. Discrimination based on colour, or colourism as it is called, is no different! While feminist groups and activist may cry themselves hoarse over the unfairness of it all, commercial cinema, world of advertising or even your next door neighbour will not stop from commenting if someone dusky walks by!
Advertisements showing the victory of fair over dark, are not new. And even with the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) introducing new guidelines for fairness products advertisements, the shadow of colourism still looms large. And it’s not just an Indian phenomenon. Colourism is prevalent in almost all south Asian nations, West Asia, parts of Latin America, Africa and even in some European countries. With an aim to fight this evil of colourism, Fatima Lodhi, a 25-year-old activist from Pakistan embarked on a journey. She started the Dark is Divine initiative and much like India’s Dark is Beautiful campaign, spearheaded by the beautiful Nandita Das, she too has been waging war on the issue of racism.
‘I have always had a problem with how since ages, white skin has been considered the ambassador of beauty! 24/7 we get to see unfair advertisements of fairness creams on TV which convey the message that fairness is the key to success and only fair is beautiful. The confidence level and capabilities of a person are calculated on the basis of the color of his/her skin. Colourism is so deep rooted that people don’t even realize that they are biased towards those who are dark skinned,’ says Fatima.
India’s Dark is Beautiful campaign is a part of a bigger initiative called Women of Worth (WOW). The campaign when initially launched in 2009 focused just on India, but they slowly realised that the problem is not bound by borders. ‘We still feel that in India, the issue is far more serious than in other parts of the world. However, we have come to acknowledge that colourism is a global issue. We have had people of varying skin tones write to us about how the message of the campaign resonates with their experiences on skin colour bias,’ says Kavitha Emmanuel, the Founder-Director of Women of Worth/ Dark is Beautiful.
The Dark is Beautiful campaign has crossed various boundaries and has taken the message of equality to people, irrespective of their skin tones, across various cultures, nationalities, races and ethnicity. In certain cultures, dark brown skin is considered dark whereas in certain others even lighter brown shades are considered dark. ‘The bottom line is that these people were discriminated against, because of their skin colour. I have even met people who are fair-skinned, write to me about how they have faced reverse bias in a culture where people are predominantly dark-skinned,’ Emmanuel adds.
In Pakistan too, people with dark complexions are bullied and called names. Even those who are happy with their dark complexions are forced to think that they are ugly. The recent face of this bigotry is Zubaida Tariq or Zubaida Aapa, as she is called. Tariq is a chef and celebrity in Pakistan and her advertisement on Zubaida aapa Whitening Soap has triggered reactions considering the skin colour bias it forecasts. The campaign itself is called ‘Gora hoga Pakistan’.
For Fatima it wasn’t an easy journey. ‘Well, in the beginning of this campaign, I faced a lot of criticism from my very own friends. Majority of the people disagreed that any such discrimination even exists in our society. On the other hand, those who had personally experienced this discrimination were excited and helped this campaign reach this far. Initially people were uncomfortable sharing their experience but now they boldly talk about this audacious subject’, she says.
Personally, Fatima too was judged by people around her. ‘I faced criticism and comments like ‘Lets paint her white’, by my school and university fellows. I remember once being nominated in school awards for the category called ‘Makeover required’. Such things were done by the fair-skinned school fellows just to make me feel bad,’ she reminisces.
All these discriminations pushed her to start an anti-colourism campaign to redefine the so called ‘beauty standards’ that have been set by the society and also to redefine the connotation of the word Dark. As Kavitha Emmanuel points out, ‘This issue is trivial to those who choose to overlook the existing hierarchy of skin colours and the discrimination associated with it. For people who have faced the colourism personally, it is a different story all together’.
With the advent of Pakistan’s television dramas in India, the countries have started to appreciate each other’s cultures even more. But even in these show, what one sees most are fair women, while duskier ones are hardly seen. The similar case is with Indian shows where one just sees the dusky girl either waiting to be discovered and ‘made over’ into a white swan from an ugly duckling or she gets to play an inferior character. While some TV shows did try to touch upon the idea of bigotry, the examples are few. Fatima points out, ‘Our actresses are getting fairer day by day. The only dark people you get to see in the (pakistan based) drama serials are those who are maids or those who have a less important character in that serials’.
Now that the ASCI has introduced new guidelines for fairness products in advertisements, and is working closely with the Department of consumer affairs and the Information and Broadcasting ministry, the advertising companies have tried mending their way. Even with this, in the month of July this year, ASCI’s Consumer Complaints Council (CCC) had upheld complaints against 134 out of 147 advertisements, quite a few of them major fairness cream companies.
Dark is Beautiful campaign has undeniably hit a vein somewhere. ‘I believe that we have only succeeded in bringing up the issue of skin colour bias in a very small way. The steps taken so far in curbing discriminatory advertising is miniature in comparison with the largeness of the bias that exists today in India,’ says Kavitha.
The Dark is Divine initiative although the first in Pakistan took off in October 2013. She feels that the Dark is Beautiful campaign in India has achieved quite a lot as far as the life of men and women at the receiving end of colourism are concerned. Kavitha says, ‘It is sad that we have not had any direct role models ourselves. Our role models are those who have stood up to fight against other issues of colour , race and gender discrimination in similar fashion in the past . We are happy to share our experiences with Fatima and people like her who are willing to stand up to colourism in their nations.
We do not yet have all the answers but are willing to explore it along with other like-minded people.’
Dark is Divine is in a process of developing a training manual for school going kids till age 14, for personality development and confidence building needs. Fatima, who is currently pursuing her M Phil in development studies, was in India recently for a peace conference in Chandigarh. She also did a small awareness event where she asked people to pose with a anti-colour bias placard. ‘The experience was indeed amazing!’ she says, ‘Everyone was so welcoming and nice. I have been asked by people from Taiwan and Philippines to take Dark is Divine to these countries as well because they too have bore the brunt of colourism.’ While many may raise their eyebrows to the usage of the word ‘divine’ as it generally means pertaining to divinity or god, Fatima laughs and says, ‘No! for me Divine means outstanding, flawless or heavenly!’.
The Dark is Divine campaign is as Fatima likes to call it her ‘weapon’ to fight the bias. A young girl’s fight against the unfairness that exists. The campaign, though young has been wildly covered by the media in a number of South Asian countries with the young convenor featuring in numerous print interviews and TV shows. As Kavitha Emmanuel sums up, ‘ All great movements and campaigns have had small beginnings. The problem will not disappear overnight but we are here to send out the message that a person’s worth and value is not dependent on their skin colour. We have to stand up against all forms of media messaging and cultural practices where the this bias is endorsed in any way. We hope that our children will grow up believing that all skin colours are beautiful.’