DUBAI: The first Pakistani actress to walk the Cannes carpet, Canadian-Pakistani Armeena Rana Khan has no plans of slowing down. She’s not only outspoken about various social issues, she has also made a significant mark in the industry in the short time that she has been on Pakistani screens.
It hasn’t been so smooth for a woman of her calibre though – she is often targeted by social media trolls and her fiancé, UK-based Fesl Khan, was also hated on for being ‘dark-skinned’.
Armeena had much to say about these comments, about her journey in the Pakistani industry, the idea of working in Bollywood and the harmful messages that she refuses to endorse.
ET: Do you identify as a feminist? What does the word mean to you?
Armeena Khan (AK): First of all, feminism’s definition is misunderstood. Feminism does not by any stretch mean that we hate men. It says we demand an equal footing in just about every department there is – in every walk of life; in education, career and home life. If a woman is required to do something, even at home, he should be there to share her part of the burden.
Basically, a man should contribute equally. Being a female shouldn’t be a disadvantage in 2017. So yes, I’m a feminist in the spirit that I’ve just described. Sometimes feminism does take an extreme form, man-hating for example, is something that I don’t subscribe to. I do not subscribe to any form of extremism at all.
ET: So how does a woman who is a feminist, reconcile with the roles that women generally end up doing in Pakistani dramas? So many of them are misogynist and sexist and filled with harmful tropes that appeal to the lowest common denominator?
AK: When I act, my entire willpower becomes one with my character. And yes, there does exist a clear discrepancy between who I am and who I play. Being the way that I am and the way in which I’ve been brought up – independent, free thinking, in charge of my own destiny, I have trouble believing in who I sometimes play.
Occasionally it even shows. Sometimes I have trouble getting in the skin of my character. Sometimes I’m just not convinced of the role that has been written, especially roles that depict helpless, hapless women. I’m not convinced by that because in my opinion, you’re only as helpless as you think you are. I understand this puts me in conflict with a lot of people who think men are better, who believe, honestly believe, that they are helpless.
But I understand that they don’t have that kind of exposure. It is surreal to me and I try to come to grips with the idea that this is reality for some people.
I do have discussions with my directors; I tell them, this is too negative, I can’t say these dialogues. I’m aware that this causes conflict with my principles, and I’m a very principled person. I’ll give you an example! In Rasm-e-Duniya, I’m talking to Bilal Abbas’ character and he tells me if you don’t feed the pigeons right, you’ll get a dark, fat husband.
Originally the dialogue for me was that I was to say to him that you would get a fat, dark wife. And I said I can’t say this because it sounded way too negative. They still wanted some aspect of that dialogue to be retained in the play so they made Bilal say it. But it’s still negative. These are subliminal messages you are sending out. About two years ago – something happened in my life that turned my attention to skin colour.
I realised our nation is obsessed with a certain skin and body type. As a celebrity, there is a lot of pressure – and I understand it. But the idea of a certain skin and body type as preferred in our country is still abhorrent to me. I don’t do skin whitening endorsements. I have a social responsibility.
I do very few endorsements because I’m at odds with a lot of products. I would not allow anyone to question my choices – my clothing, my religion are my choices – provided that they are not extremist in any way – will not hurt anyone, and therefore are not up for judgement.
ET: How do you feel about working in Bollywood?
AK: Bollywood is a medium I’ve never really subscribed to – even though my first film was a crossover with Bollywood. I have certain ideologies that conflict with the Indian film industry and the way women are projected there. I’m not saying all their films are like that because some of their films are, in fact, really great. If some day, a role comes along that is strong and isn’t sexually objectified, I wouldn’t mind exploring that option.
ET: You faced a lot of negativity online about posting a photograph of your fiancé, Fesl Khan. How do you deal with Fesl witnessing all of that on your Instagram?
AK: I don’t think he was that bothered by it. He has a better understanding of this society than I do. When this happened, he asked me ‘do you believe it?’ – and I said, ‘words hurt’. I abhor this kind of shaming. Just because he doesn’t fit in the Pakistani standard of what is considered good looking doesn’t mean people can say things like that to him.
But I got a lot of support as well. Overall, I feel people are good; it’s just that a certain type of people are online and they tend to represent a certain kind of thought process, which is simply disappointing. We’re all born with some flaws and no one’s perfect except God. We shouldn’t be judging anyone based on stupid, meaningless things like body shape,height and skin colour.
I know many people who go through plastic surgery, trying to change their appearances. You shouldn’t be doing that and I feel sorry for those people because you must love who you are and what you’re born with.
ET: Did it make it weirder that you are someone who fits into that perfect description of a beautiful woman, according to Pakistani standards?
AK: I’m an average looking person.
ET: Haha, you can’t possibly believe that?
AK: No it’s true. Abroad I’m just another face and Fesl stands out. He is the one who is considered good looking. People go to tanning beds and tanning salons to look like him. As for me, I’m an international citizen, so I subscribe to the international standards of beauty and aesthetics.
ET: We’ve noticed you always speak up against online bullying and social media trolls. You always take them head on while a lot of people don’t. Is this a conscious decision?
AK: It is most definitely a VERY conscious decision to speak out against trolls. I’m making a deliberate statement. I’ve been in the industry for five years now and I’ve changed a lot. Before, I used to be a very quiet person and stayed mum about these sorts of things. Post the three year mark, I decided this is a war. And in a war, you have to take sides.
I know that I am no one to make a huge difference but nonetheless, I try to set the right example upon the true principles of Islam – it is one of the foremost principles of Islam – to be compassionate. I believe if I’ve managed to educated one person, I’ve made a difference. How I teach my kids someday InshAllah, the impact I will have on my family, these are all drops in the ocean. And if I may have the liberty of calling it that, I’m here to make a dent in correcting the society; to be less hurtful. How can you stand up to bullies if you don’t speak up?
You don’t have to put up with people bullying you. My acting, yes, that I put up for judgment. I don’t put up my body or physical features or my skin colour or my morals and my opinions to be judged. I am happy to debate matters in a civilised manner. But if you come out swearing, etc, I don’t understand that. You wouldn’t do that in real life so why do that on cyberspace?
ET: Is there anything you’d like to say to the people who know you and follow you?
AK: My message to everyone is: be kind, have empathy – you don’t know what or how the other person is struggling with or for. Let’s not judge. Just because I’m a public figure, it does not mean I don’t have feelings. I have good days; I have bad days – I’m human after all. Everyone needs to be kind.
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