“The true focus of revolutionary change should be the piece of the oppressor, which is planted deep within each of us,” wrote writer Audre Lorde in 1980. 35 years on, this still holds true, especially in a post-colonial subcontinent that’s plagued with the notion that beauty lies in fairness.
Amna Ilyas, the dusky and sultry model, who recently bagged the ‘Best Female Model’ Lux Style Award, used her acceptance speech to disprove the naysayers who told her she couldn’t make it because she was dark. Besides Iraj Manzoor, Ilyas is the only model to have openly spoken about colour discrimination in the fashion industry and the country at large.
“I didn’t discuss this with anybody because I was waiting for the right time and for it to reach a point where I could tell people that if I’ve come so far, there has to be a reason behind it,” says Ilyas. She shares that when she began modelling, she wasn’t getting a lot of commercial work, which in Pakistan is essentially based on lawn. “As fairer girls were overtly preferred over me, I found my strength in editorials, which are more concept-based and don’t fundamentally require fair girls,” she adds.
A session dated Oct 20 in Tamil Nadu from the ‘Dark is Divine’ campaign
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But it has been no bed of roses for Ilyas as she admits that when she was younger, photographers would change her face without her permission. “I couldn’t question them and didn’t understand why I felt bad about it at the time because I was a kid. I didn’t like it but didn’t realise back then that they were discriminating.”
On the social front, efforts by one girl in particular have been under way to rise against the deep-rooted colourism in Pakistan. Fatima Lodhi, the girl championing the Dark is Divine campaign in Pakistan for two years, shares, “When I launched the initiative, people thought I’ve taken it up because I’m dark-skinned and have personal issues, but the problem is bigger than that.” She adds, “I always wanted to fight the concept of beauty associated with fair skin, so I used to speak at different platforms.”
Lodhi shares she’d never get a second call because the organisers would neither take her message seriously nor appreciate her speaking openly against the big corporations behind fairness creams. Referring to them as “unfair advertisements,” Lodhi feels fairness cream manufacturers prey on people who can’t afford skin treatments and inadvertently buy a tube that costs much less. “The negatives [of using fairness creams] aren’t, of course, highlighted by the companies and it’s something that even dermatologists don’t tell you,” she notes.
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It’s hard to think of a dusky female actor who has made it on the frontline of the entertainment industry. From Ayesha Omar to Mahira Khan, most leading ladies among the new crop of female actors are unsurprisingly fair-skinned. In an attempt to build a message that resonates with Pakistani women who have faced colour discrimination, Lodhi contacted numerous celebrities but the response she received was mainly bleak. “In Pakistan, people don’t do things voluntarily. I contacted one of the leading models of Pakistan, but she argued that if one continues to talk about the issue, it’ll only grow.”
In the two years Lodhi has been campaigning, she has gotten the support of Pakistani actors Nadia Jamil and Hasan Ahmed, and Indian artist Nandita Das, who is spokesperson for India’s ‘Dark is Beautiful’. But Dark is Divine still doesn’t boast a celebrity endorsement as its Indian counterpart does. “It’s difficult to approach people in Pakistan because a lot of them have had fairness treatments done. So, it’s hard to find a dark face,” she explains.
According to Ilyas, who remains unfazed by falsified notions of beauty, there has been slow but steady change in perceptions. “No matter how hard I try, I think this is going to prevail in my lifetime, but it’s definitely changing,” states Ilyas, who continues to gain ground and will soon be seen in a film titled Ready, Steady, No, slated for release in March.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 27th, 2015.
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