Pakistan: A Country of One Color?

 This post was written by guest contributor Emaan Majed. 

Fair & Lovely ad. Source:

On my grandmother’s dresser, there is a pink tube of cleverly marketed whitening cream. She applies it daily, despite being quite pale, despite claiming to hate the colonizers from whom it stems, despite being a health-freak and knowing that it contains hints of mercury. My grandmother is not unlike many Pakistani women in this aspect. My progressive, liberal, ‘I have never done a racist thing in my life’ aunts each own a bottle. The maids save up spending money to buy some in the bazaar. Then, they hope, if they can just get their hands on a bottle of Fair & Lovely, their lives will change. They will be desirable, marry well, have all the world’s luxuries, and no longer be unlovable dark girls.

Grow up on a diet of Pakistani culture and TV and you would likely believe the same thing. The commercials for products like Fair & Lovely, which have booming sales in Pakistan, follow an interestingly bold narrative. At the beginning, we usually meet a downtrodden, badly-off, dark-skinned girl with low self-worth. Within a few weeks of becoming whiter, though, her path takes a drastic turn for the better. She starts running into men who want her, and their approval is all that is needed to instantly validate her self-esteem. She gets a good job and is successful professionally. She laughs a lot. Everyone admires her for her skin tone, and she is finally happy. Products like Fair & Lovely don’t sell without a market for them. Pakistani pop culture thrives and feeds on shadism, discrimination between lighter skin and darker skin shades within a racial group. A more useful term for shadism is colorism, which emphasizes the internalization of these fair skin-superiority ideas. And as far as colorism in Pakistan, there seems to be no end to it.

Humsafar stars. Source:

A critical component of the Pakistani entertainment industry is the drama. These soap opera-like shows enjoy near universal appeal in Pakistan. Media representation, such as in dramas, does have a significant effect on how women are perceived. But in the case of the Pakistan dramas, it appears that a large group of women are not perceived at all. Of the 20 most highly rated Pakistani dramas of 2012, few had any actors that didn’t adhere to the fair skin palette. When darker skinned actors were present, they were often presented as antagonists or minor side characters. The darker-skinned women in dramas are often the trouble-makers, and most disliked characters; they are also, of course, the least pretty and desirable. Take arguably the most popular Pakistani drama of the year, Humsafar, which was a runaway hit, attracting worldwide audiences. Humsafar features two female leads with pale, alabaster complexions, alongside a male hero of the same skin color. Moreover, the whiter of the two girls is widely regarded, in canon and in fandom, as the prettiest. The complexions of the Humsafar actors are a far cry from being representative of actual Pakistanis. Pakistan is an incredibly diverse country, with five major ethnic groups, and over 70 languages- but apparently only one skin color.

This phenomenon is not restricted by mere borders. Bollywood is an industry resolutely dominated by fair-skinned actors and actresses. Shah Rukh Khan and Shahid Kapoor, two of Bollywood’s biggest actors, have both starred in ad campaigns for skin whitening cream. In an interesting twist, Aishwariya Rai, the de facto ‘queen’ of Bollywood, starred in a hair lightening campaign, advertising a product meant to rid women of ‘too dark’ hair. Harsher still is Bollywood’s treatment of dark skinned women. A-list actresses are regularly have their skin whitened on magazine covers so as to look more beautiful. Rani Mukherjee, a slightly darker actress, is regularly mocked and belittled in the media for her skin tone, though magazines (see here and here) and movie posters make a huge effort to hide her shameful skin secret by whitening her skin (for comparison to her natural skin tone, see images here and here). These narratives easily bleed over to Pakistan, where a majority of the population watches Bollywood movies with great interest and enthusiasm.

As evidenced by Shah Rukh Khan and Shahid Kapoor’s involvement in ads for skin whitening creams for men, colorism does have a negative impact on Pakistani men. The internalization of racism and white supremacy here cannot and should not be ignored; however, colorism is an entirely different- and far more bloodthirsty- animal when it comes to Pakistani women. According to the idea of intersectionality, different kinds of oppression within society do not act independently of one another but rather interrelate, creating a system that reflects the “intersection” of multiple forms of discrimination.  In any accurate analysis of women of color’s media representation, to truly comprehend their oppressions, we must view them as intersectional with gender and class.

The intersection of colorism and sexism create an oppressive beauty ideal of fairness. Women in Pakistan are scrutinized for their skin from birth. Their entire worth is often put into it, as girls who have darker skin face marriage problems and are ‘unwanted’ or ‘wretched’. Of course, this colorist conundrum is not unique to Pakistan; many women in post-colonial countries in South Asia, such as in neighboring India, suffer the same fate. Fair & Lovely is a product marketed primarily to women, and it preys on women’s internalized misogyny pushing them to fulfill the fairness beauty standard. In patriarchal societies, women who do not fulfill beauty standards are often viewed as inherently bad, and it is so with women who do not meet the burden of colorism. Negative stereotypes allege that people of lower socioeconomic class have darker skin, while rich, desirable women have fair skin. The effects of classist colorism are seen all over Pakistan. When women in Pakistan become news anchors, actors and actresses, politicians, and other public figures, their skin suspiciously tends to be the same fair shade. Poor women’s opportunities to advance are further restricted based on the shade of their skin.

When I switched on the TV to watch the popular drama Dolly Ki Aagi Baraat the other night, I was greeted with five actors fulfilling Eurocentric and white supremacist beauty standards. The standard alabaster complexions of their skins erased completely the plethora of shades Pakistani women really are. And regardless of my grandmother’s Pakistani nationalism and pride, it may very well be that Fair & Lovely may rest on her nightstand until her dying day, in great part because all of her media role models told her that’s where it should be.

  • Raj

    South Asians try very hard to promote, preserve and even advance the cause of white supremacy.

  • Margari Aziza

    Salaam alaikum, I think that this is a thoughtful analysis. But I think that the author tends to blame colonialism but overlook indigenous roots of color privilege. It also overlooks the impact of the varna system (caste system) from Hinduism on Muslims and the history of conquest from Turkic tribes and the association of ruling classes with lighter skinned people Central Asia (possibly even beginning with the Aryans). How many Pakistanis have the name Khan? One can simply look to precolonial art to find that fair skin was considered aesthetically pleasing in South Asia even before European conquest. I’m not sure if that online exhibition shows Mughal art depicting different groups in India. I’ve seen Mughal art depict various shared and even racial difference as in the case of showing the Sidi princes of the Deccan sultanate (which descended from Malik Ambar who was African). But I have never seen any brown skinned woman depicted as beautiful in precolonial art.

    • Sobia

      The Hindu caste system was no actually based on skin colour. It was instead based on profession. Initially, when the caste system was implemented, one could essentially change castes by changing their profession. It just so happens though that skin tone would change according to profession. A high caste religious scholar would spend all day indoors, studying while the low caste street cleaner would be outside all day. Over time their skin tones reflected this.

      It’s a misconception that caste has to do with skin colour.

    • praveen prasad

      half baked knowledge is a dangerous thing…caste has nothing to do with skin color..

  • Eren Cervantes

    Great piece Emaan! I really enjoyed it. As far as Margari’s comment, I think you are right. Racial biases already existed around the world. However, I think that nowadays the racial issue is emphasized through the influence of colonialism and the West. For instance, the first picture of this post featuring an add shows a Caucasian woman to advertise a whitening product. My first reaction is, why not a South Asian woman? I am inclined to say that it is because even though these products are sold to South Asians the ultimate model is a white woman. No “whitened” South Asian woman will be considered to worth the same. This is a narrative perpetuated across countries but it is particularly strong in post-colonial societies and post-settler societies.
    All in all, I thought this was a great piece.

    • Duff

      “the first picture of this post featuring an add shows a Caucasian woman to advertise a whitening product. My first reaction is, why not a South Asian woman?”

      I find it very interesting that a non-South Asian like you (I’m guessing by your name) sees that woman in the first picture of the post as Caucasian, cos to me she looks like an obviously South Asian model with fair skin , definitely not a white woman.

      Interesting how in a discussion about colourism, there is still a stereotype spouted by non-South Asians about what a typical South Asian woman supposedly should/should not look like. And not only that, you thought the image was by default one of a white woman being put on a pedestal, not a South Asian woman (almost like how Westerners always perceive anime characters as being ‘white’ cos it is the default standard).

      We should ultimately accept the full spectrum of South Asian appearance, dark or light.

  • Mallika

    Hmm, I am one of those rare Indian woman, who got fairer as I grew up. And I have personally felt the HUGE difference in how I am perceived now, than when I was a child. Having said that, if applying a fairness cream gives us a slight edge, I would never say dont use it. Cause for some weird reason, fair skin comes with clearer brighter better looking skin too. And good looks are always applauded.

    Btw ponds white beauty works better than Fair and Lovely..

    • Sobia

      But the fact that is gives a slight edge is highly problematic and it should be challenged, not accepted.


    Being of South Asian background myself, I can provide another point of view related to this. My family is originally from Bangladesh, and growing up, I always heard my Bengali relatives claim that out of all the South Asian countries, Pakistan had the most “light-skinned” Desis living in it. This was just their opinion, based on various factors (media representations, personal interactions, belief passed down, etc). They also believed this based on Pakistan’s proximity to Afghanistan and Iran, two other countries full of (according to them) light-skinned South/West Asians. Also I once read that during the 1971 war, Bengalis (at that time Bangladesh was East Pakistan) felt discriminated against by West Pakistan due to being stereotyped as being darker in skin color.
    I’m tall and light-skinned and many South Asians (both Bengalis and non Bengalis) would mistake me for being Pakistani. I used to also believe that most Pakistanis were lighter skinned too until I made more friends of Pakistani descent and met their families.
    As far as these skin creams go, I currently live in the Middle East and can hardly find any creams that don’t possess “whitening agents”, which is quite annoying!


    Also, just to add to Eren’s point, while that particular picture up above may not make it clear whether the model is white or not, I’ve read of other instances where white models have been used to sell products by Indian media. Usually the models would have to darken their hair color in order to “look” more ethnic. Also nowadays Bollywood employs alot of scantily-clad white female dancers to serve as background eye candy within its movies. I’m sure this plays a part also in furthering the notion that “light is right”.