To be fair

October 17, 2021

National media continues to perpetuate biases against dark skin

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Pakistanis have a greater recognition for racism in the West than many of them might realise. The reasons are not hard to find. One can think of many instances of it in film and TV shows.

Jago Pakistan, a popular morning TV show, used to have a segment, Mera Makeup Hai Kamaal. In a 2018 episode, it set the contestants the task of doing bridal makeup on dark skin tones. This should not have been an issue because a number of women in this region have a naturally dark skin. However, there appeared to be a presumption that dark is hopelessly ugly. The hosts, the models, makeup artists and audience of the show seemed to fall into a laughing agreement over the idea. The show faced a serious backlash on internet. It is rather disappointing to state that the attitudes in the industry have yet to change in important ways.

In the drama serial Parizaad, Ahmed Ali Akbar, a fair-skinned actor, dons a dark makeup to play the role. The casting choice in taking a lighter-skinned actor and painting him in a darker shade for a working-class role tends to perpetuate the perception the darkness of one’s skin has a correlations with the emptiness of their wallet.

The local entertainment industry has carried on these colourism-based practices for so long that this appears to be a tradition entrenched in our cultural history.

Anwar Maqsood and the late Moin Akhtar famously joked about the colour of people’s skin. Their legacy is being used by some to defend the practice. Comedian Yasir Hussain — who seems to thrive on controversy rather than an actual ability to be funny, has claimed that he grew up with such humour. His own work routinely includes jokes around skin colour. He refuses to acknowledge the backlash as valid. Instead, he blames the criticism he receives on people’s inability to take a joke. In a 2020 interview with The Express Tribune, he said, “The comedy we have grown up with included the work of Moin Akhtar, Anwer Maqsood and Umer Sharif. If you look at Umer Sharif’s jokes, a lot of times they were about women’s make-up, she-males in airlines etc. You may not agree with it but we and the public at large have grown up with such humour.“

The attempts to try and change such behaviour have mostly fallen short. All too often, Pakistanis refer to African Americans as kaala or black. A certain discourse in Pakistan blames colourism on colonialism.

Recently Amna Ilyas, the actor and model, has sought to open a dialogue on the subject. In an interview with the Voice of America, she said she had developed a self-image problem as a result of remarks she heard at her own home. “As a child, I was told a few things about my complexion. My mother and aunt made me realise very early on that my deep complexion would not suit me when I grow up,” the actor said. She went on to add, “As a child, you may not understand the meaning of these words but when you are more conscious, you understand the psychology behind these ideas. When I realised this, I stood up against it.”

The attempts to try and change such behaviour have mostly fallen short. All too often, Pakistanis refer to African Americans as kaala or black. A certain discourse in Pakistan blames colourism on colonialism.

This is being selective about our history. From the Eighth Century, the Indian Ocean was a hub for extensive trade of sub-Saharan African slaves via sea routes controlled by Arab and Swahili traders. Several populations in present-day Pakistan and India are thought have descended from such slaves.

The Sheedi community, for instance, continues to be ostracised. Many of them are settled in parts of Sindh and Balochistan. Most continue to work as peasants but have started mobilising recently for their rights.

While the youth are more outspoken against racism, there appear to be limits to what can be achieved. A large number of people participated in Blackout Tuesday last year after the death of George Floyd that is wonderful to see. However, racism is not limited to the West. Pakistanis need not only to unlearn the biases they may have grown up with, but also find ways to enact that sense of social justice in their society.


The writer is a storyteller and a journalist. Having published a short story collection, Encounters, he is currently working on his second book.



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