By Fatima Asad
When my first-born was born six years ago, I finally felt what my mother must have felt when she had me. As I welcomed this new little human, adjusting my life to meet her needs, I was in awe as most new mothers are. I cherished every part of her being, amazed at the Lord’s miracle. However, that joy was tainted by social poisons around me and I remember my mother uttering the words, “Here we go again!”
You see, until now, I had fascinated over my baby’s wee fingers and toes, expressing gratitude that there were two healthy sets of ten. I had been too preoccupied fulfilling her needs, and utterly mesmerized by her complete reliance on my motherly mercy. Therefore, the thought of her complexion -her skin color- failed to crossed my mind. People congratulated me while simultaneously insulting my womb, my husband’s ability to father, and ultimately my destiny- Allah’s plan.
“Mubarak ho! Congratulations. BUT the first child should always be a boy!”
Making up for the disappointment that she was not a he, they looked for other avenues to comfort my assumingly aching heart.
“At least she is fair skinned! You are a lucky woman, Fatima. She is fair skinned AND has light eyes!”
My mother would squeeze my shoulders or give me a reassuring stare that said, “Ignore them. This happens.” She reminisced about her experiences in Pakistan with a fair-skinned daughter and the struggles she had to face because of her own light complexion coupled with light green eyes. She didn’t have to travel far down memory lane as the same memories flooded my mind, opening like long-lost, rediscovered secrets I had stored away. I recalled people applauding my mother’s fairness, yet she was forced to take extra measures to “cover up” while going out for groceries or simply for a walk around the block. I witnessed many hypocrisies when her sisters-in-law could go out with a mere scarf around their heads, while she was pressured to wear the niqab (face veil) on family picnics. I again witnessed the hypocrisy when esteemed family guests would arrive and my mother was encouraged to look her ultimate best, complete with a new hairdo while the sisters-in-law mostly tended to the kitchen. My mother developed a certain hatred for this blessing and when she spoke up, she was labeled as disrespectful, disobedient, or a bad Muslim.
Those family friends, close and distant relatives, and even neighbors, didn’t simply have my mother for entertainment. I remember having to put on my best outfit, crying as my hair was styled and being bribed with goodies to be on my best behavior and smile for the guests. After my mother was complimented, I was pushed under the spotlight. Forced hugs and stares into strange men and women’s eyes were showered upon me so they could be momentarily elated after looking at a little “white” girl’s hazel eyes. Blurred moments flicker in my mind, but one instance sharpens every time I look back. “I could stare into these eyes for eternity,” a man three decades older than me continuously repeated, while the room full of my protectors -my refuge- simply laughed and offered him more chai.
The worst part of this bonus attention, especially for something that was not an achievement or result of diligence, is that the other children in the house become invisible. My sister and my cousins stood there, waiting with wondrous, hopeful eyes that they too would be given some sort of a gold star for being alive. Not only were they were deprived of acknowledgement, they were disgraced for being a part of this world. After seeing me, people pitied them for their slightly darker skins and lack of blue or green in their eyes. “Aye haye, bichari kitni kaali hai. Dekho is ki behan kitni gori hai. Chalo Allah naseeb achay karay.” The poor child is so dark. Look at her fair skinned sister. Oh well, may Allah make her destiny fruitful. I don’t need to cite comprehensive socio-psychological studies listing the negative impact of such remarks and behavior, especially at an impressionable age. The restraints that are put on relationships because of such negative societal effects can be and were damaging for years.
I wouldn’t have realized that what I had experienced in Pakistan was racism and abuse if I had not immigrated to America. Talking about or even acknowledging racism continues to be a struggle for the Pakistani-American community and a couple of decades ago, no one thought anything of it. In fact, like people “back home,” the Pakistani-Americans loved pointing out people’s skin colors and consequently putting a net worth on their existence.
Like most, my interaction with the Pakistani-American community began at the masjid/community center when I moved to New Jersey at the age of 9. I was an active member of the mosque and loved every visit; I even led the youth group for girls for some years. However, many of my classmates and friends (including my sister), often despised going there. Whenever we met a new auntie or potential friend, after the initial customary greetings, we were met with remarks such as, “You two are sisters? Really? But you’re so much prettier. You have such light skin! Really, you’re from Pakistan? You totally don’t look like a Pakistani. You look just like your mother! Your sister must look like your father.” I wish I could say that remarks like this rarely took place or from seemingly “uneducated” adults, but we heard them more often than we would like to remember – and from women of all ages, professions and even from their daughters.
This brings me to a slight tangent. When people exclaimed that I did not look Pakistani, I was supposed to accept it as a compliment. To those people who still attempt to honor me with this insult, I am reluctant to accept YOU a fellow Paksitani. You have failed to understand the meaning behind this identity as many Americans have failed to behave according to theirs when they point at your dark skins and your hijab, labeling you as un-American. What then, is the difference between you and those ignorant, sad citizens who claim to love America’s anthem and flag, yet fail to cherish her values?
Back to the desi community’s dynamics regarding fair-and-lovely. I have always been the “white” girl in my Pakistani community. I have been honored, revered, compared to celebrities, asked out on dates, sent proposals, taken more seriously than my dark-skinned peers, presumed to be the better student, befriended quickly; all because of my whiteness. Outside the Pakistani community, I still tasted the advantages of my skin color despite displaying a visible symbol of my religion. In contrast to my fellow Pakistani, Bengali or African hijabis, I have been socially accepted, hired for jobs, befriended at social events, and asked out – with far less struggles than my sisters. It is almost as if people are willing to ignore or allow you to wear the hijab, provided you meet specific physical standards. No wonder we see some hijabi bloggers crossing unfair limits, compromising their identities and faith to prettify every aspect of themselves, so that maybe the hijab will no longer be “the” physical obstacle. I admit I have had it easy and I refuse to listen to another person tell me that our Muslim (and non-Muslim) community focuses on our personalities. Tell that to the dark-skinned girls who are disgraced, belittled because critics continue pairing their (uncontrolled) color with their choices.
I cringe when people stop my blue-eyed daughter, look into her eyes or touch her skin- as if hoping some of the color will rub off onto them. I absolutely hate it when people point at her from afar like she is a zoo animal, which they paid to gawk at. We are still the white girls, revered because of our “American-ness” and as we travel through China and Pakistan, I sense we have a long struggle ahead of us. But I am hopeful. To pass the current test, I hope to instill humility and gratitude in my girls- teach them that what you cannot control cannot define you.
Blessed with a second daughter, history is attempting to rewrite itself, but I will not let it succeed. Nay, I will fight it and make sure that it writes a new chapter. I cannot tell the difference between their skin tones as I am too busy cherishing their souls, but society eagerly points out the different shades- using it as justifiable means to impose their labels on my children. I am not my mother, restricted by social pressures of ignorant communities. I am an informed, ever-thirsty for knowledge, American, Pakistani-Muslim who knows that it is high time we stop this utter nonsense and the concept of a master race. I will not say that I am ashamed to be fair-skinned nor will I use the argument of white supremacy to make myself feel guilt or shame. This is something I cannot control, therefore, it should not be a source of pride nor disgrace.
Fatima’s inspirations derive from her frequent travels around the world, along with her mixed cultural upbringing. She takes pride in being a culturally confused mama and also shares the highs and lows of raising little confused humans on her Instagram page.