I Tasted White Privilege In My Pakistani Community

Guest writer Fatima Asad explains why she never did want to have the 'upper hand' in a superficial society.

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 subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) 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.

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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 Asad is a an American-Pakistani Muslim Mama. She is a writer, blogger and homeschooler.  You can follow her journey on her Facebook page, or connect with her through her blog.

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.

 

 

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11 responses to “I Tasted White Privilege In My Pakistani Community”

  1. a teen says:

    Salaam, I agree with you completely, especially as someone who speaks from the “other side” of the color spectrum. Don’t get me wrong, I love my Pakistani culture, but I would hate that the place I was supposed to feel most safe and connected, the masjid, was tainted by the judgment and criticism of the aunties there.

    However, I am seeing a great shift against this racial bias at least among the Pakistani-American teenagers of today (me being one of them). Perhaps it’s rebellion from cultural standards or a newfound decency towards people, but we scorn industries like Fair & Lovely and do not discuss skin color. Unfortunately this shift is not wholly complete as the girls will refuse to stay in the sun too long, claiming its becuase of skin disease, silently knowing its an internal, prejudiced disease that stop us.

    • Fatima Asad says:

      Thank you and yes, I am noticing this slow, yet determined shift alhumdullilah. It’s interesting how you point out the sun bathing point. Now that I think about it, I have witnessed this on a few occasions. ?

  2. Sakinah says:

    MaShaAllah Fatima such a well written piece!

  3. Ahsan says:

    Hey sis, I don’t really why you have an issue with people complementing your eyes and skin, and same with your baby. They are simply trying to tell you that you are beautiful. Every culture values the rare individuals in that culture that signify “rarity”. Being blue eyed and light skinned is seen as a beautiful thing in Pakistan. Whether that has roots in some kind of inferiority complex and a desire to be white, I don’t know. But i would just be appreciative of people who complement. Would you rather they treat you with scorn for your appearance? I think you have needlessly politicized this issue. I have been living in Canada for 20 years and would have no tolerance with some Pakistani BS expressions, such as the whole have a boy first and the whole stupid thing about how “dhoop me mut jao, skin Kali how jai ghi”… Just roll your eyes at this foolishness, but do be grateful that Allah gave you beauty, how many people long for that? Anyway just my two cents

    • Fatima Asad says:

      ASA I understand what you mean and alhumdullilah I am very grateful for Allah’s (SWT) blessings. There have been many who have complimented with the best of manners and appreciation. However, the point here was to shed a light on viewing this God-given trait as an accomplishment or being a victim of inferior complex because of it. Thank you for sharing your point of view.

  4. Assalamu alaikum. I am a revert American, pale skin and blue eyes. I have wondered sometimes if American non-Muslims would treat me differently if I was not so pale.

    On the other side of this, I do not like to show my face online. I am a writer as yourself and I recognize the need to show we are human online, but I feel very uncomfortable to glaringly say “look into my whiteness” or become known as the pale revert sister. I elect to wear niqab when it comes to online video conferences or a need for my image. My face becomes the focus and I don’t want that. Know me for my words, not for my face.

    • Fatima Asad says:

      ASA sister. Thank you for sharing this. I can relate to this. It is not a pale skin issue for me when it comes to online communication- it is like you said, a privacy issue and also focusing the attention on my work and words rather than mostly on my appearance.

  5. Usman says:

    This article reeks of veiled narcissism and melodrama. Why would anyone make such an issue of being complemented on beautiful features? It’s analogous to a 50 year old man bemoaning the curse of having a luscious and virile full head of hair amongst a group of balding men.

    • S says:

      The problem is that you equate whiteness with beauty and that’s what she’s talking about! She doesn’t want the extra attention and dark-skinned women shouldn’t be sidelined because Allah SWT blessed them with the *wrong* skin colour, naoozubillah min zalik.

      andr being singled out for praise and attention at the expense of others when’s trying to make a point about v

  6. Ibra says:

    Salams,
    Sorry to say this, but a lot of you Pakistanis are weird. I assume you must be from NoPa (Northern Pakistan) where they place a special emphasis on “skin tone” lol.
    I’m an Indian Muslim, but usually get mistaken for Pakistani by Pakistanis, bc I don’t look like a “stereotypical” Indian (to be fair also get mistaken for Arab afghan Brazilian).
    I think it’s a pride and ego thing in among Pakistanis; they always want to look their best infront of everyone so they dress up and equate fairer skin tones with beauty.
    Fatima, thank you for emphasizing that this issue of skin tone is really a problem in the Pakistani community. In the past, writers on this website like Hena Zubairi??, have tried to implicate and generalize that all “Desis” and South Asians look down on fellow countrymen(women) who arent fair skin….so far from the truth. Hello! Most Indians and south Asians are brown and dark skin ppl. So thank you for not exaggerating like Hena Zuberi, but rather truthfully pointing out that this is AN ISSUE IN THE PAKISTANI CULTURE.
    By the way, I’ve also left a comment under Hena Zuberi’s past written article, if you want to reference.

    Salams

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