Aijaz Zaka Syed
They say beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder. If only it were that simple. Plato, to whom the much exploited pearl of wisdom is attributed, suggested “beholding beauty with the eye of the mind” and cautioned against falling for the physical aspect or mere “images of beauty.”
The recent crowning of a ‘dark-skinned’ American of Indian origin and the instantaneous and far from beautiful response it has generated on the Net and in media–both conventional and new-age kind—has Indians in America and back home fuming and rightly outraged.
Within minutes of Nina Davuluri’s anointment as the new Miss America, the Twitter went into a tailspin with many of the famously informed Americans expressing shock, disgust and outrage in various degrees over a dark “Arab” and “Muslim” being chosen for the honour. Some called her Miss Al Qaida. Others trashed her as Miss Terrorist. Still others taunted and jeered at her for the colour of her skin.
The garden-variety racist barbs directed against Ms Davuluri, ranging from old-fashioned mistrust of all foreigners to Islamophobic bilge, are hardly new and unprecedented though. In 2010, there had been a similar row when Rima Fakih became the first ever Arab and Muslim woman to win the Miss USA title. The winsome Ms Fakih, who belying her lithe frame trained to be a professional wrestler, was called ‘Miss Hezbollah’ because of her Lebanese roots.
The Arabs, Asians and other coloured fellow travellers have routinely faced the hostility in America and elsewhere in the West although often it is only a tiny fringe that demonstrates such bigotry. The poor Sikhs, because of their beards and turbans, are often mistaken for Arabs and Muslims and paid a heavy price in the post 9/11 chaos.
Over the weekend, a Sikh professor, who wrote a New York Times op-ed last year about hate crimes against American Sikhs, was attacked by a group of teens. Prabhjot Singh, who teaches at the prestigious Columbia University in New York and sports a flowing beard and a handsome turban, was assaulted in upper Manhattan amidst calls of ‘Get Osama.’
Reacting to all the sweetness and light seen over Davuluri’s selection, Indian American standup comedian Aasif Mandvi, who is a big hit on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, said, “You took this county away from the Indians, and now a different group of Indians is taking it back!”
But jokes apart, all said and done you cannot look past the fact that this is the country that has twice elected a black president with a Muslim father. America has certainly come a long way since the days of African American slavery and near total elimination of red Indians or the Native Americans–the original inhabitants of the land of plenty.
As President Barack Obama reminded in his UN address this week, this is after all a country where blacks not long ago weren’t even allowed to vote or share the same space with the whites. In any case, when you are being sold and bought like cattle, exercising your democratic right would be the last thing on your mind.
Today, if a second generation woman of Indian or Arab origin can get to wear the beauty crown– shallow and superficial such contests and notions of beauty as they are–the Americans can truly celebrate and take pride in the fact. Perhaps, as they say, it can only happen in America.
This may be why Nina Davuluri, who traces her roots to Andhra Pradesh and has a large extended family in Vijaywada, hasn’t let all the bitterness and bickering touch her poise and dignity. The same cannot be said of all the socialites, pundits and commenterati back home in India.
There has been much righteous outrage in Indian media over the racist and xenophobic rants against ‘our girl,’ forgetting our own hopeless, perpetual fascination and preoccupation with colour white and what is considered ‘fair and lovely.’
Indeed, our whole concept of beauty begins and ends with ‘fairness’ and melanin in our skin. Just glance through some of those matrimonial adverts; everyone wants a fair and beautiful bride. And those who are stuck with a darker shade are hawked by their anxious families as ‘wheatish’, gifting a whole new word to the English language.
Perhaps no country spends as much as we Indians do to get a fairer and lighter skin—the lighter the better. In fact, it is a billion rupee industry with top sportsmen and Bollywood stars–fairness fascists of them all–shamelessly selling fairness creams and lotions. Even Shahrukh Khan, the reigning superstar known for his dark looks and a razor-sharp mind, endorses one such magical potion for instant fairness and looks rather ludicrous doing it.
I wonder what would have been the chances of the ‘Andhra girl’ making it to the top of the beauty pageants in the fairness-obsessed India. The Hindu newspaper offered an answer in its editorial, “In a country where a multi-million rupee cosmetic industry thrives on promises of lightening a woman’s skin colour in 10, 20 or 30 days, it is fair to say that the dark complexioned 24-year-old wouldn’t have stood a chance. The truth is, the Indian idea of beauty is not very different from the imagined ideal of ‘Miss America’ that those racist hate-tweeters in the US hold dear: white or nothing.”
So we aren’t exactly qualified to lecture the Americans—at least not on this count. But it is not just the Indians who suffer from this shallow and emasculating notion of beauty. Increasingly, the colour white is seen as a virtue and an extraordinary blessing by many societies across Asia and elsewhere.
A Lebanese colleague of mine, who takes pride in her good looks and her creamy white skin, snorted when she saw Davuluri’s picture splashed on newspaper front pages. “She is not at all pretty! How could they choose her as Miss America?” she demanded.
In the Middle East, whiteness of skin has acquired the status of an extraordinary, divine qualification that automatically opens doors for you wherever you go–in terms of career and social mobility whatever your qualifications and experience. Often, being born in the northern hemisphere or carrying a passport or degree from those blessed lands would not just land you a plump job, it actually determines your pay, perks and place in an organisation. There is a stark difference between what Westerners get paid and what is offered to the less equal from the Third world.
“Do you have a Western passport or degree–you know from the US, Canada, Europe or Australia?” a prospective employer, who heads a big public sector oil company in Abu Dhabi sympathetically asked me a couple of years ago. “Then we could have doubled your package.”
Few organisations in the region believe in ensuring ‘equal opportunities’. This despite the fact that the faith that we routinely invoke celebrates and emphasises equality and brotherhood of men like no other religion does.
In his historic last sermon, the Prophet, peace be upon him, proclaimed: “All mankind is from Adam and Eve; an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab. A white (man) has no superiority over a black (man) nor a black (man) has any superiority over a white one except by piety and good deeds.”
It was this liberating message and spirit of the faith that once won it hearts and minds around the world and brought millions to its fold. How many of us live and practise it today though? Truth be told, from Asia to Middle East to Americas, there is a bit of a racist and fairness fascist in all of us.
*Aijaz Zaka Syed is a commentator on the Middle East and South Asia. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org