Last week Marks and Spencers started selling hijabs as part of the school uniform collection for 3-year-olds. Now, for anyone who isn’t aware of what Islam says about modesty, the hijab—both external and internal (as in physically covering and generally leading a modest lifestyle), is required of post-puberty women. Some have argued that M&S is feeding into an oppressive machine, others have said that this is the protocol for business: to supply to the demand, while there’s the other argument that the hijab is cultural just as it is religious, so maybe young girls going to school simply wanted to look like their mothers.
The reaction to Marks and Spencers selling hijabs to young girls differed than say Nike producing the sportswear hijab. When Nike came out with an athletic scarf cap in March 2018, it was praised because it felt like the most iconic sports brand was recognising Muslim women in sport and encouraging Muslim girls to get involved in athletics. It also meant Muslim women who choose to wear the headscarf saw themselves represented in lights other than the stereotypical caricatures of being oppressed and needing to be saved, as a woman playing sports shows agency over her body, an idea rarely extended to Muslimas. However the mixed reaction by Muslim women to Nike’s move was largely of scepticism. Why now? Was Nike truly being diverse or was this a blanket way to demonstrate liberalism and perhaps, the cool thing to do?
Recently, in September 2018, Nike released its controversial ad campaign with Colin Kaepernick, a black NFL quarterback player who had been outcasted from the league because of his kneeling protest during the national anthem. Many had been waiting to see where the sports brand would align itself politically and joining Kaepernick was another way of saying Nike was standing up for black issues and movements such as #takeaknee and #blacklivesmatter. Though many right-wing citizens boycotted Nike and for a few days the company’s stocks dropped, the campaign was a success. The company’s revenue in the period increased by 10 percent and profits rose across the world—climbing even as high as 24 percent in China (partially because the firm has started focusing more on direct sales). Yet since the release of the campaign, it’s been reported that Nike employees donate 3 times more to the Republican party than to the Democrats. Nike’s own company’s political action committee (PAC) donated $424,000 to the Republican party in 2018 alone. So the real question is, to what extent is this care for social justice a mere charade? And what do the stories behind trying to appear progressive say about conglomerates?
My instant reaction to Marks and Spencers selling hijabs to 3-year-olds was similar to when I read about who Nike really supports. Because the root of why large companies like Nike and your local M&S work the diversity angle on the surface only is due to the lack of diverse makeup in its employees. For example, this year Nike had to undergo a mandatory diversity training and unlearn racial bias as there was the departure of several senior members of staff. It’s no surprise then that a company that is only 23 percent non-white and makes money from blackness and black people donates to right-wing parties that are not supportive of black issues such as police brutality and systemic white privilege. On the other hand, head of customer experience at Marks and Spencers, Maria Koutsoudakis, admitted that the chain has a lot of work to do with diversity and is open to being wrong. But when you’re worth over £2 billion, this is a lazy if not dangerous excuse.
Diversity is easy to check and easier to display when doing so from behind a screen, but the proof is in the performance of the company and not just in what it represents. The monetisation of buying or producing merchandise that seems liberal-learning has a reverse effect when stories like these are released, as we are all well aware of the lengthy administration process any product or campaign has to go through before it is available to buy. (Can anyone say Pepsi?). And in these Trumpian times, we are even more aware that who you endorse behind closed doors, speaks louder than seemingly inclusive campaigns.
What stories like Marks and Spencer and Nike show is an absence of speaking to their consumers, hiring who they largely sell to and listening to the groans minorities feel as they think “not again”. It doesn’t feel like inclusion, nor does it feel like time spent on understanding minority cultures, but just something else to push, so we can buy.
The last couple of years have seen a surge in efforts to subvert prevailing beauty standards in India by decentering whiteness and shifting the narrative of what it means to be beautiful. Social media has provided a place for beauty to be celebrated in all shapes and forms. Campaigns like #unfairandlovely and ‘Dark is Beautiful’ have gained prominence, even garnering support from a number of Bollywood stars. Even so, the representation of women from the Indian subcontinent remains disappointing. How often do we actually see the full spectrum of skin tones, eye colours, hair textures and facial features that characterise South Asia? Not often enough.
The recently released headshots of the 2019 Femina Miss India pageant finalists prove my point. The women are all skinny and fair, with manes of silky straight black hair down to their waists—in other words, unrepresentative of the majority of Indian women. It’s not just that they’re all fair, it’s that they look exactly the same as well. Clearly, they all share the same vision of the ‘ideal’ Indian woman, what they believe to be the epitome of beauty in India.
Online backlash following the release of these photos has confirmed that the beauty pageant has little to do with Indian women or Indian beauty. The lineup hardly represents the ethnic diversity of India’s 29 states, a reality that is disappointing—even Miss USA has crowned a South Asian woman more representative of the Indian populous.
This is perhaps unsurprising given that we continue to exist in a world which holds whiteness and its associated likeness in the highest regard. To be woman and non-white, is to be inherently lacking; caught in a perpetual strive for desirability. We see this in the way South Asian women are encouraged, often coerced, to violently change their bodies by bleaching their skin, straightening their locks and waxing their body hair into oblivion.
In a time when fast fashion and large corporations control notions of diversity, South Asian visibility is often shaped by individuals who are not themselves from South Asian communities. As a result, a lot of the portrayals of brown women in art, fashion and media tend not to be particularly positive, varied or correct. A quick look at Indian media outlets and brands shows that our conception of diversity involves the tokenistic inclusion of fair-skinned brown women with predominantly Eurocentric features.
Even spaces you think would represent the multiplicities of South Asian women like Bollywood and Instagram only showcase a tiny percentage of what brown women actually look like. Indian models, Instagram influencers and Bollywood stars fall firmly within the boundaries of conventional beauty standards with their glossy manes, lighter skin tones, and sharp facial features. Their superficial acceptance beyond the region is reflective of a colonial legacy that finds comfort in the familiar, while vilifying people and practices it doesn’t recognise.
It is imperative that we address this intra-community bias as we work towards dismantling lingering preferences for whiteness in post-colonial societies. We need to start diversifying diversity. We must counter a toxic culture of other-hatred and self-hatred with radical self-love, inclusivity, and a conscious celebration of difference. South Asia is a heterogeneous, multi-faceted region home to thousands of ethnic and tribal groups which deserve to be represented.
While South Asia stands independent today, we, like much of the colonised world, still struggle to shed the internalised self-loathing centuries of servitude ingrained in us. From our traditional dress and religious mores to the food we eat, we were considered savage. The subsequent post-modern colonial hangover has led us to imitate the West in deeply damaging ways. It’s about time that India’s age-old problem of colourism is met with renewed indignation and active demands for better representation.
In the age of social media activism, it has become all too easy to care from a distance without doing much to actually shift the visual culture of South Asia. Instagram is a great place to start in diversifying portrayals of brown women, but it doesn’t quite tackle the root of the problem. South Asia’s public image continues to be governed by more traditional forms of media like TV commercials, soap operas, and of course Bollywood. It is therefore vital that we remain discerning of production bodies and their depiction of Indian women.
After all, the power of the people has always been India’s greatest asset. It is therefore vital that the spaces we create to support and affirm South Asian women are doing just that, and aren’t just claiming to do so. We need to create a broader scope of representation when it comes to what it means, and looks like, to be South Asian.