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Hana Shams Ahmed

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“Images are one of the most powerful forms of social control. Images tell us stories about who we are, where we come from and what our place in the world is. Images narrativize and normalize history and shape our collective social conscious. In a not-so-post colonial, white supremacist, heteropatriarchal world, the images we see are often shaped by intersecting oppressions, and without critical consciousness we risk imbibing and perpetuating the lies of the oppressors.”

The Jasmine Diaries Part II: ‘Exotic’ is not a Compliment (Womanist Musings)

Swooning blonde white long-haired women, magic that turns a sloppy-looking maid into a beautiful princess, evil and jealous step-mothers and step-sisters, a helpless mermaid waiting to be rescued from mermaidhood by a handsome man. Different stories but same endings. Depending on the level of her beauty, the girl in the story gets the man. Yes, as banal and sexist as these stories are, for many of us these were on our unspoken compulsory reading list during our childhood. It was part and parcel of growing up. Disney stories have been translated to who knows how many languages to make them available to as many people on this earth as possible. Not exactly Sultana’s Dreams, these, or even Aesop’s fables, with a moral at the end. If they did have morals, I wonder what they would be. Step mothers are evil no matter what. Women have to be white, blonde, young and have big blue eyes or else you have no future. A woman’s success depends on getting hold of a rich, good-looking prince. Or something more inane? No, definitely not Sultana’s Dream.

So when I saw Dhaka Tribune’s TMag Eid special magazine being posted by my friends on Facebook it did not melt my heart with a rush of childhood nostalgia. I no longer equate Disney characters with happily-ever-after thoughts. Disney to me now represents sexism, patriarchy and yes, violence. But this, four beautiful, very fair-skinned young women representing four women characters from Disney were what TMag decided would be the faces of this year’s Eid. I gathered that TMag wasn’t exactly a feminist magazine but can a woman’s magazine from this era afford to be so devoid of gender and class politics? Can it afford to look away from the structural violence, sexism, domination and degradation women have to face every day if they don’t conform to norms? This sexism that is silently promoted by such images? It made me think about something that I had just read on someone’s Facebook page. A little girl said she was not afraid of being abducted by chele dhoras [child traffickers] because she was kalo [black] and her mom had told her no one would want her. It reminded me of the hundreds of women who still have to put themselves on display for future in-laws to scrutinize every aspect of their physical beauty for them to be accepted for marriage – the making and breaking of their future sometimes depends on the shade of her skin.

I flipped through the online version of TMag and a feature on Zara Rahim caught my eye. A fresh university graduate who had worked as a digital content director for the Obama administration in Florida and currently working as the digital manager of the Tampa mayor, it was good to see a pullout quote from her where she talked about how there needs to be more focus on women’s rights. But sadly even Zara Rahim was not spared from the physical beauty scrutiny. ‘Whoever said that a beautiful woman can’t be a tough nut in politics has yet to set eyes on her’ – is how Zara Rahim is described in her introduction. What message does that send to a young woman who is working hard and doing well but does not exactly look like Cinderella? Are successful men ever introduced in a magazine in this manner? It reminded me of Nadine Murshid’s article on alalodulal.org where she talked about Bangladeshi Miss USA contender Paromita Mitra. Murshid wrote that Mitra’s decision to take part in Miss USA was telling – that despite majoring in aerospace engineering and minoring in math, she still wanted to be acknowledged for her beauty rather than her brains. Beauty pageants (and TMags) are out there to convince women ‘that their biggest assets are their physical beauty’ [Murshid, June 2013].

I know that TMag is not the only magazine that objectifies women in this manner. It was the Disney bit that attracted my attention in the first place. Disney because it has nothing in common with our society or culture. Disney because of its widest worldwide coverage and popularity. Disney because of how it professes to be educational for children by teaching them about good and evil but not teaching them that about gender equality. Disney because most of the characters there are so very white. Disney because we can’t seem to get away from our obsession with gendered characterization (The Daily Star called Nishat Majumder the ‘first Bangladeshi Everest princess’). Disney because what it does is similar to what Allama Shafi called for, yet we glorify one and condemn the other. Both dehumanize women and represent them as sexual objects. But while one does so in a crude and brash manner the other colonizes the mind slowly and surreptitiously. It’s a bit like the red apple in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Beautiful and shiny on the outside, but pretty darned poisoned on the inside.

References

1. Nadine Murshid, “Beauty, Contest and Context,” alalodulal.org, June 21, 2013.

2. Pankaj Karmakar, “Women can do everything: Says first Bangladeshi Everest princess on her return,” The Daily Star, June 4, 2012.

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