It’s that time of the year again, when discounts are offered at stores and on high streets across the world. The concept of Black Friday has travelled to my country as well, except that we have changed its name.
In Pakistan, a number of brands have begun offering Black Friday discounts in recent years. However, in January this year, the Council of Islamic Ideology (a body that advises the government on religious affairs) announced that it was not ‘appropriate’ to use the word black for Friday. “The importance of Friday is well known in our religion and should be used in a positive way,” said the chairperson, clarifying that the decision had been taken because the colour had ‘negative connotations in society’.
The council will insist that its ruling is in line with Islamic injunctions. It has openly talked about the ‘negative connotations in society’ with regards to the colour black. One could have possibly let go of the renaming had the council argued that the colour is associated with mourning in our country – even then it would have been an absurd simplification. But to say that the colour itself has ‘negative connotations’ is rooted in the racism we have upheld as part of our culture.
Seemingly, renaming Black Friday might be nothing. But the reason I choose to reflect on this attitude is because I am interested in problematising the whole idea around coming up with something racist and justifying it in the name of religion. The very need to justify it with the use of religion hints towards one’s admission of guilt – the council is aware that in villainising the black colour, it is engaging in something sinister.
After the council’s ruling on the matter, names that Pakistani brands gave to the discounts offered this year have ranged from Blessed Friday and Big Friday to Super Friday and White Friday. The racism could not be more glaring, especially in the last example.
A hatred for anything dark is something we as Pakistanis also share with our neighbours, India and Bangladesh. Both Islam and Hinduism, two major religions of this region, have many times upheld and celebrated a diversity in skin colour. If black were such a ‘negative’ colour in line with Islamic injunctions, the Ka’aba, which happens to be the holiest site in Islam, would not be draped in it. If it were a ‘negative’ colour in Hinduism, the goddess Kali – the word ‘kali’ means dark in Urdu and Hindi – would not be worshipped. While a preference for light over dark remains an integral part of our culture, it seems like it has little to do with religion.
Our region’s history of subordination and oppression at the hands of colonialism has played a major role in shaping many of our attitudes and shared culture. At the same time, we continue to replicate and reproduce the same oppressions when we are in a position to exercise control. And the oppressions penetrate all layers of society so much so that the first person who shames a dark-skinned girl for the colour of her skin more often than not happens to be an immediate relative. I don’t recall a single time when it’s Muharram, I wear black out of love for Imam Husain and his family, and don’t hear a casual joke about ‘khatmals’. (Khatmal is Urdu for bed bug and is an infamous slur used for members of the Shia community.) Other friends have shared how they have been called ‘kaalay kaafir’ [dark-skinned infidels] and ‘kaalay jhanday valay’ [those who carry black flags].
What is even more interesting is how mainstream clerics are capable of making religion so malleable that they can always align it with capitalistic demands. Discounts are appreciated without a word about unhindered maximisation of profits or labour rights. The only problem that it could come up with in this connection was the unacceptability of ‘black’.