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What’s Wrong With Fetishizing the Chai Wala?

What’s Wrong With Fetishizing the Chai Wala?

chai wala

This Chai Wala piece was originally posted on Oct. 19, 2016, on WordPress, written by author/blogger, Shehnaz Zindabad. 

I know, I know – we feminists can’t even be happy with simple, plain eye candy and have to find flaws in everything. You’re welcome. ❤

I just don’t see why that image went viral and why everyone was so shocked to see that a Pakistani tea-seller could be so attractive – other than the fact that he was being fetishized. Where in the world do people live that they lack good-looking men so much they go cray when they come to know of one? I think there are several reasons why this photo went viral and why especially Pakistani non-Pashtuns went cray-cray over it. Read on, fellers.

And, by the way, if you shared this picture on your social media, have been told why your choice to exotify it is wrong, and you’re still defending your choice because “but I shared it only because he’s so attractive and yet so simple! What’s wrong with that?” … yeah, you actually just answered your own question without realizing it, but let me break it down bit by bit because there are many layers to this problem.

Formerly colonized groups of people have internalized the beauty standards – among other concerns – that our white colonizers imposed on us.

To be clear, however, this is not about Arshad Khan himself (Arshad Khan is the actual name of the human now known instead as “chai wala”). He’s not at all the problem or even a remote part of the problem. I’m happy for him that he appreciates the fame he’s received from the photo and that he’s even got a contract with a modeling agency in Pakistan. If that’s what he ever wanted, may God put barakah in his life and grant him success in all ways, ameen.

The problem lies in the ways he’s being talked about, in the reasons that his photo became an internet sensation among South Asians *and among white people* who are so pleased with themselves to see “a guy who’s not exactly white but who looks white, yay! Look how cute he is!” Yeah, that’s not okay.

The many problems include the following, in no particular order.

Internalized self-hatred among Pakistanis and other South Asians (and others, #WeKnow, but this is about Pakistanis) getting out of hand. Formerly colonized groups of people have internalized the beauty standards – among other concerns – that our white colonizers imposed on us. These include declaring white skin, blue or green eyes, and blonde hair desirable, attractive, and the ultimate form of beauty.

White people even declared white skin to be “fair” (the synonym of just!), equating “fairness/justice” with whiteness, with beauty, while declaring “darkness” to be evil, ugly, undesirable. But they did this while also declaring “tan” to beautiful and desirable. Tan is just the right amount of darkness – not too dark because that’s not attractive, but not entirely white either because that’s just too familiar, too normal, and not exotic enough.

This is why too many of us can’t respect and love ourselves if we don’t have the skin, hair, and eye colors most white people are naturally born with. This is also why  black/brown eyes and brown skin aren’t desirable and sexy enough to go viral even though every. other. person. in Pakistan is brown and doesn’t have green/blue eyes. Even though most Afghans/Pashtuns don’t have blue/green eyes. Remember Sharbat Gula? Yeah, her, too. It was the piercing green eyes. Green eyes are always piercing. you understand.

A Pakistani with green eyes?! No way! That, too — an individual who’s at other people’s service, a tea seller? Aren’t those people supposed to be, like, poor, and aren’t poor people supposed to be dark and unattractive?

So Arshad Khan became popular because too many South Asians lack the self-esteem, self-love to see a green-eyed person of color randomly and just move on. No. We must take a photo of this creature because omg, this is so … different, you know? A Pakistani with green eyes?! No way! That, too — an individual who’s at other people’s service, a tea seller? Aren’t those people supposed to be, like, poor, and aren’t poor people supposed to be dark and unattractive? Our world is turning upside down.

Apparently, this tea-seller just doesn’t fit any of the stereotypes that exist anywhere about tea-sellers. Like, omg, *even* a chai wala can be this sexy?! Because chai walas are such useless and unattractive and poor people that they have no business being good looking and desirable. This brings me to the second issue.

Serious class issues going unnoticed. Hurmat puts it really well when he writes:

“The fascination with the ‘chai wala’ (ironically he doesn’t have a name which the photographer can easily find out and give) of Pakistani cyberspace represents the stereotype that working people and laborers shouldn’t look like ordinary humans and looking handsome is just out of question. You see them looking agape, and sharing it as some sort of revelation. Go and look around yourself and drop the lens of privilege and bias, you will find out that the people on streets are just like you. The middle class and certain faction of elites have a new pastime, which is objectification of a laborer who just happens to not fit into their stereotype. All who are surprised by this handsome face or pretend to be surprised by his face somehow feel that they are doing good to that man. The level of stereotyping and patronizing is just nauseating.”

And the headlines! You guys, the headlines are craaaayzee! I saw one the other day that went, literally, like this: “Guys, there’s a hot chai wala in Islamabad!” Then there’s this, also on Buzzfeed: “This Hot Pakistani Chai wala Is Now A Worldwide Sensation And Has A Modeling Contract.” The rest are equally abhorrent. Because, again, wtf.

Sabina adds another good point to this discussion:

“Pashtuns who spoke out against the stereotype of all Pashtuns are uneducated and poor, themselves responded with classist responses, such as “We are NOT ALL chai walas,” which is problematic because it implies that the very work he does to support himself and his family is not worthy.”

It’s not just non-Pashtuns who perpetuated this myth about Pashtuns being uneducated but good looking (see this meme that says, “Pashtuns are handsome. It doesn’t matter if they are makers of tea or chauffeurs”). Pashtuns, too, have been complicit in these self-misrepresentations of themselves, being classist and suggesting that there’s something wrong with being a “chai wala,” selling tea. There are a lot of wrong things with this image, as we’ve established already, but “OMG #NotAllPashtuns are #chaiwalas” is not one of them.

Afghan refugees are considered useless, unproductive, terrorist, and just overall unfit to be human or legitimate. They’re not allowed to run their own businesses or live outside of camps, and their bank accounts and sim cards for phones are shut down.

Pashtuns are white/light-skinned with blue/green eyes (which is a myth, but okay), but they are useless, terrorists, misogynists, and just don’t deserve to be treated like humans in Pakistan. And they have useless jobs like selling tea, or selling naan, apparently.

a. Pashtuns are only as good as our looks, but we’re not good enough to be treated with respect. We are “good looking” because we have light skin and apparently green and blue eyes, but we’re not human enough to be respected in the society. What the response to this picture tells us is that “You guys! Yeah, we’re Pakistani and all, but we do have some very beautiful people, okay? Look at this hottie, for example!” If you didn’t know any better, you’d think our purpose in life was to insist on our own humanity.

b. Especially in Pakistan, Afghans – a majority of whom are Pashtuns, Arshad Khan’s ethnic group – are treated horribly as refugees. In fact, Pakistan is driving out some 600,000 (you read that right: six hundred thousand) Afghan refugees, sending them back to Afghanistan. The refugee situation in Pakistan worsened with the Dec. 16, 2014 shooting of the Army Public School children, when Afghans were accused of being terrorists – and they still are.

Afghan refugees are considered useless, unproductive, terrorist, and just overall unfit to be human or legitimate. They’re not allowed to run their own businesses or live outside of camps, and their bank accounts and sim cards for phones are shut down. (See here for more human rights violations of Afghans in Pakistan.) The fact that in 2005, a Pashto song by Naghma came out begging Peshawar to take better care of its own children (the Pashtuns, the refugees, from Afghanistan) is evidence enough that things weren’t going well.

pashtuns

c. And it doesn’t begin or end with these good-looking refugees: The Pashtuns of Pakistan, with some exceptions (based especially on socioeconomic class), are another unwanted minority in Pakistan. Not only are there all these stereotypes of Pashtuns throughout Pakistan (hint: #PathanJokes in mainstream media), but there are also issues like: our language is not important enough to be taught even to us, let alone to others; more than 90% of Pashtuns can neither read nor write their own language, but all literate Pashtuns — whether they went to school for just one year or finished their PhDs — can and must be able to read/write Urdu.

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We Pashtuns have internalized this so deeply that now, the more educated we are, the less Pashto we must speak. We are deprived of learning about our history and culture, so that we never get to read about Bacha Khan from our own perspectives but we are taught he was a traitor to Pakistan. Never mind that he was one of the most important leaders in Pashtun history – who spent more time in Pakistani jails than he did in British jails (and he spent more than half of his life in jails). We are identified as “Afghan” on our national ID cards and whatnot, which automatically “otherizes” us, but we are then denied all connection with Afghanistan so that most Pakistani Pashtuns think lowly of Afghans and Afghanistan.

d. Then, of course, there are Pakistan’s and the U.S.’s victims of drones: they’re largely Pashtuns. Remember Nabila? The 9-year-old girl who survived a CIA-issued drone attack that her grandmother died in, and who was in DC in 2013 speaking about drones — and only five Congresspeople attended the hearing?

The stereotypes about Pashtuns are so bad and so prevalent that a very common conversation starter between me and non-Pashtun Pakistanis goes something like this:

“Ahhh, you’re Pathan!”
“Yes. I’m Pashtun.”
“Par (but)… you’re so educated… your parents let you?” [It’s either this or then “Your parents are good people to let you go to school.]
“What?”
“You know … you know how Pathans are, you know, a lil backward, misogynistic and don’t let girls go to school. The Taliban–”
“No. Pashtuns are no more misoygnistic and backward than the rest of the Pakistanis.” And this next line is one that the latest Pakistani person literally used with me:
“Haan, haan (yes, yes), but Pathans are just a lil more backward, hai na? (no?)”
“No. Not at all.”

And I’m sick of these stereotypes, so stop being so ignorant. You have access to knowledge and resources, and you have no excuse to believe these things you hear about us. Illiteracy has everything to do with poverty, which has everything to do with marginalization and denial of access to resources, and so if it so happens that the largest illiterate population in Pakistan is Pashtuns – which isn’t true, but for argument’s sake – it’s not because Pashtuns don’t want education but because of other deeper, structural issues regarding lack of access to education for Pashtuns/Pashtun women.

We Pashtuns have internalized this so deeply that now, the more educated we are, the less Pashto we must speak. We are deprived of learning about our history and culture.

Also, the Taliban don’t represent Pashtun thinking and culture, so don’t use them as an example. Ever. The person did eventually acknowledge that her knowledge about Pashtuns came from mainstream Pakistani media, which portrays Pashtun men like violent, controlling monsters and Pashtun women like oppressive, submissive, helpless creatures of God who are forced to cover their faces. This is hilarious because of my last point.

Too reminiscent of how Arab men are portrayed in western media (at least historically) as being tall, dark, and handsome – sexy, desirable, attractive – but not human enough to be afforded basic human rights and dignity. Objectifying us, dehumanizing us, mocking our cultures, beliefs, ways of life, and literally killing us. But, yeah, we’re handsome people.

Can Pakistan and the world quit their fetishization of the Pathan people, meanwhile justifying the expulsion of Pathans as refugees, using Pathans for proxy wars, and throwing Pathans under the bus for drone strikes and military occupations?

To the Pakistanis/Muslims who shared this picture and made comments like “I’d love to get some chai from him ;)” — it’s totally possible to fight bigotry in one context and be a bigot yourself in another. Darkashan basically summarizes these problems as follows:

Can Pakistan and the world quit their fetishization of the Pathan people, meanwhile justifying the expulsion of Pathans as refugees, using Pathans for proxy wars, and throwing Pathans under the bus for drone strikes and military occupations?

Can the world move from fetishizing blue/green eyes or the “exotic” look and focus on the violence Pathan bodies have faced for centuries? Can we do that? The fetishization that my grandmother and many faced for being green/blue eyed Pathans was HORRIBLE. They had deep traumatic stories and prayed to have children with brown eyes and darker skin so they could fit in rather than being objectified consistently. For women, that resulted in harassment and violence that was unbearable.

Also, I’m not feeling these weak arguments on white supremacy from the diaspora that lack any nuanced understanding of the fetishization of Pathans in the context of Pakistan.

View Comments (6)
  • Whoa whoa whoa. Why do people hate tea sellers so much? At least, what’s there to frown on about this guy being a small-time tea shop owner/worker? Owning a small business isn’t something to be ashamed of. Small businesses are the backbone of the economy.

    I at first thought this guy was white, but I guess I was wrong. He is really cute. So sad that people have to make a big deal of him being cute. Even knowing he’s not white, I still wouldn’t think of him as exotic-handsome…just handsome in general because he’s handsome. You know, for the facial features as well as the blue-gray eyes.

    Then again, I live in a culture where his features are considered normal, so I wouldn’t know.

    I always thought Pashtuns were dark-skinned- guess I was wrong. Thank you for this enlightening post. I learned a lot.

    • That’s kind of what I thought, too. I also thought, originally, that “chai wala” meant “blue-eyed” so, then again, what do I, as a white person in a white culture, know?
      Also…here’s what’s puzzling me. If these features are as normal among Pashtuns as the author claims, why are people making such a big deal out of it? I could understand the fetishization if these features were rare- like naturally blond hair on an African-American person- but if they’re common, why make such a big deal? People tend to fetishize the foreign, not the everyday.

      • They can’t be that common. I mean, there isn’t any one race or ethnic group that is any more beautiful than any other. If he was ugly and blue-eyed I doubt anyone would care about the color of his irises. I think because he’s good-looking and blue-eyed it’s more of a fuss- and the picture was circulated by the right channels!

      • They’re not rare among Pashtuns. However Pashtuns make up a minority of Pakistans population. Among most of the other ethnic groups there these features are rare.

  • Also, if blue eyes on a POC people that naturally have blue eyes are so terribly fetishized in Pakistan, man, I can’t imagine what the response would be to my auburn hair flaming scarlet in the sunshine. Then again, I’m white, and could theoretically go back to my home country, so at least I could escape it. I don’t envy the poor Pashtuns that can’t.

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