• Prabhleen Kaur

18 Shades of Black

Updated: Apr 5, 2020

“18 Shades of Black” is something that every female across India, who has been confined by the four walls of sexism and gender discrimination, craves - a breath of fresh air.

With elements of mystery, elegance, prestige and poise, all portrayed by the colour black, its role in the fashion and beauty industry has been significant for decades. Despite its universal distinction, it is a colour which is often absent from the traditional world of Indian fashion.

Meet Sharmila Nair - a designer of traditional Indian clothing for women, who is now using her platform within the industry to utlize this specific colour and make a powerful feminist and political statement. Nair’s new social media campaign, 18 Shades of Black, exhibits 18 women who are adorned in beautiful black Saris (traditional Indian dresses) - designed by her - which attack the gender discrimination Indian women are victim to, on a daily basis. Ms. Nair refers to these issues as “unseen restrictions” and explains how preconceived notions in society have been normalized to the extent that women often begin to place these socially imposed limitations upon themselves without even realizing it.

Often considered unclean and impure within certain Indian cultures, menstruating women are restricted from a variety of daily activities, such as entering temples and kitchens. Ms. Nair’s campaign was inspired by the protests which occurred in Kerala in 2018, when the Supreme Court lifted a ban which prevented menstruating women from entering the Sabarimala temple, one of the holiest Hindu Shrines. This came as a shocker to society - the fact that women would now be able to enter the temple during their menstrual cycle - a time of supposed uncleanliness and impurity. Their outrage was amplified, seeing the large number of women who participated within the protests. Thus, 18 Shades of Black was born; 18 for each step at Sabarimala temple, and black because that is the colour worn by each devotee.

"We are told we are impure during our periods, and we buy into these ideas. Even now I have friends who would voluntarily stay away from visiting a temple or participating in religious rituals during their periods," says Ms Nair. "So I thought if so many women can fight for the rights of a deity, why can't they fight for the rights of women? And I thought if so many women came together, imagine the kind of changes they can bring about." While she was inspired by the events surrounding the Sabarimala temple, her campaign does not only aim to tackle the restrictions placed on women because of their menstruation cycles, but the idea that women are considered inferior to men, as a whole.

The conditioning that eventually leads to this mindset, begins by introducing these notions to children early on. Children are told that there is a big difference in their roles in society and the way they should act. They are told that girls do not talk or laugh loudly. They do not deserve the opportunity to pursue a higher education, much less a primary or secondary education, and are to be considered less than, and never equal to, men. On the other hand, boys are often made fully aware of the dominance they hold over females and are encouraged to live their lives to the fullest, never facing any constraints or limitations. In most villages, women are rarely given the chance to study or pursue a higher education, being told that their sole duty is to fulfill the role of a devoted mother and wife. However, in the rare circumstance that they are able to study at a higher level, restrictions continue to confine the fields they are able to go into, seeing as science and math related careers are off limits and primarily male-dominated career paths.

In certain parts of the nation, females begin to face this discrimination before they are even born. Considered burdens to their families, the concept of “infanticide” is extremely prevalent all across the nation, with certain cultures amplifying the crime more than others. The baby girl is deliberately killed by means of an unsafe abortion or a cold blooded murder after she is born, often because she will not be able to earn for the family, and/or the family does not want to pay her dowry when the time for marriage comes. Even when these girls are given the chance to live, their lives are full of struggles regarding the attainment of equal education, job opportunities and genuine respect from the people around them. Their mere survival is one of their biggest challenges in this prejudiced society. According to CNN, 240,000 girls under the age of five die each year as a result of gender-discrimination based neglect, including malnutrition, lack of vaccinations, and overall care.

Ms. Nair’s campaign questions why these outdated patriarchal concepts continue to plague societies, and why women are conditioned to believe that they should be treated this way. It touches upon a variety of issues, including body shaming, discrimination on the basis of skin colour and/or caste, patriarchal discrimination, stigma surrounding menstruation, and even the lack of sanitation and clean toilets for women. Ms. Nair revealed that finding women to participate within the campaign was a difficult task, as most women were worried about how their story would be moulded and viewed by society after the Sabarimala controversy. However each of the 18 women who did step up is a “woman of substance”, including a lawyer, an actor, a poet, a psychologist, some writers, office workers, a homemaker, and a techie.

The campaign features short videos and photographs of each of the 18 women clad in a unique, black sari designed by Ms. Nair, each presenting a distinctive story; speaking of the domination and patriarchy each woman has faced in her life. For example, Soli Somanath, a software consultant, can be seen speaking in a video in which she says “When I was 25, I was making decisions about baby food, breastfeeding, whether my husband had eaten or his clothes were washed. But now when I look at my colleagues who are 25, they are taking decisions on what outfit they would wear the next day or planning to surmount Rupin Pass,” as she is dressed as a traditional Indian bride. However, unlike Indian brides, she is dressed in all black, symbolising the restrictive lifestyle she lived as she was confined by her marriage at the young age of 21.

Every video follows a woman and her unique story, which can be viewed on Ms. Nair’s YouTube channel:

Remya Sasindran, another one of the 18 women, speaks about how she often found herself questioning her womanhood and what it truly means to be a woman, because she could never imagine herself taking on the role of a mother. In a culture that constantly puts pressures of motherhood and marriage upon women, to her, an important concept to understand is that being a good mother and obedient wife is a notion that has been present within society for centuries. By sharing her story, she aims to raise awareness for other women who might be in the same position as her and spread the message that creating and taking care of a family is not the sole aim or purpose of a woman's life simply because she has the ability to do so.

The social issue that Ms. Nair combats with her advocative work isn’t the only appealing feature about this campaign - each woman who took part in the campaign made a huge impact in getting the message across, loud and clear. After binge watching all 18 videos, (an extremely enlightening experience, 10/10 would recommend it :) I noticed an authentic attribute about each woman in her respective video - she represents her own version of beauty. Whether she had kohl rimmed eyes, a Bindi and crimson stained lips, or a completely bare face and wild and unruly curls, there was absolutely no uniformity within their appearances - they came as they pleased, presenting their whole truth without being swayed by the opinions of others. The only aspect these women had in common was their individually designed black Sari and the shared resilience - as they conspicuously continue to fight for what they stand for, to build better lives for themselves, and the future generations of young females. Overall, the boldness of Ms. Nair's campaign has taken the social media world by storm - women all across the India, and the world, can relate to the issues that these the 18 women openly discussed, encourageing females to use their voice, speak their truth, and fight for progress in society.

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