More Than Meets the Eye: Looking Twice at the History of Eyeliner — With Zahra Hankir

More Than Meets the Eye: Looking Twice at the History of Eyeliner — With Zahra Hankir
A Nepalese Muslim checks his “surma,” an herbal eyeliner applied before offering ritual prayer during Ramadan. (Narayan Maharjan/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

“There’s more to eyeliner than meets the eye,” Zahra Hankir, author of “Eyeliner: A Cultural History,” tells New Lines’ Ola Salem. “This is not just a makeup product. It carries within it so much meaning that goes far beyond beauty. … Historically and through the centuries, eyeliner has been used as a form of conveying a person’s spirituality or their religiosity. It can be a way to repel the evil eye. It has been used medicinally to treat the eye of various ailments such as conjunctivitis. It’s been used to protect against the glare of the sun.”

Hankir and Salem consider their personal experiences and how the product offered them each a way to connect with their cultural heritage while growing up in the diaspora. “It really was a part of my journey of coming of age and self-acceptance,” says Hankir. “When you are growing up in a predominantly white society, and you’re sort of trying to fit in, just growing up by itself is difficult. … There’s this fine line between wanting to assimilate but also wanting to express yourself and your heritage.”

“Eyeliner is not just a makeup product, it’s not just a cosmetic. It carries within it so much meaning that goes far beyond beauty.”

Hankir recalls that while researching her book she considered an aspect of the Orientalism discourse to which she had not previously given much thought. The bust of the ancient Egyptian Queen Nefertiti, she says, exposes the double standards that Western beauty ideals impose on women from the Global South. “Simultaneously the attraction is because she’s exotic-looking, but also they’re almost repulsed by the idea that they would be attracted to something exotic.”

“What I was trying to do with this chapter on Nefertiti was to understand what her place was in Western society, to situate her within the growth trajectory of eyeliner,” Hankir adds. “To learn about the history of how she was perceived I had to look at primarily Western sources and the discourse around her was so Orientalist.”

Hankir highlights some of the modern contradictions around the wearing of eyeliner, such as the case of Iran, where women’s bodies are policed despite the historically religious practice of wearing eyeliner. “Eyeliner is known in its earliest iterations to have been worn by the Prophet Muhammad. So that would make it permissible for Muslim communities to wear eyeliner,” she points out.

One of the more surprising elements of her research, Hankir notes, was how extensively eyeliner is used across different cultures. “This item of makeup has been used historically across these cultures in different ways,” she says. “At the same time, they will have commonalities and similarities. … They’re using eyeliner for similar purposes, and I think the interesting thing is obviously that the eye is so central to our being.”

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