Fazeelat Aslam, Writer/ Documentary Maker
Where I’m from
“I was born in Pakistan, then moved to London to attend an International school when I was 5 years old. At the age of 9, my family moved to Greenwich, Connecticut. It’s a part of America I wouldn’t recommend anyone go to who isn’t white, blonde and has monogrammed luggage. I remember my sister and I were so excited to come to America because of two things specifically—candy and cable TV. The transition to America was a divided experience for my whole family but I think we all felt less than because we weren’t American. My sister is much lighter skinned than I am, she passes as white, and I did not—so I dealt with a lot of racism and bullying. I was called “beast from the middle east” which was both insulting and idiotic as Pakistan is in South Asia not even in the Middle East. As terrible as it was, I’m grateful I lived in America as a kid before 9/11 because when I came back to live in America for college in 2003, the degree of ignorance was shocking. Before 9/11, Americans didn’t know Pakistan was a country, after 9/11 every Muslim country became synonymous with terrorism.
How I got involved in documentary making
I would go back to Pakistan every summer during my High School years and one thing that was apparent to me was the incredible economic disparity. When I was 16, I started doing different kinds of social work. I started working at an orphanage during the summer. I took pictures of the kids I was working with and I realized the power of media which lead to documentary making. I studied media and gender studies in college.
After college in 2008, there wasn’t a lot of opportunity in America and I decided to go back to Pakistan to work in broadcast journalism. Previously I worked as an intern at a news channel—the biggest in Pakistan. Originally, they had wanted to give me an internship in the entertainment section. I argued myself into the newsroom. I was the only female in the newsroom. That internship helped me become a news anchor after college. One of the reasons they hired me was my English. It was one of the first times they were doing a news broadcast in English. I was a news anchor for primetime news in Pakistan. The channel is called GEO. That was my first job out of college. I lived in Pakistan for 6 years from 2007. I worked for 2 different news channels after that. Then I would work for American and British companies on documentaries. The first documentary I worked on was for PBS Frontline. It was an incredible professional experience. Most of my friends were doing internships or in graduate school. I was in the field interviewing people, working on stories.
I went back to Pakistan for a professional opportunity, but I also went back because I was confused about where I belonged and for me it was particularly confusing because I never stayed anywhere for more than 5 years. I never felt like I belonged anywhere. I went to Pakistan in hopes of finding a place to fit in. But not only did I not fit in, I was completely emotionally depleted from the work. One of the stories I worked on was about children being sex trafficked with heroin addiction. I was on the road for weeks on end and not coming home. I left Pakistan because I didn’t feel like I belonged in a place I thought was home. Professionally, I didn’t think I would get the opportunities I wanted.
Moving back to America
I moved to DC because I wanted to work at Al Jazeera, but I met this filmmaker who introduced me to a lot of people and told me to think about moving to New York. That guy is now my husband. He helped me navigate the documentary world. I moved to New York on a Sunday and I had a job by Tuesday. I was a hustler in my twenties. Neither of my parents had any connections in this world. They told me I had to figure it out myself. I just talked to everyone. Anyone who would take a meeting, I would take it. The director I worked for in Pakistan was more focused on her own brand and she was unfortunately not a mentor.
Working at Vice
One person I talked to during this time was a correspondent/director and he introduced me to people at Vice. That was my first job in New York. When they saw me, they wanted me because I was brown, Muslim, and a woman. At the time, I felt tokenized, but I didn’t feel like I had any other options. I was getting this opportunity to work for a rising company that had a show on HBO and I just put my head down and went with it. It was a deeply misogynistic environment. Often I would pitch a story and they would reject it and then I would have a male producer pitch it and they would accept it. I felt like a trophy wife. On one of my first days at Vice, Good Morning America was doing a feature on Shane Smith and they made sure I was on camera and that Shane talked to me. There were barely any women there—if they were there, they were very young and in lower positions. The company culture was so toxic and anti-female. I quit in less than a year. Now I am transitioning from documentary to writing. It’s difficult to go from a career I built to something brand new. I’d like to continue to tell stories in a different way so I’m trying to figure out the stories I’d like to write. I’m inspired by what I’m seeing on television. Ramy on HULU is a really accurate take on the Muslim experiences and I love Pen 15 as well.
I know very little about beauty, cleansing and make-up. My mother has always been exceptionally low maintenance so whatever I picked up was from reading and researching. When I was younger I liked to read seventeen. When I lived in London, you would get a gift with purchase and I loved buying magazines. My sister and I were never given money to spend on makeup. I learned about make-up from my friends.
When I was a primetime news anchor in Pakistan they would cake me in make-up and my skin would break out and I looked really awful. I’ve always preferred a more minimalistic approach. I use Kiehl’s to moisturize and cleanse, I started using under eye cream a few years ago—drunk elephant makes a serum that suits me —the Shaba complex eye serum. It absorbs very well into my skin and doesn’t look greasy. I don’t use soap on my skin, just a cleansing oil by Kiehl’s at night and water in the morning. I also use kiehl’s midnight recovery concept.
The more sun I get, the less make-up I will apply. I don’t wear make-up everyday. If I can only use one thing before I leave the house it’s boy brow by Glossier—the brand I use the most. I also use their stretch concealer as a go to for my skin. My color is ‘dark’ which is reflective of how badly the make-up industry needs to change—as I am relatively light skinned on the spectrum. Glossier does offer a much wider range of make-up for your skin now, which is great.
I’m very lucky to have a spectacular hairdresser, Wes Sharpton, at Hairstory in NYC. The way he cuts hair is so incredibly artistic, I remember the first time he cut my hair he asked me if I wanted to feel “powerful” and I was very skeptical that a haircut could make me feel powerful. But it absolutely did. The combination of Wes’ amazing haircut and Hairstory’s incredible product New Wash has made my hair routine so easy. New Wash is detergent free. I feel like my hair has regained the natural texture and shape it had lost as I got older, and their styling products like Undressed, Hair Balm and Powder are super lightweight and easy to use. My husband loves the products too, he’s always using mine.
In Pakistan, my hair started falling out because of stress and malnutrition. One of the things I have to prioritize and value are haircuts that can hide my hair loss and fit into an aesthetic that is not a traditional style that most South Asian women consider beautiful.
Pakistani Beauty Traditions
Growing up in Pakistan one of my favorite traditions was oil massages for your scalp. Mustard oil is very pungent but very effective at improving circulation on the scalp. My mother used to give us wonderful scalp massages to make our hair stronger and healthier.
I recently had a wedding in Pakistan and although I did my own hair and make-up I engaged in traditional bridal rituals like an Ubtan scrub. An Ubtan scrub is when you are massaged with a mix that combines turmeric, sandalwood, Chickpea flour, rosewater and milk—it’s a thick yellow paste that is wet. When it is applied, you’re scrubbed with it from head to toe and it gives you an amazing glow. My friend, Anum, did it to a white friend of hers and she turned a tinge of yellow so it’s not for everyone!
It wasn’t until I moved to America when I was 9 that I felt my culture was looked down on. My mother has always worn our traditional clothing regardless of where we were based. She never wanted to assimilate at the cost of her Pakistani identity. Her choice to wear Shalwar kameez, a traditional Pakistani outfit, made her stand out and made me self-conscious and prompted teasing. She also cooked traditional food all the time and I remember a friend of mine came over to my house and said it smelled weird. It was really hard for me. It wasn’t until I moved to America that I realized it’s not ok to be me. It’s not ok to be different. This was Greenwich, Connecticut and there was a group of girls named Chrissy, and they all looked and dressed alike. I dealt with it by not dealing with it. I tried to be as American and not me as I could and failed miserably. I rejected my own culture and tried to be like them, but my mother would always do something to remind us. For EID, she came in and made food for everyone and gave everyone henna tattoos and these parents called our house screaming about those tattoos on their kids. It was 1995, they didn’t know what to make of you them or of our family. I think things must be better now because people have access to information, but I still deal with ignorant people.
A Beauty Challenge
My biggest beauty challenge since I was about 9 years old has been my facial hair. I used to get teased badly for having a ‘mustache’ when I first moved to America. I begged my mother to let me get rid of it, but she thought I was too young to be altering my physical appearance. Eventually I started using things like Nair hair removal cream on my upper lip which was not the best idea, but it did the job. Then in my early 20s when I thought I had it all figured out, I discovered I had PCOS, a symptom of which is hirsutism, so now I do electrolysis which is incredibly painful and challenging.
I always want my home to smell like Pakistani food! I love cooking it and it’s my go to for when I have friends over for dinner.
Gol gapas, biryani, seekh kebab, daal chawal, kulfi, there is so much food that reminds me of home! South Asian cuisine varies greatly depending on the region, so what reminds me most of home is the food my mother cooked and the street food we had growing up in Lahore.
Advice to my younger self
There are no mistakes, only lessons.
As the daughter of two South Asian immigrants there was a lot of pressure on me to perform and be perfect. Both of my parent’s families suffered a lot of hardship because of Partition, the brutal severing of Pakistan and India by the British colonizers.
I remember in middle school I once came home with straight A’s and one A-, I’ll never forget my father’s disappointment and subsequently how powerless I felt. I struggled to see the value in doing anything that was less than perfect, something I still struggle with that today. My parents and I have collectively grown a great deal and are able to discuss our mistakes from the past as lessons that have strengthened our present relationship. Accountability is at the heart of the advice, which is fundamental for the kind of growth I’m pursuing as a person.”