'Eyeliner' by Zahra Hankir shows the cultural impact of make-up is more than skin deep

The Lebanese-British journalist's book reveals the history of a cosmetic product that originated in ancient Egypt

A 3,300-year-old bust of Queen Nefertiti shows the ancient Egyptian queen with winged eyeliner, a cosmetic product that originated in ancient Egypt. AP
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A book about a beauty product should, by rights, be only skin deep. However, Zahra Hankir’s Eyeliner: A Cultural History turns out to be a fascinating account. It traces the origins of this cosmetic, examines what it represents to different communities around the world, and explores how notable figures from Queen Nefertiti to Amy Winehouse used it to create a signature look.

Hankir, a Lebanese-British journalist, had one clear objective: “I wanted to demonstrate that there’s far more to eyeliner than meets the eye, pun very much intended,” she tells The National.

“Eyeliner originated in ancient Egypt before traversing the globe. It has been used for reasons that transcend the aesthetic – Egyptians wore it to ward off the evil eye, to honour the gods, to protect their eyes from the glare of the sun, and also to treat the eyes medicinally.

“In other cultures, particularly those in the East, eyeliner similarly takes on a deeper meaning,” she adds. “There is some intersectionality in how it’s used, also, making this a centuries-old tradition that unites diverse communities, especially those of the global south. I also wanted to deflect from the western gaze by celebrating the contributions of communities of colour to the beauty industry.”

Hankir’s book covers a lot of ground. After a chapter on eyeliner’s cultural significance in ancient and modern Egypt, she takes the reader far and wide. We meet the nomadic Wodaabe people in Chad, who in the past made kohl from crushed egret bones and burnt camel blood; dancers in Kerala who apply kajal; and geishas in Japan who wear mebari.

And then there are the book’s insightful sections on kohl in the Arab world. Hankir discusses its presence in Arab poetry, song and literature, and its acceptance in society.

“Per hadith, the Prophet Mohammed was said to have worn ithmid, a form of kohl, and also advised that others use it too for medicinal purposes,” Hankir says. “Different scholars interpret these references in different ways, but in general the use of ithmid has been a part of Islamic traditions for centuries and is therefore viewed as permissible in many Muslim countries.”

Despite this, Hankir points out that debates still continue about types of eyeliner and their use.

“In Iran, there’s an interesting tension between traditional use of sormeh, a natural kohl made from substances such as almonds and hazelnuts, and the contemporary use of liquid eyeliner, often imported from the West.

“This interplay is heightened in the context of strict regulations governing women’s appearance in the country. This situation presents a fine line, both symbolically and literally: while applying sormeh along the waterline might be deemed acceptable or halal, opting for a winged look with liquid eyeliner can be a bold, even provocative choice.”

Some of Hankir’s interviewees reveal how eyeliner preserves their heritage and helps bring out their inner strength.

“Cholas and Chicanas – Mexican Americans – use eyeliner as a tool to assert their aesthetic identities in the face of marginalisation,” Hankir says. “The Chola style, which also includes lip liner, emerged as a defiant response to the discrimination and prejudice faced by Mexicans following their arrival in the US, and a rejection of eurocentric beauty norms.

“This example speaks to the ethos of the book – the exploration of make-up not just as a cosmetic product, but as a tool of resilience, power and cultural affirmation.”

Hankir also shares her own personal experiences in the book. We learn how applying eyeliner for the first time as a shy and bullied adolescent in England allowed her to “come into focus”.

Her teenage “infatuation” with the ancient Egyptian Queen Nefertiti led to an interest in make-up and the realisation that kohl was not just an adornment for beautification but “a constant companion for the women in my family, one that protected and empowered my proud lineage”.

Hankir was 12 when her parents moved her and her five siblings back to Lebanon. She developed an interest in information-gathering and news dissemination and so later trained to become a journalist.

“I thought of journalists as heroes, and always imagined that I’d tell stories about my homeland,” she says. “Eventually I did, and though I have written about politics, business and finance, I eventually found myself drawn to culture stories, particularly those focused on the Middle East and North Africa.”

In 2019, Hankir edited Our Women on the Ground, an acclaimed anthology of essays by a selection of Arab and Middle East sahafiyat (female journalists).

“I made sure to include reporters from various nationalities, faiths and generations, each one practising different forms of journalism,” Hankir says. “I prioritised women who had encountered challenges in their reporting. These women unfortunately were not too hard to find given the region’s track record in press freedom and women’s rights, as well as widespread geopolitical and socioeconomic upheaval.”

Whether exploring womanhood through the prism of conflict or kohl, Hankir’s books are illuminating and far-reaching. As she writes in Eyeliner, the story of this humble accessory “is also the story of human ingenuity, resourcefulness, aspiration, and imagination”.

Eyeliner: A Cultural History by Zahra Hankir, published by Penguin Books, is out now

Updated: December 08, 2023, 6:02 PM