The uncomfortable reasons why Pakistan is going crazy over the tea seller with “dreamy eyes”

The photo that made Arshad Khan famous. Photo by Jiah Ali.
The photo that made Arshad Khan famous. Photo by Jiah Ali.

A blue-eyed tea seller became an overnight celebrity in Pakistan after a photo capturing his alluring gaze went viral on social media last week. The photo has already landed 18-year-old Arshad Khan a modelling contract. Yet many commentators say that the buzz around the teen’s good looks should start an uncomfortable conversation about Pakistan’s continuing class divisions.

Arshad Khan had spent the last three months selling tea in a market in Islamabad before fame unexpectedly found him. Khan never attended school, and nothing indicated that one day he would become a household name across Pakistan. But in 2016, social media and a little luck can go a long way. A striking Instagram photo made Khan a star thanks to the way it captures his "dreamy", piercing blue eyes and direct gaze.

Since October 14, the photo has been liked by more than 21,500 people, and more than 2,500 people have left comments. Khan's rags-to-riches story has captivated the internet and filled the pages of newspapers both in Pakistan and around the world.

The photo has been widely shared on Facebook and Twitter:

Others users were quick to add their own touch of humour to the photo:

["shaiwala" means “tea seller” in Urdu]

Arshad Khan’s rapid rise to fame didn't go unnoticed by Pakistan’s men:

At first glance, Khan’s good fortune seems to have opened up a world of possibilities for the 18-year-old "tea boy". He told AFP news agency: “I knew I was pretty but you can't do anything when you're poor.” Since the photo was taken, he's been signed up as a model by a Pakistani clothing brand.

The #chaiwala (tea seller) hashtag has been trending on social media networks.

A sexist phenomenon?

Not everyone is impressed, though. Some critics accuse the teen’s most ardent admirers of blatant sexism:

On Pakistan’s most popular English-language website, Dawn, the Pakistani feminist Maria Amir also spoke out against what she called a 'sexist phenomenon’:

If hordes of men began tweeting and meming pictures of a female check-out girl because of her beautiful complexion and blue eyes, many of us would be outraged. I know I would be... reverse sexism is still a form of sexism.

Others, like blogger Farahnaz Zahidi, argue that the photo's success shows that Pakistanis still idealize European features, an uncomfortable legacy of colonialism. 

The blue eyes, the fair complexion, the chiselled jawline. Makes me wonder if a dark complexioned equally stunning man would have garnered the same kind of attention.

The uncomfortable key to his success: being handsome and poor

Blogger Zahidi goes further in her critique, arguing that the storm of reactions to the photo also highlights enduring class stigmas in Pakistani society. 

What I would and do have a problem with is the accompanying surprise that he is a chaiwala. That this is a man from an obviously lower income background, and is yet so good looking. Like all things good in life, somewhere the upper tier bourgeois of Pakistan have come to believe that even looks and God-gifted attributes are co-dependent on money and affluence?

Another internet user also took the opportunity to take a swipe at the young women swooning for the tea boy, suggesting that they might not be so enthusiastic if they had received a "rishta", or marriage proposal, from Khan when he was a poor tea seller:

Her point was picked up by another user: