| July 2nd, 2007

* a dark truth

The following post is written by our reader and participant Himadri Ahsan.

When Rabeya came out into the yard carrying tea for the guests, without lifting her eyes she could feel the eyes set on her creamy dark skin so prominent against the synthetic creme sari that had not lost its magnificent paleness in 12 years. After the guests had left Rabeya starts washing the dishes as she tries to ignore the continuous pouring of harsh comments from her mother with the sound of the running water from the tap.

Rabeya is 31 years old, well past society’s sell-by-date. The dinner was one of many dinners where yet another man had rejected her family’s marriage proposal. She was still wearing the creme synthetic sari her father bought her when she was 19 for her first marriage proposal.

Rabeya comes out of the kitchen and passes by her father, Azizur Rahman, who numbly sits on his bed. His pension fund is fast decreasing. His daughter dropped out of school long time ago, because her father could not afford a college education for her. His plan had been to marry his daughter off and together with his wife and enjoy his pension. He no longer dreams of spoiling his grandchildren. Now he has three mouths to feed, whats more his daughter is very insecure about her “dark”complexion. As a single woman she could be preyed on by men.

Rabeya looks at herself through her small old mirror. She remembers as a young girl how she tried to scrape off her moila (dirty) skin. Nothing worked. Like a persistent lover, one who stalked her whole life, her skin remained as dark as she was the day she was born.

The soft rays of the late afternoon sunlight fall on her face. In Bengali they call that light as the “bride viewing light”. It is said that the light makes every bride look even more beautiful. No one is watching Rabeya in this light but herself. Rabeya looks herself closely through the mirror. She sees no beauty, only her cursed murky skin. Her life bears no value to her only due to her dark complexion; a life she doesn’t want to carry on with anymore and thought of ending it flickers through her mind.

There are lots of girls in Bangladesh who come across such extreme moments like Rabeya did. They feel very helpless if they don’t have fair complexion. Many people in Bangladesh still consider beauty being a fair skin color only. Parents can’t marry their girl off if she is dark skinned, which makes her a burden to her parents. Not being able to become independent, she sees no hope in her life either.

Skin lightening products continue to be one of the fasting growing beauty products in the Indian sub-continent, the Middle East, Africa and among African Americans. Unilever, the makers of Fair and Lovely, have claimed that they regularly receive correspondence from mothers whose daughters could have had “the cursed life of a spinsters”. The obvious cause of this phenomenon is the deeply rooted social stigma attached with dark skin. In Bangladesh a fair skinned person is often praised and compared with a Sahib (an English man) or Pathan (a Pakistani), establishing the superiority of both the groups of people that ruled Bangladesh.

Whereas, dark is considered moila meaning “dirty”, fair skin still continues to be a representative of the higher class members that do not need to work out in the fields. Girls in India and Bangladesh are often asked not be out in the sun since their skin will darken. Fair skin is reminder of the high caste in India who are generally wealthier and more educated as they spend time inside studying and not needing to work. Fair and Lovely and other such products have become so commonplace that even women who are not considered dark use bleaching creams continuing to reinforce the belief that a skin tone darker than “white” is “less valuable”.

Watch an advertisement of Fair and Lovely:

http://www.youtube.com/v/KIUQ5hbRHXk

In these parts of the world, Fair and Lovely advertisements frequently aired on television show a young woman rejected in a job interview or denied by the man she fancies because she is “dark”. An infamous advertisement , which caught the eye of feminists, shows a young woman who following a rejection in a job interview says, “the obstacle is my skin”. Lo and behold as soon as she uses “Fair and lovely”, this simple cream comes to her rescue and she not only attains her dream job, but she is also asked out by a handsome man. The producers and distributors of skin-lightening creams attempt to dismiss activists’ opinion against their products arguing that they are simply fulfilling a demand created by consumers. They argue that the demand is not a manufactured one, rather an outgrowth of a social need that was born before the new age consumerism. Makers of bleaching creams continue to address health concerns by maintaining a universally accepted level of mercury and hydroquinone (bleaching agents) leaving activists with little ammunition against what seem to be a losing battle.

While it is true that many cosmetics companies are cashing in on an existing market demand, one wonders about ethical social responsibility. By using mass media these companies reinforce the idea that fairer (light) skin is better. With advances in technology, the adverts continue to get more sophisticated giving a false solution to a real problem with young girls looking up to television and film stars who have “fair flawless” skin. The solution, which is a change of attitude, cannot be implemented overnight since this phenomena is centuries old and embedded deeply into our society generation after generation. Educating young girls will have a slow yet steady impact on this particular issue.

However, a call for social responsibility to cosmetics companies is not asking for too much. For example, in India legislators got involved to ban controversial “Fair and Lovely” adverts. If this issue can be made become part of a political agenda at least to make sure that the businesses will include into their corporate ethics not to promote the idea that skin color will be subject to discrimination in job interviews. But there’s no alternative to education. And that is where not only conscious individuals, but public figures and celebrities can take part and use the media to educate millions. Internet can also be an effective tool to communicate the fair-skin-issue to a young urban audience as the issue is quite prevalent among the educated and upper-class members of the society.

 

26 Responses to “* a dark truth”

  1. Sharmin says:

    A very timely topic Himadri. Thanks for bringing it up. All those Fair and Lovely ads makes me very angry as they are saying in straight face that it will make you “Forsha”!. A cheap way to utilize public sentiment to sell their product.

    Its ok to sell a product to make one look better, but the help you make you “Forsha” is not the right one.

    Skin care is a important topic by itself, “forsha” “kalo” are just wrong terms which does a lot harm than any good.

    -Shrmin

  2. Fariha Sarawat says:

    See,I have know issues about companies selling products that make you fair or with the issue of them meeting a demand. What really pisses me off are their commercials where they show how incomplete and useless a girl is to society if her complexion isn’t fair!! I mean honestly, who gets turned down for a job because she isn’t fair? Even flight attendants wear so much make up that you can barely tell if they’re ‘shamla’, ‘forsha’ or ‘kalo’!
    Morever, companies like Unilever spend so much money on CSR, and then engage in something as socially irresponsible as depicting a society where daughters are shunned by their families for having dark complexion or feel obsolete because of it! Really, shame on such adverts and the people whose thoughts are behind these! Need I mention that Brand planning, strategy and advertising are male-dominated areas?

  3. Himadri says:

    But Fariha, we need to address the issue that there is a demand in our society for fair skin, because that’s the excuse the skin-bleaching producers are using. The advertisements showcase very real situations where the girls are turned down for a job interview or marriage proposal.
    I can tell you numerous stories of people I know that have been victims of such idea. I’ve heard the phrase “moila rong” so many times in a day to day life that it’s hard for me to swallow that it’s a manufactured idea by the skin-bleaching producers. It’s a very real demand, which if remained unidentified will enable producers and promoters of “fair & lovely” to get away with it.

  4. Oneza says:

    Thanks to Himadri for bringing up this topic.

    Yes, there is a demand in BD for fair skin. Who creates this demand? While in many cases the demand is a product of market in a male dominated society, I won’t say only men have created this. We, women have been involved in creating this demand as well. No need to mention about the mother-in-laws who seek “forsha” bride for their sons. If we fail to reveal our true beauty through our behaviour and persona, society will take advantage of it. It will influence women to take the cheap way to be attractive.

    It brings the thought in me as to what can girls like Rabeya in this article do? How could she become self-dependent and not worry about being forsha, or being at the mercy of the society’s choice of skin color? The change should start everywhere. Whether at the supply level at Unilever, or user group generally women, or the demand group in the society who seeks for fair skin – to some degree it is the responsibility of everyone.

  5. Fariha Sarawat says:

    Himadri,
    I understand your point. But see there are two separate issues here. The demand end- society expecting women to meet certain superficial standards, and the supply end– companies making products that make these women feel as though they can meet the standards.
    Social pressure (demand)—>Fair and Lovely

  6. Fariha Sarawat says:

    Why can’t the post the whole comment? So far only the first two lines have shown up?

  7. Himadri says:

    “It brings the thought in me as to what can girls like Rabeya in this article do?”

    Oneza,
    I am glad that you brought up that question. We all understand why and how this idea about “forsha skin” is established and can debate about it all day.
    But more importantly we need to come up with some plausible solutions for women like Rabeya.
    Here are some of my thoughts:
    1. grass root organizations in BD (i’m sure there are quite a few that already exsist)can probably help local women with resources and counseling.
    2. I think creating more grass root organizations can also increase empolyment opportunities. The women that will be supported by these organizations can be employed within the organization after receiving trainings/education. That way not only the clients will be able to relate to the orgs, also these helpless women will get financial freedom.
    3. traditional schools and colleges can promote the idea of “continued education” where women who dropped off from school can get back in track. Ofcourse with these financial background in mind, the tuition fees should somehow be covered by government grants and loans.
    4. it may sound harsh but I think education system in Bangladesh has serious flaws. We need to introduce liberal studies so that students get to understand how the society works and be able to think about it critically. We need to create platform and invite and challenge young generations about these issues. Internet, and private media are the two major platforms, but they reach a minor portion of the population.

  8. sakina says:

    Target the women; they are the only ones who can make a difference. As someone who has lived and worked in Bangladesh for about a quarter of a century, I can tell you frankly that women harm themselves as much as or more than men harm them. Find a way of convincing and training women NOT to comment on skin color to children. Go a step farther, and train them to teach their kids that every color of skin is beautiful, like different colored flowers in the garden, and that physical appearance is created by a loving Creator. If children are brought up in that kind of home environment, they will be less damaged by all the forsha-kalu debate raging around them. And don’t make the typical Bangladeshi mistake of blaming everything on people being uneducated; the educated middle class women are guiltiest of all in the skin-color game!

  9. Nazia says:

    On the question of what girls like Rabeya should do, definitely the work of grassroots organizations are worth mentioning which can help many females in both rural and urban settings to overcome insecurities of looks and become more independent both financially and eventually emotionally as well.

    Beyond this there is also a need of educating the general mass on the effects of this demand for a fir skin. No matter how confident a girl becomes, financially & emotionally if she continues to get scrutinized by the society, especially from close family members like mothers, fathers and other relatives for being dark skinned, the newly gained confidence won’t last for too long! In order to make confidence in women sustainable I think there’s a dire need to enlighten the society on such issues.

    If the parents of the eligible bachelors keep looking for a fair skinned bride, isn’t it a bit unjust to expect the darker skinned females to try and become more independent and not expect the happiness of marriage and family in due time like the rest?

  10. Himadri says:

    Can Adhunika as an organization take any steps in communicate this message to the young generation at schools and colleges?

    One time a friend of my was wondering if he can talk about these issues as a guest speaker at schools and colleges in bd. I’m sure many NRBs would find it interesting to be able to discuss issues like this with college students. Also being in USA we are quipped with a global perspective, and students in bd would find it interesting to see how on many issues different cultures share same views. And students are tomorrows citizens, i think it’s important to communicate these messages to them.

    Is it possible for adhunika to host a program like that where an interested party would go to bd during vacation and talk about issues like this as a guest speaker at colleges and universities? I think adhunika will have a prominant visibility as an active organization through this kind of programs.

  11. Nazia says:

    I would suggest organizing a workshop or seminar on this issue & maybe other women related topics as well in Dhaka. Educational institutes must be invited to participate, and I’m sure many of the universities and NGOs now have scholars who are well equipped to speak on such issues as well. Getting sufficient media to coverage is also necessary to reach those who will not be participating in the seminar/workshop.

    Arranging something right away may be too ambitious, but if some of the founders of Adhunika plan to visit Dhaka sometime later this year, then maybe those of us already in Dhaka can also make a combined effort to arrange something of the sort at that time.

    Naturally all of us remain extremely busy with our day to day work and we need a dedicated group of people who can give substantial amount of time behind this effort. Until we assemble that group it’ll be difficult to start any effort.

  12. Himadri says:

    Great advices Nazia.
    I totally understand that we need to be more committed. And that’s why I was wondering if adhunika as an organization can sketch a plan and go from there. Coz this issue is one of the most talked about, but not much has been done about it.

  13. Himadri says:

    Although there maybe scholar at home that can talk about such issues my idea was to promote some kind of engagement among the non residents with bd, that way the so-called brain-drain accusations can be reduced.

  14. Grammar Queen says:

    Advice can not be a plural word.

    Who moderates this forum? I read this article on another blog and Rabeya commits suicide in that article. Oh well, why do I even bother to write this comment? I’m sure it won’t be posted anyway. Talk about the issue of women’s freedom. There certainly isn’t any freedom on this blog. Any comments of substance are beeped out. (At least Samiha was right about one thing) Heaven forbid you get too controversial. No wonder the men shoo the women out of the room so they can actually have a decent conversation. Bangali women are just no fun.

  15. Shahnaz says:

    Himadri and Nazia,

    Great suggestions, actually we are in the process of launching our Mentorship program this fall, and definitely it is a possibility to organize a series of workshops and panel discussion both in Bangladesh and in US. Let us know if you or anyone else wants to be part of the organizing team.

    Himadri, this is great article, I know you mentioned the protest against such wrong messages fell into deaf ears (‘The producers and distributors of skin-lightening creams attempt to dismiss activists’ opinion against their products arguing that they are simply fulfilling a demand created by consumers.’) but I strongly believe change comes in small steps, for instance:

    even a group of girls can start a letter writing campaigne against companies who are patronizing fallacious messages, and demand for change, and send that to the marketing group, executives of such companies.

    even though Fariha rightfully mentioned in comment #2 – ‘Need I mention that Brand planning, strategy and advertising are male-dominated areas?’ But at the end of the day – it is us the girls who are using the products, so we should have more authority on what products we want; why settle for harmful products when we are the one who are paying and keeping them in business?

    thanks,
    Shahnaz

  16. Himadri says:

    Grammer Queen,
    thanks for the spelling correction. But more importantly I’d like you to notice that the author of the article is me. And it was an agreement between me and the editors that we take out the suicide portion out in order for readers to be able to focus on the issue and not dwell on the tragedy.

    Shahnaz,
    thanks for the words of hope. I hope the mentorship program will be a great success. I’d love to be engage in such activities, but I know that Adhunika is a NY based org, and I live in MN. If there’s anyway I can contribute from here I’d be more than happy. I’ve been here for 4 years and haven’t seen any significant communial activity taking place by the Bengali community to help contribute in our country. Any suggestions on that? Perhaps adhunika could come visit us sometime in the future?

  17. Shahnaz says:

    Himadri,

    Great to know you are interested un organizing the mentorship program. Actually few of our dedicated members and one of our community blogger reside in MN. Since most of our work is on-line based you haven’t seen any significant activity at the community level, but we will soon send you an email about the new program.

    Now going back to your article, you have addressed another important issue saying, ‘Rabeya is 31 years old, well past society’s sell-by-date’. Wish the statement wasn’t true, I know the mind-set has changed , yet I see the tendency has remained that when a girl turns 20+ they are in constant pressure to get married. How do we change that chain of thought, any thoughts on that?

  18. Emma K. says:

    Rabeya isn’t old- several of my paternal aunts back in desh got married around 35 (some over)!

    My dad ALWAYS says that young’uns in BD need to learn to think critically, and not only memorize info is textbooks.

    Wow, I can’t believe these ppl have ads in Africa-LOL! Honestly, w/ stuff like this, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Even in US, I have heard ppl describe their own kids as “kalo” in front of company- how terrible!!! I even heard this from a very educated couple w/ adult kids!

  19. Emma K. says:

    Oh, I forgot to add that color is STILL as issue, even in African-American communities! One of my former students, an adorable & mischievous 13 y.o. was once called “Kunta Kinte” b/c of his dark skin (by a friend of his mother’s no less). In black high society, light skin was (traditionally) preferred.

    In Brazil, where an old prof of mine grew up, skin color is a HUGE issue, even though the country is VERY diverse (looks, religions, etc.) Some (usus poor/uneducated) people in S. Amer. get nose jobs (sometimes from fake drs.!!!)to look more white/Spanish instead of Indian/native.

  20. Himadri says:

    you have addressed another important issue saying, ‘Rabeya is 31 years old, well past society’s sell-by-date’. Wish the statement wasn’t true, I know the mind-set has changed , yet I see the tendency has remained that when a girl turns 20+ they are in constant pressure to get married. How do we change that chain of thought, any thoughts on that?

    I think the society is changing, but at a very slow pace and mostly at the level of upper-middle class and above. Why? Well I guess it makes easier for a girl at that socio-economic level to have some educational background and be employed, making herself less of a burden to the rest of the family.
    On the other hand, a girl of 30+ is a burden considering she is educated, and thus cannot be employed. And parents always worry about their daughters’ security. Imagine a women who is 30, not educated, not employed, and prayed on by men. How can a poor family be able to that women? I guess we can’t put the entire blame on the family.
    I think financial freedom solves most the problems in people’s life. Education us important too, but poor people can’t afford to go to school when they could go to make money to feed themselves and the family.
    The only choice to break that chain of thought Shahnaj is to get these women employed, so that they can have more say in the family and their lives.

  21. Himadri says:

    sorry, blogging while at work :)
    rewriting a line in the comment:

    on the other, a girl of age 30+ is a burden to a poor family when she a school drop-off, and thus cannot be employed.

  22. Farhana says:

    Excellent article to talk about the issue and the stigma of the Asian culture. I was just talking to one of my co- workers about the issue yesterday, and now, I have a great article to share with her. The sad thing is: even in America, the “deshi” Bengalis can not seem to break out of this fascination of “fair” skin color. I am a mother of an active 3 year old girl, who has “dark” complexion. I hear comments from my educated group of “friends” that I make my daughter dark by letting her play outdoor in the summer months and I should pay attention to her skin color, etc,etc! I am not a person who judges any one by the color of their skin or race and wants to pass on the same values to my daughter. But it is sad when I see that few people of my generation still having the mind set of my great- grandma’s generation.

  23. Himadri says:

    Thanks Farhana. Glad to know that you liked the article. And you very right. It’s funny how skin color preference is such a prominent idea among Bangladeshis abroad.
    Did you hear Bengalies saying to their daughters or nieces, “Whatever you do at least don’t choose a black boyfriend…”
    Or did you see a Bengali mom choosing a white baby doll over black and/or hispanic looking doll?
    I have and it amazes me to see these educated and well aware Bengalies making such an unfair decision to embed the idea that “white is better” in their children’s mind.

  24. me and my doll says:

    These kinds of articles are needed out there to wake up some people. Unfortunately, it is deep rooted in the minds of people not places. My husband and I are very light skin and my daughter is dark skin…my heart cries when other kids say to her…that she is an odd one…how can we change a society? a two year old kid telling my daughter that she is an odd one because she is dark. Kids are innocent. Sometimes I wish all my color goes to my daughter, but I keep on whispering that she is the prettiest among all.

  25. HImadri says:

    Me and my Doll:
    it’s an important point to think about why a2 year old kid would make such comments. I’m actually writing an article on how our kids grow up with ideas we embed in their heads. How did this 2 year old know that dark skin is odd? How does a girl know that she doesn’t need to learn about cars and politics, because that boys’ talk? I took a class that talks about how girls are so far behind in IT, math, science simply because the society and family teach her what to do and what to think of.
    Kids are innocent yes. But the more important point is who is he/she learning these ideas from and why?

  26. [...] Himadri Ahsan writes in Adhunika Blog about a dark truth that still haunts women in many regions of the world especially Bangladesh. He says: Skin lightening products continue to be one of the fasting growing beauty products in the Indian sub-continent, the Middle East, Africa and among African Americans. [...]

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Adhunika blog is launched with a mission to share knowledge among women from every walk of life. Sometime it would be in the form of sharing experience to find a feasible solution of a problem; sometime it would be in the form of professional consultation, which Adhunika group will arrange for its bloggers. Nevertheless, the intent of this blog always remains the same - to help and empower women through a common web-based platform....read more

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