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:
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.