Racism and colourism are stifling prospects of women in the Middle East

Women becoming hooked on skin-lightening products - but public perception is changing

Lebanese-Sudanese-Egyptian TV anchor Dalia Ahmed said 'this is how God made me' on her show. Photo: Youtube screengrab
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Lebanese TV anchor Dalia Ahmed became the centre of her own news story when a racist campaign by Hezbollah proponents was launched against her on social media after comments on her Al Jadeed show in February.

In a monologue responding to the derogatory remarks, Ms Ahmed cited verses from the Quran which prohibited slander of Muslim women and shamed those who claim piety but take actions contradicting the Islamic faith.

“Do you have a problem with my skin colour? This is how God made me,” she said during an impassioned speech lasting almost seven minutes.

Her plight brought to the fore the deep-rooted bias against women who have darker skin in the Middle East.

The issue remains prevalent in the region, where the search for a "tall and white" bride is common, said women who spoke to The National before International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination on Monday.

'Fair and eligible'

Esraa Mahmoud, 29, is an Egyptian mother-of-one who works in cosmetics.

She says through her work, she often sees women purchasing coloured lenses and undergoing skin-lightening procedures to alter their appearance.

"In Egyptian society, darker men are viewed as more masculine but women as less beautiful," she said. "There are names for couples where the woman is darker than her partner. People call them 'tea with milk' or a 'castle next to the sea', which basically means that the two are not made for one another."

This racism is embedded in Ms Mahmoud's own extended family, she says.

"My brother is fairly light-skinned. He fell in love with and married his wife, who is relatively darker skinned and has black, curly hair. Their son looks a lot like my brother," she told The National.

"But my brother's in-laws actually said that they were delighted at the resemblance because his wife married somebody who would 'improve the family lineage'.

Last year, Hiyam Shaheen's brother-in-law, a divorcee, asked for her help in looking for a new bride in Gaza. His expectations of a perfect match made her job very difficult.

"Every time I presented him with options, he would reject them even though the women were educated and some of them even had a job," she said.

Despite showing him nine candidates, the objections were always the same.

"They were either too short or too dark, even though he himself is dark-skinned and short," she said. "He wanted some who is white, tall and slim regardless of her level of education."

'Hooked on skin-lightening creams'

Marwa Al Khamash, 24, a local NGO worker in Jordan, said the contrast is seen too often among her cousins – two in particular who look very different despite being sisters.

"The older one is darker than her sister," she told The National.

Taking notice of this, the family continuously "teases" the elder sister about her marriage prospects.

"They keep telling her that her younger sister would get married before she does," she said. "Even though she's 16 years old, she's now hooked on skin-lightening creams and makeup that makes her appear lighter than she really is."

A 'self-hate programme'

Sudanese businesswoman Mai Abdelmoniem, 49, says being a woman is tough enough without the additional pressure of adhering to unattainable beauty standards.

She's a self-described activist in Sudan's continuing revolution towards a civilian government, which began in 2018 and was reignited in October after a military coup.

Ms Abdelmoniem says women in Sudan who are more "Arab-looking" are seen as more beautiful. "The lighter-skinned they are and the softer their hair is, the more acceptable they become to society and the more they are able to move forward in work and in life," she said.

"It's a self-hate programme that's supported by the general society and culture."

However, Sudan's revolution is slowly but surely changing public perception of beauty, Ms Abdelmoniem says.

"It's not just a political revolution that we are experiencing, but one that requires us to look inwards and question why we are who we are, and explore the mistakes committed in the past and the idea of elitism that led us here," she said.

Public figures such as South Sudanese model Alek Wek have put a new face on magazine covers often displaying a more western look.

"I think that had a spill-over effect on us as well. You see women owning that idea that we are who we are and that curly hair and dark skin are among the multitude of things that make us beautiful," said Ms Abdelmoniem.

Similarly, Ms Mahmoud said the rise of Egyptian actresses such as Sawsan Badr and Asma Abulyazeid in mainstream media helped to soften once-severe perceptions of dark-skinned women.

"Their style is being labelled as 'Middle Eastern beauty' and, while their prominence has somewhat helped change beauty standards, it isn't enough to change the overall culture yet," she said.

Updated: June 20, 2023, 6:03 AM