Skin whitening cream finds new popularity among Palestinian women
Palestinian women are using skin whitening treatments as popular media are reasserting a 'fair-is-beautiful' bid. But the message is not new and can be found even in old Arabic poetry.
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Indeed, the arrival of satellite TV in the living rooms of even the poorest sectors of society is pushing more women in the Middle East to buy into a global image of the ideal beauty. Nesrine Malik, a Sudanese-born writer who lives in London, railed against this phenomenon in a Guardian newspaper column recently. She focused on the controversy over a song by Ms. Wehbe that uses the term “Nubian monkey.” Egyptian Nubians say the lyrics are insulting and contribute to the bullying of dark-skinned children; a group of lawyers is seeking to have the song banned in Egypt.Skip to next paragraph
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“The fact that a surgically enhanced, fair-skinned Lebanese singer is at the centre of this controversy is perhaps not just bad luck,” Ms. Malik wrote. “Lebanese standards of beauty and complexion have taken the Arab world by storm since the resurgence of the Lebanese in media ... further limiting the accepted definition of beauty as light-skinned, catty-eyed and slim-nosed. Fair & Lovely, a popular whitening cream, advertises itself on Arabic TV when a model is rejected for being too dark, only to be ecstatically accepted after a few weeks of applying the magic cream.”
Sonia Nimr, a feminist scholar who teaches cultural studies at Bir Zeit University outside Ramallah, says that messages that whiter is better predate the modern era and can be found in old Arabic and even pre-Islamic poetry.
“For centuries there’s been an image that if you’re pale or whiter, it means you’re a lady. You don’t have to go out of the tent to do hard work,” Professor Nimr explains in a conversation in a Ramallah coffee shop.
“The British Empire brought us the idea that ‘if you’re not a white European, you’re a barbarian. So you need to look like us to be civilized,’ ” she says. “What’s new is the success of companies in making people believe that you need this product.... They sold it to us, and we bought it. They made us believe that whiter is better, that taller and thinner is better, that Levi’s are better than your Palestinian dress,” she says.
Whiter skin and a veil?
Nimr notes that there’s a contradiction in this trend in Arab society. On the one hand, she says, women – and some men – are seeking to look more Western. On the other, there’s a return to traditional values. About 90 percent of her female students are covering their hair in Islamic fashion – once a rarity at universities here.
Nimr notes that television commercials selling whiteners now show women in head scarves as well. She quips: “The message is: You can wear the veil and still look like us.”
But in a random sampling of men in Ramallah, most say that skin-lightening is unnecessary. “Spinsters desperate to find husbands do it. It’s a sign of an inferiority complex,” says Mohammed Salwan, a lawyer. And, adds another lawyer, Salem Jaber: “I think dark skin is prettier.”
One theme is international: women always seem to want what they don't have. Wala Abu Ghannam is so pale-skinned that her complexion looks more Irish than Arab. So she darkened her hair with henna, turning it almost black, in order to look more Middle Eastern. "I'd prefer to look more Arab than I do, and I want to marry someone who really looks Arab," she says. "But the truth is that in our culture, when the mothers go looking for a woman for their son to marry, they're all searching for a blonde."
Watch an ad for Fair & Lovely here: