At the Princess Center salon in downtown Ramallah, Shafa Usama has the “magic formula” that can make young women’s dreams come true. After Ms. Usama subjects their visages to a long litany of peels and masques, they’ll leave about $40 poorer – and a little paler.
“Women come here to be whiter.... We lighten their skin over many sessions, and then we try to focus on making it healthy skin as well,” explains Usama, who, like most Palestinians, has lovely olive-toned skin.
The single 20-something hasn’t decided yet if she’ll get her own skin done, knowing what goes into it – the process needs to be repeated every three months – but she says it’s the “look” almost everyone wants. “Palestinians believe that white skin is beautiful. In the West, they sunbathe to get darker skin, but here, people like to lighten their skin and they hide from the sun at all costs,” she explains.
Her boss, salon owner Naim Abu Najim, says that professional whitening treatments are increasingly in demand. “Sometimes ... I tell them, ‘you don’t need whitening, you just need to take care of your skin.’ I try to give them confidence in what they have, but they want something else,” Mr. Abu Najim explains.
Still, he says that in the summertime, when women are more image-conscious because it’s when weddings and other parties take place, the salon gets about 10 whitening clients a day.
This fight to be white appears to make a mockery of ethnic pride. It turns modern notions of political correctness on their heads. But it won’t stop a Palestinian college student like Hanadi Suleiman from spending her limited spare change on over-the-counter whitening creams.
“I admit it. I want to change my complexion,” Ms. Suleiman, a sociology student at Al-Quds Open University, explains with a sheepish smile. She and a classmate sport Islamic head scarves and a significant coat of makeup, also aimed at a lighter-skinned appearance. “Palestinian men like brunettes,” she says, “but they want light skin.”
Just down the hall from the Princess Center, a beauty supply store offers an array of whitening creams that can be used at home. Some of the products most in demand are made in Israel, in addition to products made by Oil of Olay, Dr. Fischer, and Unilever, which makes Fair & Lovely, the low-priced mainstay developed in India that boasts that it’s “the world’s largest selling fairness cream.”
“The whitening lotions are very popular.... Everyone wants to be like Haifa Wehbe and Nancy Ajram,” says Rama Shamasna, the sales clerk, naming two of the Arab world’s most popular singers, European-looking Lebanese women.
Satellite TV as change agent
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.
“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: