Not Too Dark And Not Too Light: The Deadly Balance Of Skin Color In Sudan
by Reem Abbas
I remember going to the most amazing engagement party in 2000. The young lady in question was the niece of my mother’s best friend. Their lovely house, her dress, and the food were all impressive, but not as much as the musician they hired.
He was an up-and-coming male pop singer with a feminine spirit and he specialized in what we call in Sudan aghani al-banat or girl’s songs. Aghani al-banat are popular songs written and performed by women. Before he became popular, it was unacceptable for men to sing aghani al-banat, but he took a huge risk and became very famous as a result.
The musician, commonly referred to as Gadora, was a dark-skinned, overweight young man. Years later, in 2006 to be exact, my aunt delivered the bad news. It was at my cousin’s tenth birthday and I was eating marzipan-loaded cake when she told me about his death.
“What happened?” I asked her.
“He used a skin-whitening cream and it caused kidney failure,” she said matter-of-factly.
It took Gadora’s death to bring attention to Sudan’s women struggling to fit into society’s pre-conceived notions about beauty. Doctors came out and confessed to the existence of a whole ward at Khartoum hospital for victims of a certain whitening cream.
Inspired by the singer’s death, journalists and officials talked about a possible ban and crackdown on merchants selling this cream, but four years later I came across the cream at two different markets in Sudan. Packaged in a white box, it looks harmless - until it causes kidney failure.
Diana, probably the oldest skin-lightening product is the best-selling whitening cream in Sudan. The cream is manufactured in Lebanon, a Middle-Eastern country known for its beautiful women. From Haifa Wahby to Nancy Ajram, Lebanese women are glorified all over the Arab world for their whiteness and European looks.
In 1997, the Canadian Government issued a statement banning Diana and warning its users that it contains mercury, a poisonous substance that is directly associated with liver failure. According to the manufacturers of Diana, their product no longer contains mercury, hydroquinone, or cortisone.
Sara Sinada, a 26-year-old Sudanese economist working for the UN, believes that skin bleaching is a direct result of the widespread assumption that being dark signifies a lower social class. The darker you are, the poorer people think you are.
The dominant identity in Sudan, the Arab-Islamic, belongs to the most powerful tribes in the northern and central part of the country, such as the Jaaliyeen and Shaigiya. These tribes generally have a skin shade, which they regard as not dark and not light. Darker Arab-Islamic Sudanese are encouraged to marry lighter-skinned spouses, and lighter Arab-Islamic Sudanese are called derogatory terms such as “halab,” in reference to another identity of light-skinned Sudanese.
The “Halab” or light-skinned Sudanese are either descendants of Saudi Arabian or Yemeni tribes residing in Sudan, mostly around the Port Sudan area, or they are descendants of gypsies, or Syrian and Egyptian migrants. Although the term “halab” is viewed by some as derogatory, it is commonly used to refer to light-skinned Sudanese. They mostly live in Bahri and in some areas in the city of Omdurman on the western banks of the River Nile. Too light to fit into the “right” shade category, light-skinned Sudanese often strive to marry into the dominant tribes.
A third identity encompasses the rest of the country outside of Northern and Central Sudan. The tribes living in this marginalized periphery are darker-skinned than the dominant tribes and are ethnically and culturally distinct. Newly arrived internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Khartoum, the center of the Arab-Islamic identity, have found themselves in a region where there is a dominant identity and this identity encompasses skin shades.
Sudanese Al-Baqir al-Afif Mukhtar, author of “The Crisis of Identity in Northern Sudan: A Dilemma of a Black people with a White Culture” argues that color-consciousness stems from a deeply rooted inferiority complex in the Arabized Northern identity. Since this is the dominant identity in the country, non-Northerners aspire to become “lighter” in an attempt to climb a stagnant social ladder.
When the British colonized Sudan in 1898, Arabized groups were favored over “African” groups. C.G. Seligman, an anthropologist commissioned to study the tribes of Sudan by the colonial government, described the tribes inhabiting the South as “savages”. Education and other services mainly targeted the Arab-Islamic groups of Northern and Central Sudan because they were viewed as the future leaders of Sudan and seen as worth the investment.Decades later, Central Sudan became the main destination for rural-urban migration and darker-skinned tribes that had been forced to flee the South and Darfur due to conflict, drought, and economic difficulties found themselves living in a region where the majority is ethnically different and considerably lighter.
The skin-lightening phenomenon was born and to fit into the new society, women felt the pressure to lighten their skin. In 2009, my family hired a young woman called Awatef. She hailed from the Nuba Mountains in South Kordofan province. When she first started working for us, she had a very dark-skinned complexion. Weeks later, there was a distinct difference between her face and her hands. Abused and bombarded with cheap bleaching creams, her face was not white, it was pink.When I asked her about the product she was using, she said that she couldn’t afford to buy the best products, so the merchant she went to gave her a mix. This mix is known as “depending on your circumstances.” Instead of buying a whole bottle of a product, you can get a small bottle or a mix of a number of products. Since a number of products are mixed together, the results are fast, but sadly, it backfires just as quickly.
In the first few weeks, the skin starts getting lighter and becomes as clear as a baby’s skin. No blemishes, no pimples, and no blackheads. Your complexion becomes even as if you have foundation on.Then it becomes a catch 22 - if you stop using it, you become darker and your skin bears the brunt of all the chemicals, but if you continue using it, you lose your color. Your face turns red and pink and you do not have a defined skin tone anymore.
According to an article published on Sudanese Online by Sudanese writer and translator, Adil Osman, the skin starts to burn after prolonged use and becomes sensitive to sunlight and then turns darker.Maha Ali Babiker, a dermatologist based in Khartoum explains, “any creams containing mercury cause kidney problems and the ones containing hydroquinone should not be used for a long period of time as they are damaging to the skin.
Many girls use a mix of different chemicals and some creams even contain cortisone, a steroid hormone used to reduce pain and inflammation at the site of an injury. They depend on the side effects of the cortisone. It causes atrophy and atrophy makes the skin appear lighter because it becomes thin as the melanin in the skin is compromised.” The end result, she added, is severe lines on the skin that look like cellulite.
Natural methods of skin lightening have been used in Sudan for centuries. From grinded orange peel to mashed potatoes, women have resorted to their kitchens for recipes to become lighter. Unfortunately, the idea that color signifies wealth and social and political status has pushed women to use harsher chemicals with life-threatening side effects.
I grew up in a family with over 10 different skin shades. Over the years, I have come to realize that even educated and worldly families like mine views color just like other Sudanese families. In the 1960’s, my grandparents lived in Boston and my mother was living with her grandparents in Khartoum. Her aunts and uncles were all light-skinned and she felt odd because she had her father’s complexion. She used to scrub herself day and night, hoping to become lighter like her favorite aunt. She once scrubbed her right arm so hard, it bled. That day, her grandmother taught her a lesson about accepting yourself the way you are. Every time we have a family gathering, my grandmother starts singing a song she wrote about my mother in the 1980’s. The second line is “you are dark-skinned and beautiful.”
About the Author:
Reem Abbas is a Sudanese journalist. She graduated from the American University in Cairo with a BA in journalism and mass communications and a minor in sociology. As a journalist, she writes about humanitarian issues from a gender-sensitive perspective. Ms. Abbas contributed a chapter to Voices in Refuge, a book published by the American University in Cairo press in January 2010. In her free time, she reads Doris Lessing and collects bookmarks.