Racism is a multifaceted issue that has permeated almost every layer of society. That needs to be understood before reading the rest of what I have to say. I don’t want to hear arguments that representation of minorities has helped, or that statistics of racism are over-exaggerated, or that things have improved a lot in the past few years. As the Black Lives Matter movement in the US has shown, having a black President for 8 years made no difference to the institutional and popular racism against African Americans. If you doubt that, look at the racial views of the current president. But its not just a problem in the US, its worldwide on a number of different levels.
However the aspect of racism under discussion today is that of beauty standards. And its inspired by the story of a good friend of mine, Ayesha.
Like many young Muslim women, at age 23, her family started to look for a suitable brother for marriage. She was open to suggestions and having been raised in a practicing household, had very little preferences in regards to backgrounds, that didn’t extend to ethnicity or race. As a south Asian, British Muslim, her Deen was the most important thing to her, and she hoped, would be for her future husband too.
Reality soon shattered that illusion. Upon receiving several profiles and suggestions of prospective brothers, she was shocked to see that preference of ethnicity, even from those who considered themselves religious, often centred on having a light complexion. If “fair” wasn’t out rightly specified as a skin colour, even more detailed preferences were given; “European, Arab, Revert, Pakistani”, grouped together to make it clear – she must be white. The irony was that many of the men with this preference were often Asian or Arab themselves, and hailing from specific regions where most people have a darker skin tone.
This kind of story will not be unfamiliar to pretty much anyone in the Muslim community. With much of our community hailing from these regions, the backward cultural baggage, reinforced by years of colonialism, has come with them. From a young age many girls are compared on their beauty in direct correlation to how fair they are, with descriptions ranging from “wheatish” to “corn coloured”. “Fair” spouses are not just the desire of the boy/girl, but are usually the demand of the entire family; or else the “dark” bride/groom will be taunted about her colour forever after. Skin whitening creams are the rage across, Asia, Africa and the Middle East, promising “fairer and more beautiful skin”, such that in India, two thirds of all dermatological products are for skin bleaching, and Nigeria, where 77% of women use lightening products. Over the years, Asian and black celebrities can be seen to get progressively fairer on screen; looking back at old photos is like looking at different people. Being darker is still considered “dirty” in some way, as most recently having been depicted in the Chinese advert, where a black man goes into a washing machine, and comes out a light skinned Asian man.
Some people compare this to the tanning trend in the West. But the key difference is that white people are not tanning to look like a person of colour, rather its to aim for the exotic look, (again a notion linked to the objectification and exotification of women of colour that is still harmful today).
The other difference is the history. It is no secret why this mentality pervades our society. Centuries of slavery and colonialism, despite having been ended, have not been ideologically challenged. Call it what you want: white supremacy, western dominance, first world versus third world; the mind set of Western countries equalling success, and fair equalling beauty stem from the same source.
But for the Muslim community, this is doubly painful. Others turn around and say “Racism has no place in the 21st century”, but as Muslims, this has had no place since the 7th century, when Muhammad (saws) outlawed racism in all its forms.
As a religion built on the fundamentals of equality before the eyes of Allah, it’s an absolute disgrace that this mentality lives on, even in the minds of supposedly Islamic individuals. The examples of black companions of the Prophet (saws), Bilal (ra) and Umm Ayman (ra), have become the token examples used in talks and in twitter debates, but how many of these people actually stop before they call the Adhaan and remember that they are following in the footsteps of a black man? How many families would be willing for their daughters to marry a man like Bilal (ra)? Racism continues, and most especially in our standards of beauty, because personal preference is the easiest thing to be influenced without it being obvious.
The only way we can fix this in our society is to turn back to our Islamic values, and recognise that the bond of our Deen is the strongest there is. Allah (swt) tells us that we are divided into nations and tribes to know one another, but this is against the backdrop of being united under a holistic implementation of Islam, spiritually, mentally and politically. In the absence of that, and in the era of rampant nationalism, if we don’t recognise the importance of making Islam our criteria in everything, we will never progress.
As for Ayesha, witnessing this mentality still being so rampant in our community was disappointing. She often she refused many of those suggested to her with that preference, even though she would be considered “fair” herself, because she could never be with someone who held such a superficial, backward mind-set.
We must make this unacceptable in our communities, people should be ashamed to have such a preference. Until we do that, we will continue to be a Muslim community, without Islam.