"You're dark but you can be fixed"

Hala Alkarib

She is in her twenties, confident and good looking. She applied for a job as a presenter at a local television station in Sudan. Following her interview, the station called her and told her: “You did very well, though you have one problem. You are too dark...but this can easily be fixed.”

In another incident, a young woman applied to the police college in Sudan, and during the interview a female police brigadier who was part of the interview committee looked at her and said: “You are too dark...untie your scarf for us to see if you have good hair or if your hair is like your skin.”

‘Good hair’ is soft, straight hair - not the natural curly one that most women have and now resent. In Sudan, especially in television stations, a light-skinned person is more likely to get a job than her darker counterpart. Television stations will even cover the cost of bleaching for their women presenters if they have the skills but not the colour. As a result, one would be hard pressed to find a dark-skinned female presenter on local television today.

A shop in Sudan with the message ‘You can bleach your face in three days only.’  Photo by Ayman Hussein, Sudan

A shop in Sudan with the message ‘You can bleach your face in three days only.’
Photo by Ayman Hussein, Sudan

Walking through the streets of Sudanese cities, from Nyala in South Darfur, Khartoum, to Port Sudan in the East, girls have acquired a unified look, with distinct features: the Asian-made free-size long skirts and long sleeved T-shirts, scarves wrapped around their heads and necks, with bleached faces, dark eyelids and lips.

A disturbing aspect of bleaching is a paste called khalta, which means ‘the mix’, and is usually sold in local shops across the country. Historically, khalta shops used to be spice and perfume shops (ataar). Over the past 25 years, however, they have evolved to khalta shops mainly serving women interested in bleaching. The owners of these shops are usually men who claim a deep knowledge of dermatology. Unlike old perfume and spice shop owners, they have no interest in natural or herbal components, so the khalta is full of harmful chemical ingredients. Typically, the khalta is measured with a tablespoon, making it easily affordable and accessible to all women.

Shop banners advertise this affordability with the message “gader zurufk”, which means: whatever you can afford. The ingredients of khalta are rather mysterious. What is known is that it contains some eczema creams, yeast infection creams, liquid insulin, and other chemicals. In the dermatology section of Khartoum Hospital there is a well-known room that people call the “bio-clear room”. The ward opened in 2000, and can accommodate more than fifteen patients with severe face and skin abrasions that are usually a result of bleaching with one of the locally sold khalta products.

Elimination of cultural diversity

Growing up in Sudan, I remember how Sudanese people embraced their darkness, despite tribal differences where colour played a role, and the songs and poetry composed by both men and women during this era reflect that.

Sadly, the past 25 years have witnessed fundamental sociopolitical and cultural changes. The once diverse country is gradually shifting into a single minded anti-diversity territory, whereby the splitting of South Sudan was the climax of failure by Sudan’s political system to accommodate the diverse Sudanese nationals.

The ideology of political Islam influenced and supported by the wealth and culture from the Arab Peninsula – which affected Sudan due to proximity and population migration seeking work and money – certainly contributed to the elimination of the essence of diversity in Sudan. A country built from a blend of cultures between different Horn of Africa groups, both Muslims and non-Muslims, has fallen victim to the enforced imported militant version of Islam. The domination of Arab Peninsula Islam has resulted in shattered communities, turning the country’s diversity into a curse.

Forced assimilation led by the ruling political Islamic regimes and many of its ideological allies in Sudan has taken place for almost three decades. What we had before as Muslim Sudanese bore no relation to this newly imposed model of militant Islam. Sudanese indigenous cultures included wedding ceremonies at which men and women danced together, and the accepted practice of young men walking girls home after parties. Songs popular then, such as “Take us home, the moon is the middle of sky, you will be asked if we are not home” are no longer heard.

In Sudan today, a man and a woman walking together without a marriage certificate to prove their relationship are subject to article 152 of Sudan’s Criminal Code on “indecent behaviour” and face being flogged, fined, or jailed. A well-known example of this is Najla Mohamed Ali, a lawyer from Port Sudan, who was arrested when she was found conversing with a male friend in a taxi by the side of the road while the driver was also in the car. The three of them ended up in prison for the night and faced charges under this article.

As Sudanese people, we have lost what defined us, as our culture as we knew it is gradually disappearing –often forcibly. A local game in Darfur is called ‘The Missing Needle’ or Ibra Wadrat. In this game, boys and girls together search under the moonlight for a missing needle. However, an elderly woman from the Fur ethnic group living in Nyala recently told me that her sons, on returning home from attending university in Khartoum where they were exposed to the ‘regime’ version of Islam, came back and shouted at the family: “This is haram and you cannot play this game anymore!” Because of what they have learned they are now ashamed to play what was once a favourite game and they radically try to ensure that the rest of the family desists too.

Women are mirrors of our society: crisis and polarisation manifest on women and hit them harshly. In addition to their broader burdens of subordination and degradation, women in Sudan are expected to respond to the warped perception of the current political Islam under the regime, which is policing women’s engagement in the public arena, controlling their interactions, and subjecting them to torture and flogging.

It is further compromising their health and questions their femininity; by forcing them to submit further and adjust the colour of their skin and the way they dress to satisfy the controlling ideology of political Islam. This ideology insists on complete transformation through arabizing its followers, as is evident in the insistence on changing skin colour and hair texture.

From Women in Islam Issue 2 (2015)

Siha Africaissue2, skin bleaching, sudan