White and pretty in Yemen
My father once told me "It used to be that the darker you are and the bigger you are, the more beautiful." It pained me to tell him that his beloved Yemen, which he'd left for many years now, was no longer this way. I retold stories of a young girl I knew, Joor, who grew up hearing incessantly, "Ya baytha, ya haliya"- “You whitie, you pretty!” Her skin was darker than her sisters yet lighter than many others. And as a young girl, it was always pointed out that perhaps she was adopted. To mark herself as the same, and disregard the rumours that she was adopted, she ferociously applied “Fair and Lovely” whitening cream. To blend was not only to belong, but also to be beautiful. And beauty, as her aunties always chided her, was central to her main purpose in life: marriage. As she grew older, her need to look fair faded. She grew accustomed to her darker tone and even loved it. Yet, her aunties still referred to her in the same way "Ya baida ya hilwa!" Older now, and not so desperate to marry, she challenged these remarks. "Why must I be white to be pretty?" "Lighter is brighter," they remarked.
Indeed, the social order of Yemen which Joor perceived, appeared to reflect this sentiment. Everywhere in the streets, dark-skinned men and women were sweeping, begging, struggling to survive. Meanwhile lighter-skinned Yemenis allegedly had citizenship rights, jobs, and were on billboards throughout Sana’a, the capital of Yemen, and whitening cream promotions could be found on Facebook and were played regularly on Arabic TV, reinforcing and contributing to this “whiteness” phenomena and “anti-blackness” discrimination.
Let the white colour games begin
University student, Brooj al-Amari, could relate to Joor’s experiences saying, “There is a bride, she will apply turmeric on her face every day before the wedding,” a long tradition to lighten the skin in southern Yemen, which was once ruled by the British.
“Men marry white-skinned girls to have white-skinned children. It is racism,” she later added. And when asked whether she bought creams or lightened her face the old traditional way, al-Amari replied “My mom tells me to do it, but I don’t have time for that stuff.”
Colour-hierarchy is a social construct that has existed in Yemen for many years, reducing and oppressing entire groups of people based on what colour they are in the brown and black spectrum; “light, brown, dark.” Some people in Yemen believe it is the psychological ramifications of colonialism, and reinforced by globalisation. Others believe it is the direct result of the slave trade.
While Yemen has been colonised at various times throughout its history, first by the Ethiopians, then the Persians, Ottoman Turks and lastly the British, Najiyah al-Wazir, a Yemeni researcher who did her dissertation on a social group in Yemen known as al-Muhamasheen “the marginalised ones,” says, “It’s hard to know at what point this started or where this started but one thing is very interesting, the Muhamasheen in Marxist (Aden) Yemen, enjoyed schooling and liberation from their "caste," whereas the social rigid structures of the north kept the social structures in place until the tribes took over the Sayyid hegemony as the ruling class. The structures have been removed and alleviated for the upper three classes, but the Muhamasheen have had harder mobility and some will argue that it is because of their colour, thus giving it a racial reason.”
Though there are some contradictions regarding from where it all started, what we do know for a fact, is that there is a very long history of dehumanisation imposed on darker-skinned people, not just in Yemen but also throughout the Arab world, prior to western colonisation.
The poetry of Antarah ibn Shaddah, a black pre-Islamic folk and a revolutionary hero, confirms that anti-blackness, in some form or other, in the Arab world is deep-rooted and goes back far more than three decades of colonisation. Shaddah was born in 525 AD to a noble Arab tribesman and an Ethiopian slave woman, and was subjected to constant humiliation for his dark complexion, including the betrayal of his father, who denied his existence and considered him a slave living in his household.
The politics and hierarchy of colour
Although the slave trade and the colonial era are both long-gone, their legacies are still alive and well, with a neo-liberal touch. Our society has developed an extremely shallow, and often denied and under the breath, “satisfactoriness” based on shades in skin-colour, denying our own colour and accepting racist values. In various social circles of which I am a part, I have unfortunately heard, “Oh they must be a Muwalid,” thrown around a little too much, even amongst the activist circles claiming to fight for justice. Muwalid, is a term referenced to not being a “pure” Yemeni and having roots from the “horn of Africa.” But who decides who looks like a Yemeni?
As a starting point, it is the responsibility, particularly of those who benefit from “light skin” to do more in their communities to call out colour-bigotry. Recognising our different skin colours and acknowledging the destructiveness of a colour-hierarchy is the first step. Although it may be difficult to do, as those with light brown skin must admit to the benefits and privileges they receive for their lighter skin. But of course acknowledgement doesn’t end institutionalised discrimination either. For a true revolution in Yemen, we must also resist the structures of power, which enable and perpetuate oppression in all its forms. And if there is no effort made to learn our own history and discuss white supremacy, the legacy of the slave trade, and give power and space to those that have historically been denied and silenced, there will be no change or justice in Yemen. This is the least we must do to end institutionalised discrimination and bring about a new Yemen, based on social and economic justice.
- Rooj Alwazir is a Yemeni-American documentary photographer and co-founder of SupportYemen media collective based in Sana'a.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo credit: tube of Fair & Lovely face cream (Rooj Alwazir)