The white mask
This story was first published on The Niles.
Sudan does not recognise race, colour or cultural pluralism, except in slogans. Nevertheless, its institutions have racial segregation policies and racist employment regulations in both the public and private sector. For those who don’t fit in, assimilation can take extreme forms.
Changing skin colour, for example, is rampant in Sudan. It was started with girls and women, and was soon practiced by some men using cosmetic and chemical products like expensive colour changing injections, which are often medically banned. Nevertheless, skin whitening has turned into a popular and lucrative business upheld by social misconceptions and encouraged by various media outlets.
Light skin more valued
Skin diseases caused by whitening creams and lotions account for one-third of the registered skin-related cases in Sudanese hospitals. Last August, the Ministry of Health said 1,347 serious skin cases were likely to develop into cancer in three months.
Despite the intensive awareness-raising campaigns launched by female activists, feminist movements and university female students, like #Bashrati – a campaign launched in May 2015 to raise awareness about the beauty of Sudan’s diverse colours and the positivity of its multiculturalism – the number of such cases is on the rise.
“The majority of our Sudanese society prefers white-skinned women,” says journalist and social worker Asma’a Jumaa, “Some labour market agencies practice racial segregation where they employ girls with certain features, which urges girls to lighten their skin colour so that they can get a good job, regardless of identity.”
Jumaa points out that the trend is not unique to Sudan, but a global practice where many blacks in other countries, including developed nations, change their skin colour, believing that white skin is more valuable. “I do not really know what benefits a girl who opts to change her skin colour for marriage has,” says Jumaa. “Even if she has white skin, her family would still maintain their original colour. Will she change their colour as well?”
Jumaa says her black skin has not hampered her normal life or work, and even if she faced problems in the future, she would never change her skin colour.
“There are body transformations in Africa as a whole not only in Sudan,” says Abbas al-Hag al-Amin, a folklore professor. “The body is a board on which its owner is free to write what she wants. Skin whitening is one of these options. Previously, Sudan had different such practices, like injecting a black liquid in the lips to give them a dark look, and also making deep symbolising cuts on the cheeks, leaving permanent scars. Identity is not a fixed inherited thing, but an acquired and changeable subject,” says al-Amin.
Identity issues after Sudan split
Al-Amin cites one reason behind skin bleaching is the pressure to assimilate. “In 2011, when the political scene headed towards separation of the south, many southern girls who stayed in Sudan changed their skin colour in an attempt to integrate into a society that does not accept minorities and is biased towards Arab nationality,” says al-Amin.
He cites the words of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir at a public gathering on the eve of the separation of South Sudan: “Sudan has now become totally Arabic, and we will fully implement Sharia,” as contributing to a belief that Arabic culture and appearance are more valued.
Arabs or Africans?
“The question of identity was raised before the independence,” says al-Amin. “Some early elite Gordon College graduates started to question their identity: ‘Are we Arabs or Africans?’ This is an extraneous question and many schools of thought have tried to find an answer, including Arab, African, Afro-Arab, and several other schools based on diversity and adopted notions similar to those upheld by Sudan People’s Liberation Movement in its early stages.”
The absence of an answer may be attributed to the demographic structure of the Sudanese society itself, says al-Amin, which is based on cultural, ethnic and religious diversity. Most of those who tried to answer this question adopted stereotyped thoughts, including researchers who founded the aforementioned schools. “Basically, Sudan has a fertile cultural background, and any person wishing to emphasise his or her notion about a particular identity will find in Sudan something to support it, which underlines the fact that Sudan has a diversity of Arab, African and other components.”
Impact of stereotypes
Sudan is still strongly influenced by the Arabisation movement adopted by the regime and several cultural groups have suffered exclusion, including original dynasties like Nubians and Beja people, for example. The successive governments have failed to create an adequate environment in which all types, cultures and languages could co-exist in harmony in one country.
“The political Islamic project in Sudan has identified with Arabism, which is a grave error since Islam does not exclude races or other ethnicities,” says al-Amin.
“The notion of identity itself has some problems because the concept of a single identity does not exist. We all have a number of components and there is no pure blood given that all races and dynasties are overlapping, excluding some African tribes that remained closed. Out of these components, an individual selects one to form his or her character and reflect the image they choose. The recently observed tendency by women to change their skin colour is a desire to have the identity they prefer, which is not a spontaneous choice but rather directed by several ideologies.
Young Sudanese males’ preference of white-skinned girls is a result of the typical stereotypes portrayed by mass media through TV presenters and commercials that are predominantly focused on skin-whitening, weight-loss and make-up products. Girls are therefore enthusiastically interested in having that look which is seemingly preferred by most men.
Still, there are some who reject changing skin colour, which was evidenced at the Ajang art festival, which highlights the Dinka culture. A song criticising women practicing skin bleaching was cheered on by the audience.