Indian Activists Challenge Bias Against Dark Skin

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By Aliya Bashir, GPJ India

From Focus On: Body Image: Many African, South Asian Women Bleach Their Skin Despite Severe and Lasting Side Effects 

NEW DELHI, INDIA – In a country where women spend billions of rupees a year to whiten their skin, activists denounce a widespread cultural preference for fair women.

The glorification of light skin is evident in ads seeking marriage partners.

“There is a high demand for fair-skin brides,” says Manasi Mishra, head of the research division at the Centre for Social Research, a New Delhi-based nongovernmental organization. “Women with dark skin are still looked down upon.”

This bias, known as colorism, is rooted in British colonialism, says Kavitha Emmanuel, director of Women of Worth, a network of women promoting change in India.

“That’s where a so-called master – usually a White – would look down upon a servant – a dark-complexioned Indian,” Emmanuel says in a phone interview.

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Color-based discrimination is also related to the caste system, the deep divide between the rich and the poor, and complex regional differences, Emmanuel says.

The notion that fair is beautiful drives a growing market for skin-lightening products.

The fairness products industry in India is worth 28 billion rupees ($4.5 million), according to 2014 research by Nielsen India, provided in a phone interview by Nielsen Executive Director Vijay Udasi.

“In India, it’s not just the lower- and middle-income consumers who are using fairness products,” Udasi says. “The trend is seen also with affluent consumers who are seeking assurances and confidence with these products.”

Skin-lightening creams were introduced to India in the 1970s.

The influence of the industry has spawned social pressure to conform to the fair-skin ideal.

Shazia Nigar, a 25-year-old New Delhi journalist, became conscious of her skin color in childhood, she says.

A dark-skinned woman whose extended family is composed mostly of fair-skinned people, Nigar has experienced pressure to lighten her skin even from family.

A few years ago, an aunt thrust a handful of sachets of fairness creams into her hand and implored her to use them, she says.

She did not take the sachets.

The experience has stayed with her, she says.

“I still remember when my aunt told me, ‘Gori is sundar’ (‘Fair is beautiful’),” Nigar says.

Some Indians object to the manner in which fairness creams are marketed, saying ads for them perpetuate a narrow ideal of beauty and foster bias.

In response, the advertising industry has adopted guidelines intended to prevent the perpetuation of colorism. The Advertising Standards Council of India, the industry’s nongovernmental watchdog, released the guidelines in August.

“Advertising should not directly or implicitly show people with darker skin, in a way which is widely seen as unattractive, unhappy, depressed or concerned,” the document states.

The guidelines further stipulate that advertising should not associate darker or lighter skin with any particular socio-economic strata, caste, community, religion, profession or ethnicity.

To counter the exaltation of fair skin and the negative perception of dark skin, Women of Worth conducts awareness programs in schools and colleges.

“The fair complexion is prized in India, and we want to question that stereotype,” Emmanuel says.

In 2009, Women of Worth launched its “Dark is Beautiful” campaign to challenge the climate of discrimination.

“Our goal is to address this toxic belief that a person’s worth is measured by the color of their skin and to break the cliché that brown-skinned women should feel less privileged than the fairer ones,” Emmanuel says.

The campaign has enlisted the help of Indian cinema stars, including Nandita Das.

The campaign has garnered international media coverage, inspiring similar campaigns in other countries.

“In Pakistan, college students have got inspired by our work, and they are starting a parallel campaign called ‘Dark is Divine,’” Emmanual says. “We are collaborating with them to fight color discrimination in Pakistan.”

Chirayu Jain is among 15 New Delhi college students who started another activist organization, Brown n’ Proud.

Jain, a law student, and his cohorts have sought to persuade a manufacturer of art supplies to change the name of a peach-colored crayon it labels “skin.”

Jain first made his request in phone calls to the company, Hindustan Pencils, in 2013.

“The company didn’t take me seriously,” Jain says. “They instead told me that the skin color would obviously be called skin, like red is called red.”

Jain then sued Hindustan Pencils. He accused the company of promoting racism.

The company, whose name means “India,” should recognize the country’s diversity, he says.

“India is a country where people of multiple religions, cultures and ethnicities live,” Jain says. “It didn’t make any sense to promote only one skin color, creating an ideal image of a skin color.”

He lost the case in November. He failed to prove that Hindustan has engaged in an unfair trade practice, according to the ruling.

He has appealed the ruling to a higher court.

Brown n’ Proud is also conducting an online petition drive urging Hindustan Pencils to change the crayon’s name.

Some people have told Jain he is blowing the crayon issue out of proportion.

“But, basically, it gave us a reason to loudly shout that dark skin is beautiful skin too, like the fairer one,” he says.

Some Indians don’t need to be convinced.

Despite experiencing pressure to lighten her skin, Nigar has never felt she was worth less than light-skinned people, she says.

“My mother told me that throughout life I might come up with different challenges where people would comment on my skin color, but that it should not lower my self-esteem,” Nigar says.

Nigar is comfortable with who she is, she says.

“Today when I look in the mirror, nothing brings me more peace than my own face,” she says

The “Dark is Beautiful” message is spreading.

In 2015, Women of Worth plans to expand its campaign in Bhutan, Nepal and Pakistan, as well as India, Emmanuel says.

“Our expectation and hope is that in whatever medium or form or expression they use, people should break the stereotype that color determines the worth of a person,” she says.
GPJ translated some interviews from Urdu.