Unilever Bangladesh’s decision to drop “fair” from Fair & Lovely does not even scratch the surface of the deep-seated colourism ingrained in Bangladeshi minds
I am at a loss.
It has been a while that I am staring at the options on my laptop screen. The options I have are fair, very fair, whitish, whitish medium, whitish brown and dark. I notice that there is also an "other" option on the list.
I am on a Bangladeshi matrimonial website. To make a profile, I need to choose from the seven complexion options in order to find my prospective wife.
I am fidgeting. I need to make a choice. At one extreme, I have the option of a fair wife. At another, I can go for a dark wife. There are also variations of fair. I can choose a wife who is only fair or very fair.
I am also thinking about the "other" option, but do not know what it means. "Will it be better than a fair wife?" I ask myself.
As I keep thinking about different complexions and imagine myself with a fair wife, a hotchpotch of thoughts race through my mind. But there is one particular thought that I am able to easily separate from the jumble – I have a propensity not to choose the "dark" option.
I feel that I am predisposed to choose a "fair" bride. Moments later, I also realise I do not want to imagine myself with a "dark" wife, and that this is an involuntary response of my brain.
I am among a large pool of Bangladeshi men who zero in on finding a "fair" woman for marriage. There is no official statistic on what percentage of men do this, but it is prevalent across all social classes, perhaps except the poor. A poor man showing stubbornness to find a fair wife is likely to be at a disadvantage from the get-go.
Bangladesh is a monoethnic society. It is not affected by racism like the US or other melting pot societies in the West where people of different colours and ethnicities live together. But what it has is a deep-rooted, centuries-old problem of colourism, and that is no less savage than racism.
This dates back to the period when the Aryan people are believed to have migrated from somewhere in Iran to the Indian subcontinent around 1500 BC. They introduced the idea of supremacy based on complexion. They themselves were fair-skinned with strong facial features, and succeeded in establishing the notion that people who have fair skin are superior than those with a dark complexion.
That era is long gone, but people in this region are still carrying the Aryan legacy. Over generations, this has become deeply ingrained in the Bangladeshi psyche. Colourism continues to be rampant in India too.
In search of a fair bride
The marriage market is the prime domain where Bangladeshi girls are ruthlessly exposed to the soul-crushing effects of colourism. No matter how unpleasant it sounds, a girl's marriage prospects hinge on her complexion. If she is dark, the odds of finding a good, wealthy husband are highly stacked against her.
Even if she is educated and has a career, she will still have a hard time getting a man who is interested in marrying her. Both in villages and cities, a Bangladeshi man wants a fair bride. For him and his family, fair skin is the predominant criterion for measuring a bride's desirability.
Kazi Ashraf Hossain, widely known as Ghatak Pakhi Bhai, is a matchmaking guru with over four decades of experience. Almost a household name in this field, he revealed the raw truth this way, "The marriage market always demands a fair bride."
He said there is a right match for every kind of bride, but a fair bride is and has always been a preferred choice.
Ashraf has been helping people find matches since the time when there was no internet and mobile phone in Bangladesh. Times have changed. The use of technologies has now made Bangladeshis more connected than ever.
Also, there are more options now to meet someone. People can look for partners online instead of directly taking help from friends, relatives, neighbours and matchmakers like Ashraf. Dating apps, although not primarily used to find life partners, are slowly coming into fashion.
Nonetheless, the preference for a fair bride still remains strong. There are, of course, exceptions, but those are negligible, and often include men who are settling because of personal or family problems, or lack of other elements of their suitability.
"Let us call a spade a spade. We do not fall for a dark-skinned girl, do we?" said Rasel Rahman, who works at a private firm in Dhaka.
"We do not imagine a dark girl as our first choice when we think about getting married, do we?"
Rasel's thoughts reflect what matchmakers like Ashraf frequently deal with in their work to unite a man and a woman through marriage. This is common in all strata of the society. However, not every man will admit it like Rasel as this is an unpleasant truth.
How attraction grows for fair skin
For Bangladeshi men, the preference for fair skin is starkly obvious in different stages of life even prior to marriage. Their attraction for women is greatly influenced by the latter's complexion.
Since childhood, among their families, relatives and neighbours, Bangladeshis frequently hear disapproving opinions about dark skin and disproportionately favourable opinions on light complexion. They are often compared with children of the opposite complexion by elders to form a judgment on which child is better. Thus, they internalise associating worthiness with complexion without questioning its rationality as they are too young to do so.
This leads teenage boys to set their eyes on (and also pursue if they choose to) the fairest girls during school and college days. An academically brilliant and intelligent girl with a dark skin tone will have fewer boys showing interest in her than a fair one with less merit.
In other words, when it comes to romantic relationships, a fair woman, since puberty up until marriage, enjoys a distinct edge over her dark-skinned peers. The former will have more men courting her once she reaches the age of marriage, sometimes even before. She will have a lot more men, particularly from well-off families, willing to send their parents to her home to discuss marriage with her guardians.
Another reason to prefer a fair bride stems from the desire to ensure the legacy of fairness in future generations. It is widely believed that a fair mom will give birth to fair babies, but there is no scientific evidence to support this.
The preference for fair women exists in the job market too, especially in jobs that require direct communication with people, such as receptionist and flight attendant. Fair-skinned women not having stellar academic achievements and skills may have a head start in landing some jobs that their dark counterparts will struggle to get.
Veteran actor and social activist Sara Zaker said a dark person has to struggle a lot to get into the entertainment industry. But complexion does not matter much for male actors, she added.
Complexion also carries moral connotations for Bangladeshi girls, according to Dr Santi Rozario, an honorary senior research fellow at Cardiff University.
"Beauty is defined largely in terms of 'light' skin colour. Its opposite, 'dark' (kalo) and ugly, is also kharap (bad), with the connotation of sexual misbehaviour," she wrote in the book Coming of Age in South and Southeast Asia: Youth, Courtship and Sexuality.
"The complexions of girls and women are used by the Bengali society to distinguish between desirable/good and undesirable/bad."
Duality in Bangladeshi minds
Over the years, there have been newspaper writings aimed at raising awareness of colourism among the masses. Companies aggressively marketing skin-brightening products have often been bashed. The majority of people, if asked, will say having a dark skin should never be a hindrance in any stage of a woman's life.
Yet, when Bangladeshi men will think about marriage, they will always look for fair brides. Other credentials of women – such as having a career, excellent cooking skills, and the ability to make art – usually take a back seat in marriage discussions.
One way to describe this dual nature is through Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson's classic novella Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Dr Jekyll is a good, well-respected scientist while Mr Hyde is his evil alter ego. Jekyll has learned to make a potion that allows him to become Hyde.
For a while, Jekyll is able to keep Hyde under control. But as time goes by, Jekyll gradually loses control and Hyde finally takes over. In the end, they both die.
The main idea Stevenson portrayed in the book is that every individual has two sides in his/her personality. He wrote, "Man is not truly one, but truly two."
Agreeing that colourism is a social plague and then actively looking for fair brides highlight the same extreme contradiction in the psyche of Bangladeshi men that is tantamount to the Jekyll-Hyde case. When this is linked to Unilever Bangladesh's recent announcement to drop the word "fair" from Fair & Lovely in the face of Black Lives Matter protests, it is highly unlikely that this move will succeed in addressing the Jekyll-Hyde phenomenon among Bangladeshi men.
A distinct battle
The company said in a statement that rebranding Fair & Lovely is part of its aim to lead the celebration of a more diverse portrayal of beauty. However, as the obsession for fair skin in Bangladesh had spread widely for ages before the company started operations in 1964, it is highly likely that the situation will largely remain unchanged. Fair & Lovely will still be viewed as a skin-brightening product no matter how they rename it.
Moreover, many other companies in Bangladesh sell skincare products that promise brighter complexions. There are also hundreds of beauty salons offering facials and other skin-whitening treatments to women. Single women, prospective brides and even the married ones receive services in such parlours.
Addressing colourism thus needs a wholly different battle to be fought – one that is mammoth, multifaceted, and full of intricacies. It is a battle against centuries of social conditioning that fair not only represents beauty, but also worthiness and superiority. It is a battle against the permanent fixture of Bangladeshi male psychology that a fair bride is some kind of a prize to win.
Finally, it is a battle to kill my alter ego – the Mr Hyde in me – who grew up in a culture that firmly established in his mind the inclination to choose the "fair" bride option every time he visits the matrimonial site.