The politics and culture of skin bleaching in Sudan

The past 25 years have witnessed fundamental sociopolitical and cultural changes in Sudan.  Women have been the terrain of many of the uneasy shifts in the country, even down to their skin, which they are now being encouraged to bleach.

Hala al-Karib
3 December 2013
A wall with a painted sign in Arabic

A shop in Sudan with the messsage 'You can bleach your face within three days only'. Photo: Ayman Hussein

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 could easily be fixed”. The television stations cover the cost of bleaching for its women presenters. In another incident, a young woman applied to the police college, and during the interview a woman 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”.

Walking through the streets of Sudan cities from Nayala in South Darfur, Khartoum to Port Sudan in the East, the girls have acquired this unified look; 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 which gives them a very distinct feature.

The disturbing aspects of bleaching lie in what is called khalta, which means ‘the mix’. Khalta 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 become khalta shops mainly serving women interested in bleaching. The owners of these shops are usually men who now claim a deep knowledge of dermatology. Unlike old perfumer 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. It is usually advertised on the shop banner – Gader Zurufk – meaning ‘according to your ability’. The ingredients of the khalta are rather mysterious but what is known is that it contains some eczema creams, yeast infection creams, liquid insulin and other chemicals.

In the dermatology section of the Khartoum hospital there is a well know room which the hospital staff and local people call the "bio-clear room". The ward opened in 2000, and can accommodate more than fifteen people at a time who have come in suffering from severe face and skin abrasion as a result of bleaching their skin with one of the khalta products sold locally.   

Growing up in Sudan, I remember how Sudanese embraced their darkness, despite the nature of their tribal society, and the songs and poetry composed by both men and women during this era clearly reflected this.

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, and the splitting of South Sudan was the climax of the failure of Sudan’s political system to accommodate Sudanese as diverse nations. The political Islam ideology 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 that was built on blended cultures between different Horn of Africa groups, both Muslims and non-Muslims, has been victimized by the enforced imported militant version of Islam. The domination of Arab peninsula Islam has resulted into nothing but shattered communities, turning the country’s diversity into a curse.

The forced assimilation led by the ruling political Islamic regimes and many of its ideological allies in Sudan has been taking place for almost three decades. What we had before as Muslim Sudanese bore no relation to this newly imposed model of militant Islam. Sudanese indigent cultures always included mixed ceremonies at wedding in which men and women danced together, and the accepted practice of young men walking girls home after parties. Popular songs then such as “Take us home, the moon is the middle of sky, you will be asked if we were 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 subjected on a daily basis to article 152 of Sudan criminal code on "indecent behaviour", and face being flogged, fined or jailed. Najla  Mohamed Ali, a lawyer form Port Sudan, was just having a conversation with a male friend in a taxi by the side of the road while the diver was also in the car, and the three of them ended up in prison for the night and now face charges under article152. 

As Sudanese people, we have lost what defined us, as our culture has been interrogated and gradually abolished – often forcibly. A local game in Darfur was called ‘the missing needle’ or Ibra Wadrat, during which boys and girls searched under the moonlight for the missing needle: they played in each other’s company. Recently an elder woman from the Fur ethnic group living in Nayala, told me that her sons, on returning home from attending university in Khartoum and being exposed to the ‘regime’ version of Islam, came back and shouted at the family: "this is haram and you cannot play this game anymore”.

Women are the mirrors of our society: crisis and polarization manifests itself on them and hits them harshly. In addition to the 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 interaction and subjecting them to torture and flogging. They are further compromising their health and interrogating their femininity as women by forcing them to submit further, and change the colour of their skin and the way they dress to satisfy the controlling ideology of political Islam. 

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