This is a guest post by Bint Kashmir.
These are all terms used by people to refer to those with a lighter complexion. You may already be quite familiar with such terms if your heritage is African, Asian or Middle Eastern.
For generations, these cultures have both instigated and themselves been victims of colourism:
noun: colorism; noun: colourism
- prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group.
Many have linked the start of colourism to colonisation.
A 2019 article from The Daily Star states:
Hundreds of years of being ruled by lighter skinned individuals with the Muslim rule of India, other Europeans like the Portuguese and finally the British (with them institutionalising the idea), unknowingly or unwillingly, people began the association of fairer skin tone with greater social superiority. Even years after independence from the British, partition of India and independence of Bangladesh from Pakistan, the idea of colourism still remains deeply rooted systematically in our cultures throughout the subcontinent.
It is no secret that lighter-skinned individuals are treated better than ‘darker-skinned’ individuals in a large majority of the world. This irrational mindset of viewing fair skin as a characteristic of the elite is something that is extremely difficult to escape.
As outrageous and idiotic as all of this may seem, unfortunately it is often a person’s own family members who are the first people to shun them due to their skin colour. Girls and boys with lighter skin will very likely have far more potential prospects for marriage. If there is a woman with a darker skin shade who has reached the age of marriage, long before this point in her life actually, she’s more than likely been pushed towards using skin ‘lightening’ or ‘whitening’ creams, told to stay out of the sun, etc.
Such skin ‘lightening’ products are not only produced for adults either, but they’re even made for children and babies. Yes, you read that correctly—babies. Though it may be difficult to imagine for some, this level of insanity is unfortunately a sad reality for some. Even the poor, innocent children cannot escape the madness of this despicable mindset.
In a TED talk by Vivian Oputa, a specialist in Aesthetic medicine, she tells a heart-breaking story:
There was a patient who came to my clinic once with her nine-month-old baby. She said, “I need to bleach my baby because the baby was light-skinned when she was born but now she’s darker.” So I said look, the child’s colour comes in within a year. What exactly are you trying to do to your child? She said nope, if I’m not going to help her then she will go to the market and buy whatever is recommended for her children.
So this is such a deep problem.
How has the society degenerated to this point where you will now harm your children?
Vivian then continues with another even more shocking story:
There’s a country in West Africa that I think the darkest thing happens in. I read a report recently where expectant mothers were taking tablets to bleach their unborn children. This is the most extreme I’ve ever heard of, and I feel this is criminal. I really don’t know what else to say. If it has taken root to that level where you are trying to not only damage your health, because you don’t even know what’s in these so-called products that are for bleaching the baby in utero. It is really, really disturbing.
Through media and advertisements, we are constantly shown lighter-skinned models.
A particular ‘lightening’ cream called Fair and Lovely, quite popular within the Indian subcontinent, recently had its name changed to Glow and Lovely due to some controversies surrounding the brand’s name.
Ads for this brand usually display some woman with a dark complexion that is sad and husbandless. This woman is then offered some Fair and Lovely cream, and voila, she’s suddenly ‘glowing’ and happily married. It’s all down to the cream!
While looking into the entire issue of skin lightening, I came across numerous related documentaries, but then something even more horrific appeared as a suggested video.
What could be that bad you ask?
Bridal makeovers in South Asia, specifically Pakistan in this case. These videos show a dark skinned woman, who is then masked with layers upon layers of foundation, until she is eventually ten shades lighter than her original skin tone (and I’m not exaggerating this one bit).
The end result of this is that the woman looks Caucasian. And that’s not even the worst of it. Here are some of the comments under these videos, by women:
‘Your work is extraordinary.’
This is what I find nauseating. This poor woman has probably been told constantly, throughout her entire life, that the natural colour of her skin is not good enough. How utterly shameful is it that such a disgusting mindset is being promoted within a Muslim majority country such as Pakistan?
Whitening products are available absolutely everywhere, from the large department stores to the little corner shops in the bazaar. Every newspaper, magazine, etc., that you purchase will undoubtedly have within it some advertisement for skin lightening products.
Billion Dollar Industry
A market research report found that:
The Global Skin Lightening Products Market size was estimated at USD 10.98 billion in 2021 and expected to reach USD 11.96 billion in 2022, and is projected to grow at a CAGR 9.23% to reach USD 18.65 billion by 2027.
I find it extremely troubling that in African and Asian countries, where the economy is not so good (though arguably the economy isn’t really great anywhere right now), women (and men too) are squandering their much-needed money on purchasing such creams, which can potentially lead to thinning their skin or leaving it extremely damaged.
What Makes These Products So Dangerous?
Apart from the psychological impact, the physical effects can also be fatal.
Most of these products contain unregulated and illegal ingredients which are banned in numerous countries.
Still, people find ways to smuggle these products in, usually because of the insatiable demand.
According to the NHS:
Skin-lightening creams you can buy without a prescription
Many alternative skin-lightening products are available to buy online or in shops or pharmacies without a prescription.
Make sure you check the ingredients of any product before you buy it. Avoid it if hydroquinone, corticosteroids or mercury are listed in the ingredients, or if the product does not list the ingredients.
Creams that contain hydroquinone, corticosteroids or mercury, which have not been prescribed by a doctor, are banned in the UK because they can cause serious side effects if used incorrectly.
Many skin-lightening creams containing natural ingredients are also available. These are legal and unlikely to be harmful, but there’s no guarantee they work.
Possible side effects
Side effects of skin-lightening creams can include:
• redness and swelling (skin irritation and inflammation)
• a burning or stinging sensation
• itchy and flaky skin
What could go wrong
Possible risks of skin-lightening creams containing hydroquinone, corticosteroids or mercury include:
• skin turning dark or too light
• thinning of the skin
• visible blood vessels in the skin
• kidney, liver or nerve damage
• abnormalities in a newborn baby (if used during pregnancy)
If you’re prescribed skin-lightening cream by a doctor, they should tell you about the potential risks and how common these are.
According to WebMD:
Risks of Skin Lighteners
One of the most significant risks of using some skin lighteners is the potential exposure to mercury. One study found that nearly 1 out of every 4 skin lighteners made in Asia and sold outside the U.S. contained mercury.
There are other potential risks of skin lighteners. Those risks can include the following:
• Prolonged use can contribute to premature aging of skin.
• Long-term use may increase the risk of skin cancer from sun exposure. Always use a broad-spectrum sunscreen when using a skin lightener and going outside.
• Steroids in some skin lighteners may increase risk for skin infections, skin thinning, acne, and poor wound healing.
• Applying steroids to large areas of skin may put you at risk for health problems related to steroid being absorbed by the body.
• Hydroquinone may cause unwanted and untreatable skin discoloration (ochronosis).
• Various bleaching agents, including natural ingredients, can cause skin irritation or allergic reaction.
There are many dangerous ingredients found in most brands.
One of these dangerous substances is Glutathione.
According to WebMD:
Glutathione is a substance made from the amino acids glycine, cysteine, and glutamic acid. It is produced by the liver and involved in many body processes.
Glutathione is involved in tissue building and repair, making chemicals and proteins needed in the body, and in immune system function.
A Science Direct article mentions:
Despite the knowledge of the possible harmful side effects of lightening, trends such as glass skin (term used to describe even-toned skin like crystal clear glass) are on the rise, with advertisements of intravenous injections of glutathione (antioxidant with additional antimelanogenic properties through the inhibition of tyrosinase binding; Lee et al., 2020, Russon, 2018, Sonthalia et al., 2018).
Glutathione has become a major health concern in many countries for its potential adverse sequelae. Glutathione infusions are approved in India for various alcoholic liver diseases and in the Philippines for use as adjunctive treatment in cisplatin chemotherapy; however, the FDA has not approved its use for SL (Sonthalia et al., 2018). Oral, topical, and intravenous formulations of glutathione have expanded across countries; however, no well-defined dose or safe duration of administration exists (Sonthalia et al., 2018). Significant complications, including hepatic, neurologic, and renal toxicity, Stevens Johnson Syndrome, and air emboli, have been reported (Dadzie, 2016).
In both the United States and the Philippines, the FDA publicly condemned the use of glutathione injections and issued advisory warnings against its use (Hilton, 2020).
Mercury is another poisonous ingredient prevalent in many whitening products.
According to World Health Organization (WHO):
• Adverse health effects of the inorganic mercury contained in skin lightening creams and soaps include: kidney damage (7), skin rashes, skin discolouration and scarring, reduction in the skin’s resistance to bacterial and fungal infections (31), anxiety, depression, psychosis and peripheral neuropathy (3, 31).
• The medical literature reports specific instances of individuals suffering from the aforementioned health effects following exposure to mercury through skin lightening creams and soaps. One case report describes a 34-year-old Chinese woman who developed nephrotic syndrome, a condition marked by high levels of protein in the urine. Nephrotic syndrome can be associated with a series of complications that affect an individual’s health and quality of life. The mercury levels in the woman’s blood and urine returned to normal one month and nine months, respectively, after she stopped using the skin lightening cream (37). Another case report describes a 54-year-old woman with an onset of dementia, epilepsy and peripheral polyneuropathy at the age of 49. After six years of daily skin lightening cream application, exposure was stopped immediately, after which her blood and urine mercury levels returned to unexposed levels (38).
• One study revealed a large proportion of nephrotic syndrome among African women using ammoniated mercuric chloride–containing skin lightening creams for periods ranging from one month to three years. After
cessation of mercury-containing skin lightening creams, urine mercury levels rapidly fell to within the unexposed
range. Over three quarters of the women who stopped using the creams went into remission (7, 39).
• Mercury in soaps, creams and other cosmetic products is eventually discharged into waste water. The mercury
then enters the environment, where it becomes methylated and can enter the food chain as highly toxic methylmercury in fish (3). Pregnant women who consume fish containing methylmercury can transfer the mercury to their fetuses, which can result in neurodevelopmental deficits in the children (3).
• Exposure to inorganic mercury can be quantified through measurements in blood and urine (34).
• Mercury-containing skin lightening products are hazardous to health and as a result have been banned in many countries. Even in some countries where such products have been banned, they are still advertised and available to consumers via the Internet and other means.
• There is a great need for public awareness given the worldwide increase in the use of cosmetic products containing mercury.
• Information on the hazards of skin lightening products in general must be provided to consumers as even skin lightening products that do not contain mercury may contain other hazardous substances, such as hydroquinone.
As Muslims, we should not even entertain the idea of white skin being better than dark skin. Study carefully the following very important narrations:
1) Rasulullah (sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) mentioned in a sermon he delivered during the days of Hajj:
“O People! Certainly your Rabb is one, your father is one. An Arab has no virtue over a Non Arab, nor does a Non Arab have virtue over an Arab, a red skinned person is not more virtuous than a dark skinned person nor is a dark skinned person more virtuous than a red skinned person except through Taqwa.”
(Musnad Ahmad, vol. 5 pg. 411. See here)
2) Nabi (sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) told Abu Dharr (radiyallahu ‘anhu):
“Behold! Verily, You are not better than a red skinned or black skinned person, but rather only by virtue of Taqwa.”
(Musnad Ahmad, vol. 5 pg. 158)
3) Rasulullah (sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) addressed the people at the conquest of Makkah and said, “O Mankind! Indeed Allah has done away with the haughtiness of the Days of Ignorance and its vain boasting of one’s ancestry. Mankind is of two types; The pious, upright one, honourable in the sight of Allah and the immoral, sinful one, worthless in the sight of Allah. All mankind are the children of Adam and Allah created Adam from sand. Allah Ta’ala states, ‘O Mankind! We created you from a single pair of a male and a female and made you into nations and tribes so that you may get to know each other. Surely, the noblest among you in sight of Allah is the most righteous. Allah is All-Knowledgeable, All-Aware.’” [Surah Al Hujurat, Verse: 13]
(Jami’ al-Tirmidhi, Hadith: 3270)
4) Sayyidah Safiyyah (radiyallahu ‘anha), the wife of Nabi (sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) came to know that Sayyidah Hafsah (radiyallahu ‘anha) had said about her that she is the daughter of a Jew. When Nabi (sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) met her, she was weeping. So he asked, ‘Why are you weeping?’ She replied, ‘Hafsah said that I am the daughter of a Jew.’
Nabi (sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said: You are the daughter of a Prophet [Harun ‘alayhis salam], and your uncle was a Prophet as well [Musa ‘alayhis salam] and you are the wife of a Prophet, so what is she boasting about?’ Then Nabi (sallallahu ‘alayhi wa salam) told Hafsah, ‘O Hafsah! Fear Allah!’
(Jami’ al-Tirmidhi, Hadith: 3894. See here)
5) Sayyiduna Abu Hurayrah (radiyallahu ‘anhu) reports that Rasulullah (sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said:
‘Verily, Allah does not look at your appearance or wealth, but rather He looks at your hearts and actions.’
(Sahih Muslim, Hadith: 2564)
6) Sayyiduna ‘Abdullah ibn ‘Abbas (radiyallahu ‘anhuma) said:
“I don’t think anyone who practises on the Verse [quoted below] will say, ‘I am more noble than you are.’ None is more noble than another person except by Taqwa”
‘O Mankind! We created you from a single pair of a male and a female and made you into nations and tribes so that you may get to know each other. Surely, the noblest among you in sight of Allah is the most righteous. Allah is All-Knowledgeable, All-Aware [Surah Al Hujurat, Verse: 13]’
(Al Adabul Mufrad, Hadith: 898)
7) A dark skinned person once came to Sa’id ibn Al Musayyab (rahimahullah) asking for something. Sa’id (rahimahullah) told him, ‘You being dark skinned, should not be a cause of grief/distress, for certainly three dark skinned men/African men were among the best of people; Bilal (radiyallahu ‘anhu), Mihja’, the freed slave of Sayyiduna ‘Umar (radiyallahu ‘anhuma) and Luqman Al Hakim.
(Tafsir Tabari; Jami’ul Bayan and Tafsir Ibn Kathir, Surah Luqman, Verse: 12)
We do not choose the colour of our own skin. It is a gift from our Creator (Al-Khaliq) and Fashioner (Al-Musawwir), Allah. We are exactly how Allah intended us to be. We must embrace this very simple fact and be thankful to Allah that he has created us and our children exactly the way we are.
Allah has mentioned in the Qur’an:
He conducts the affair [of all creation] from the heaven to the earth [with perfection and wisdom]. Then everything ascends to Him in a [Heavenly] day whose measure is a thousand years of what you count. Such is the [Sole] Knower of the [realms of all the] unseen and the seen, the Overpowering [One], the Mercy-Giving — the One who has made excellent everything He has created, and who originated the creation of humankind from clay. Then He made its progeny from a [quintessence of] humble fluid drawn forth. Then He fashioned him and breathed of His [life-giving] spirit into him. Moreover, He gave to you [the faculties of] hearing, and sight, along with hearts [that comprehend. How very] little are the thanks that you give! (Qur’an, 32:5-9)
A person’s complexion should certainly not be used as a measure to define their self worth. It should not be something that prevents them from getting married or getting a good job. No Muslim should ever discriminate against or look down upon another person based on the colour or shade of their skin.
There are countless significant problems that we face in this temporal world, and the colour of our skin really isn’t one of them.