Colorism Within Egypt | Susan Emam

January 19, 2021
By: Susan Emam

Photo by Henar Sherif and Adel Essam – O-art-studio (No Color Project)

“…Skin colour will continue to serve as the most obvious criterion in determining how a person will be evaluated and judged.”

This was written by Lori L. Tharps in her book titled, “Same Family Different Colors”. While this book is centred around confronting Colorism within the United States, this same intersection between skin tone and privilege is applicable to modern Egyptian society.  

Colorism was first coined by feminist writer Alice Walker to describe the global systemic bias towards those with Afrocentric features. It is a colonial ideology that was imposed upon indigenous communities by European settlers and has unfortunately persisted into modern day society. This bias exists on both an unconscious and conscious level and serves to privilege those with Eurocentric features (lighter skin, straight hair, thinner lips and narrow nose) while disadvantaging those with Afrocentric features (darker skin, curly hair, fuller lips and broad nose). 

The pressure to fit into this unrealistic Eurocentric mold is disproportionately felt by women that are low income. This intersection between class and gender is integral when understanding why people may have these views about themselves and others. It is important to lead compassionately when engaging in Colorism discourse and approach this topic through a lens of healing rather than condemnation and shame. 

In my personal experience, I was often on the receiving end of comments that made me uncomfortable, and made me confront my privilege as a light-skinned woman with straight hair in Egyptian society. When I tried to discuss Colorism with my Egyptian family and friends, it was often dismissed or it was considered something that was the norm. It became clear to me that there was an accepted distinction between Egyptians with light skin and those that had dark skin.   

Ironically, few fit this Eurocentric mold. While there is great diversity amongst Egyptian people, the majority tend to have darker skin tones and curly hair textures. Those with features that are Afrocentric leaning can expect to be looked upon unfavourably by society at large—from family members, teachers and future employers. In this way, it can inhibit access to opportunities. 

The late Egyptian Filmmaker Nada Zatouna described her experience as a Nubian woman living in Cairo in the docuseries,  “Words from the Egyptian Revolution”. She highlighted her experience growing up in Cairo where she was often asked if she was from Sudan or another neighbouring country. Even though it is well known that people in the upper Egyptian region are known to have darker skin and curlier hair textures, she was constantly placed in a position where she had to justify her Egyptian heritage. 

Women rights activist Entesar al-Saeid has attributed the root of these biases to the Egyptian media. Within the entertainment industry, light-skinned actors with coloured eyes and straight hair dominate cinema. The predominant narrative is that light-skinned characters are intelligent, beautiful and deserving of love and opportunities. Dark-skinned characters with Afrocentric features are portrayed as illiterate, domestic workers and overall as less deserving. The 2019 black-face scandal with Shimaa Seif in the prank show titled Shaklabaz exemplifies how topical this issue remains. In an offensive depiction of a Sudanese woman, Shimaa painted her skin dark and was seen attempting to steal phones while drinking alcohol on a microbus.

The unattainable Eurocentric ideal has been capitalized by corporations in the form of skin-lightening products. They are marketed in the form of creams, pills and injections that are designed to slow the production of melanin. These toxic chemicals are marketed to consumers through the harmful narrative that having lighter skin will provide greater access to life opportunities. Within the last year, Egyptian women have also begun taking toxic chlorine baths to achieve their desired skin tone. These practices have extremely serious side effects that can lead to irreversible health complications. While many countries have banned skin-lighting products and practices, Egypt has failed to do the same.

The diversity of Egyptians is beautiful and it is something that should be embraced rather than shamed. Though the colonial imposition of colorist ideology runs very deeply within Egyptian society, I believe it can be unlearned.

If you are someone that has previously or currently engaged in these behaviours towards yourself or others, recognize that the first step is always awareness. We all suffer from varying degrees of unconsciousness, and it is important to approach yourself with compassion and understanding. What is learned can be unlearned, and a cycle of perpetuating damaging narratives can be broken.

If you are a beneficiary from this system like I am, the most important thing to do is listen. Listen to people of color speak about their experiences. Educate and inform yourself on how you are afforded privilege and opportunities in society. Use your privilege to allow people of colour, or those that have a darker complexion than you, to have the space to speak. Most importantly: remain critical of your position in society, of advertising and media. Empower yourself and others to resist believing in colonial narratives, and embrace the beauty in the diversity that Egypt has to offer. 

Susan Emam is a first generation Egyptian Canadian. She is in her second year of law school at the University of Alberta and will complete her Juris Doctorate by 2022.

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