Contemporary Muslim Women Series: “The Color of His Skin…” by Shazia Kamal

Originally published in ALTMUSLIMAH


“He is educated, Mashallah …a lawyer, and the age difference is just right. I talked to his mother, too. She was absolutely delightful, she agreed with me on everything! She is sending his picture through the e-mail right now.” Barely able to contain her excitement, my mother grabs her reading glasses and positions herself before the monitor. It is the Moment of Truth.

As we wait for what could be a life-changing email, I start to imagine what this lawyer might look like. Could there be a possible mix of Will Smith and Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan? I wonder if he has any acting skills. I just pray that he has a personality.

After refreshing the page at least twelve times, the e-mail appears before us. “Well, go on! Open it! Ya Allah, please let this be THE ONE!”

Not at all feeling the pressure now, I open the e-mail and… silence.

For two long minutes, my mom stares at the picture. Then she walks away.

A minute later, she comes back with my Dad. Now both stare at the screen for what seems like eternity.

Finally he speaks: “Rung kum hai.” He is dark.

But attractive, I think to myself.

Now that his “true color” has been revealed, his prestigious legal profession and even the agreeable mother-in-law suddenly do not matter any longer to my parents. This is the last I’ll see of a guy who might have been interested in Lakers basketball or Feng Shui as much I am. I’ll never know.

Sadly, this is not the first time that a suitor has been rejected because of the color of his skin.

There is something odd about the tendency of South Asian culture to prefer lighter (okay let’s be honest white) skin color, despite centuries of movements to remove imperialist rule and philosophy that favored racist mentality. Amazingly, illogic prevails.

Growing up with these contradictions in the background, I can recall many episodes in my life that could easily have instilled in me the values of seeking out white. Even the Urdu phrase used above, Rung kum hai, literally translates to “lack of color,” which could mean light or white (and thus would appear agreeable); but conversationally, it is used to describe a person who is full of color, or dark.

The mis-education starts from childhood. I often hear my family talk about how gori, or white, I was at birth, and that after I was exposed to sunlight (apparently an avoidable circumstance), I never regained my original and “normal” color, a bleach white. Once, I begged for a Black Barbie because she came with the outfit I had seen on TV. After a near tantrum in Aisle 2 of Pic ‘N’ Save that day, I went home with yet another Caucasian Barbie doll. “Beti, she is prettier.” And during those hot summer days, while all my friends were in the swimming pool, having the time of their lives playing Marco Polo, I couldn’t get in the pool until sunset so that the fear of the “dark plague” would subside.

With Bollywood films as a major source of cultural education in my teen years, I often noted that the lighter-skinned actress played the coveted role of the heroine, while the darker one was the sidekick who never even had a chance at love. As a twelve-year old, my eyes focused on the light-skinned heroine. Meanwhile, the backup dancers disappeared into the background, to their rightful place as dark, never-to-be-loved creatures of the night. Mission accomplished?

Searching for rationalization, success appears to be linked to a notion of beauty that emphasizes color. Now, if one attempts to rationalize through the Islamic framework, there really is nothing rational about color bias. The beauty emphasized by Islam is its universality, inclusiveness, and colorblindness. Islam reveres intentions and good deeds, not looks. Yet here I am, immersed in a culture focused on just that. Living through this dichotomy is painful, but becomes unbearable when those who share my faith, knowingly submit to a contradictory and divisive philosophy.

Sometimes I find myself unconsciously dismissing a potential spouse because of the color issue. When I get ready to go outside, I can’t help but think that my SPF 55 Sun Tan Lotion may do more than just protect me from harmful rays- it’ll maintain my color. Sometimes I get so caught up in this color obsession, that I feel lucky that I am of a lighter shade on the color spectrum. Such are the foolish thoughts that come to reside in one’s head after years of conditioning.

It’s difficult to change the ways and beliefs of generations old. However, as the Muslim community here in the United States is in many ways compelled to experience the diversity that is a true testament to the type of community envisioned in Islam, and is in a position where it must set out to correct myths, biases, and stereotypes about Islam and Muslims, we need to first reject internal biases that contradict the very core of the struggle that people of color have faced for generations: the struggle for acceptance.

Appreciation of diversity begins in the domestic sphere, in our homes, and in our terminology. When we talk of vibrant communities, we cannot take for granted that vibrancy comes in all shapes, sizes and colors…and on all shelves of the Barbie doll aisle at the toy store.

(Photo: Zahrah Habibullah-Williams)

Shazia Kamal is a mocha-colored writer, activist, and a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley. She is currently working for the United States Census Bureau and resides in Los Angeles, California


8 thoughts on “Contemporary Muslim Women Series: “The Color of His Skin…” by Shazia Kamal

  1. While this is a well written article, and entertaining to read, this issue is played out.
    I would even venture to say that it is of diminishing importance in the North American diaspora.
    The article itself refers to this.
    Let’s face it, desi culture is eminently, and enjoyably, bash-able. But the preference for whiter skin is not solely a Subcontinetal phenomenon: it’s quite alive and flourishing in the Far East and Arab countries. Go to Vietnam, Indonesia, China, Thailand, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon- in all of these places there exists a culture where being whiter is percieved as being more beautiful. You will be amazed to see how many whitening products come out of, and are marketed for, places like China and Japan.

    In fact, for North American and Western Muslims, or people in general, I really think this is not much of a big deal, no matter how much parents/early immigrant cultures may still abide by it. It is going to die out, for the most part. I really don’t think most people of my generation (I’m 23) care about this anymore. It’s hard enough to find a good Muslim man, to have to apply some ridiculous skin color standard as well.
    It’s obviously un-Islamic, much like many, many things that go on in many Muslim parts of the world. I think the larger issue is to what extent we care about vanity and beauty in the first place- the obsession with beauty is now spreading all over the world.

  2. Additionally. I think Muslims should really focus on NOT exposing their children to Bollywood, Barbie dolls, and most of the female imagery we see these days, regardless of whether these figures are as white as rasmalai or as dark as tamarind chutney. It’s all going to cause a similar kind of brain damage, in any case.

  3. Being born slighltly darker than my cousin, I was faced with a very similar situation. Everyone calling her pretty for her WHITE SKIN, whereas girls like me who are not too dark, but not too white either…are still ignored.

    One of the reasons why people like us migrate to a more accpeting countries.

    One of the famous advise women from such ignorant societies will give is: USE FAIR AND LOVELY CREAM.


    try it, if you wana become fair lol.

  4. I enjoyed this read, but always thought the color issue had a more negative stigma with women than with men. Either way, it is tragic and points to some of the reason that the Ummah is suffering.

  5. Hi there, nice site with good info. I really like coming back here often. There’s only one thing that annoys me and that is the misfunctioning of comment posting. I usually get to 500 error page, and have to do the post twice.

  6. I enjoyed every part of the writers work. Really enjoyed her article. I have a caramel skin tone according to all of my friends. Anyway, as a Bengali guy I experienced being rejected by a bangladeshi and a pakistani girl due to my skin tone lol Pakistani girl said I’m “Kalu,” translates to “dark”. The Bengali girl said I’m “Khala”, translate to “dark”. It’s funny that both found me attractive in terms of my personality and features, but rejected me solely on my skin tone. Unfortunately majority of South Asian girls desire “fair and lovely” guys. By the way, I forgot one part, I was quite dark when I was young and became a caramel skin tone as I have aged over the years (I’m 26) without any skin lightening products!! Maybe Allah made me lighter… maybe. I tend to attract a lot of non-Muslim women (English, Spanish, and other parts of European women) it’s a shame that my own people (Asian Muslim) don’t give me a second look, and if they do then not more than friends lol Btw, I’m not ugly because if was then I would never experience the attention I get alhamdulillah.

  7. Majority Asian people are the biggest racist people you can ever come across. I’m brown Asian and fair Asian don’t like dark/brown skin tone… so imagine what they say to a black person!!!

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