Color-coded confessions: Background shades of the marriage process

“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.

Shazia Kamal is an Associate Editor for AltMuslimah. This article was originally published on December 21, 2009.


  • oddball says:

    Loved the article, this kind of thought is put into our heads by our elders and parents. As if being light skinned or white is a color and being dark skin is being colorless. Another phrase I have heard is Rang saaf hai, his color is clean describing someone of fair or light skinned, apparently we dark skin folk are dirty lol.

  • Enith says:

    JAK sister for an enlightening piece.  Unfortunately this obsession with “ghori” is not particular to South Asian culture; it happens also in both South America and some parts of the Middle East.

    In South America you are always encouraged to “better your race”, by marrying someone lighter than you.  It is ok to have dark friends, but not to marry them.  Racism is alive and lives through derogatory comments that are part of daily dealings.

    In the Middle East, being white serves you as a guarantee to a marriage proposal regardless of beauty.  If you are dark, it does not matter how beautiful, pious, and/or educated you are… getting married becomes a difficult business.

    Some Muslims hate to admit the inconspicuous (sometimes evident) presence of racism in our ummah.  When I look around at how many white American vs. African American sisters are married to South Asian & Middle Eastern Muslims (even second or third generation Americans), it shows statistics don’t lie.

    This is a plague that has not been eradicated.

  • ShaziaKFarook says:

    Rabea and Enith, thank you for your comments.

    I think that there is an absolute responsibility upon children to counter this type of thinking. Just like any other disease, physical or societal, there are steps to take and layers to shed to reach that point of understanding. Unfortunately, there are some circumstances where beliefs are rock-solid. People are unwilling to change this mode of thinking. I believe that this self-imposed disability is a factor in leading to the demise of the Ummah (Muslim community) as a whole.

    Enith, I agree that a plague like this silently lives and breathes in all communities, not just South Asian. It’s a confusing picture: we are working to eradicate racial profiling, racism and discrimination, but internally, the community continues to perpetuate these patterns.

  • Fabulous article Shazia! Extremely insightful and honest. What do yo think our responsibilities are in situations where our parents are making arbitrary distinctions based on color?  When a mother says no to a potential suitor, for instance, does a daughter or son have a responsibility to explain to the parents that color cannot measure a person’s worth and insist on meeting the potential suitor in person so that they can make an informed, personal decision on whether or not to seriously consider the suitor?

  • Saadia says:

    You made some good points about how we value color in South Asia and it might have to do with color was seen as a symbol of status and power during imperial times.

    However, there is a point made which I don’t understand and which doesn’t go along with how I see reality:

    “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?

    Besides the fact that there are light-skinned Bollywood dancers, when someone learns a classical dance, from whatever culture, it gives them poise and confidence. Sure, its not everyone’s cup of tea, but then watching these movies is optional.

    But back to the main topic, I agree that its important to start thinking about skin color a little differently.

    Also, I think its a myth that Islam rejects the idea of feminine beauty. Culturally, one can look at sufi poetry to see how women are esteemed. And while the idea of hiding beauty is often taught to Muslim girls, this can be taken in different ways. If someone wants to follow texts closely, the Quran actually says to ‘beautify yourself for everyone act of worship.’

    Regardless of SPF levels of applied lotions, we can probably all agree that it doesn’t mean applying a mandatory gob of bleach.

  • living3d says:

    Good article.  I think it’s fair to say that racism exists among every “race” of muslim – and it’s about time that we seriously addressed it. 

    However, (just as a side note) this is one of several articles that I’ve read which only states “imperialsim/colonialism” as a source of South Asian racism.  I’ve been reading a lot of literatue about Mughal India lately, so although I’m sure European rule plays a part, I have to point out that Mughal India was noticably biased based on skin color as well. Virtually all rulers in Mughal India were of “light” or white skin (and I think this is true among hindus as well to some extent at least), and it seems as though this was due to the veneration of Persia and Persian culture as European “newcomers” were often looked down upon.

  • sria says:

    good point living3d. Mesopotamian frescos (from BCE) also depicted women with fair skin and men with relatively darker skin. The women were portrayed as beautiful. One explanation is that fair skin was associated with being of a higher class— not having to work in the outdoors. Since many developing countries are mostly agrarian, the concept of darker skin is still associated w/ tanned skin, which implies being of a lower class (working outdoors). This argument along with the colonialism one are both rooted in class as the reason. In South Asia, I think the cosmetics industries has exploited this complex and, along with the culture and media perpetuating it, have made it even bigger (though, it def. exists in all parts of Asia, mid east, S. and C. America, Africa).

    What I’ve also read in a women’s magazine by a black author is that it is what is lighter within a certain gene pool that is associated with this notion of beauty.  As in, a black person, for example, with lighter features may appear more beautiful unless it is revealed that the black person is mixed race, in that case it’s no big deal, not special or unique. Like if a full Pakistani kid is born with light eyes it’s held in higher esteem than if a half-Pk and half-white kid is born with light eyes. I don’t know if I buy this argument, esp. since according to sociobiology theories, mixing diverse gene pools (or panmixia) is ideal in producing the most unique and freshest blends which should lead to perfecting the human race. Mixed folks are also very exotic looking, which is a much appreciated beauty form.

  • Anjum says:

    i agree with Rabea (commenter) that if our parents insist on maintaining traditions like rejecting a potential spouse based on frivolous concerns like skin color, it is even our islamic right to respectfully call them out on it. I mean, if you really find him unattractive, I guess it’s a non-issue. But if this guy sounds great for you, and funny, and intelligent, AND cute, how could you really let go of hte possibility because your mom said he’s too dark?

  • Talk about throwing the white American convert sister under the bus, since we are obviously treated with such “high esteem” in the Muslim community, NOT. Before you get your panties in a bunch, most of these marriages (to white girls) are not “family approved”, they are often “love/infatuation matches” for which the family has no input. I don’t think the analogy is appropriate or relevant to an otherwise valid argument.

    • asmauddin says:

      Michele, she’s not talking about White women (as in, Caucasian). She’s talking about ‘whiter’, lighter-skinned South Asians. There’s a hierarchy of color in South Asian culture.

  • Sumaya El says:

    Michele Tariq, I agree with you. White girls, including arabs, aren’t considered “good enough” for brown people apparently haha! According to what others have commented above, shouldn’t brown parents feel happy that we are “bettering” the race? LOL Subhanallah, Islam taught us everyone is equal in the eyes of Allah except by piety. Wish muslims applied it in real life.

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