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In rural areas, dark-skinned girls still made to prove their worth

A girl’s life is entangled in the roots of patriarchy. Added to that is society’s obsession with fair skin which is imposed on her throughout. Colour-based discrimination in India has a deep-rooted history that remains embedded deep in our mindset. It is important to create awareness in rural areas and start questioning such age-old beliefs. Girls who suffer thus should have access to counselling and mediation

“Although my daughter is smart and kind-hearted, I am worried about her marriage as she is dark-skinned.” This statement by a mother reflects the depth to which the aspect of skin colour affecting a person’s life exists in our patriarchal society. A girl’s life is entangled in the roots of patriarchy in such a way that our society’s obsession with fair skin is imposed on her throughout.

Families, even today, mourn the birth of a girl child and, if she is dark, their grief knows no bound. They are not as much worried about her education and career as much as they dread finding a groom for their daughter. “As she is dark-skinned, we will have to face several difficulties in finding her a match. Even if we will manage to find one, they will ask for a hefty dowry,” says a worried Manju Devi, a resident of Charson Village in Bageshwar District in Uttarakhand, mother of 18-year-old Anjali.

The obsession with fair skin is not new. ‘Colourism’ in India has a deep-rooted history that has penetrated deeply into our mindset. The notions of caste, class and culture can be considered as one set of reasons behind such discrimination. People belonging to the higher caste were considered to have a lighter skin tone and they were the ones who were better placed in political hierarchy as well.

Rulers who invaded and ruled India, including the British, had lighter skin tones. Strength thus started to seem invariably connected to fair skin. Even though we gained Independence from our last rulers 75 years ago, the colonial hangover in form of fair-skin fetish still dominates our country.

Although stigmatising dark-skinned people is found across urban-rural boundaries, in the past decade, there has been a constant debate around the aspect of skin colour in urban spaces – people have started questioning the practices, be it in everyday lives, or in matrimonial and marketing advertisements or movies. People have also found support among each other on social media to challenge ‘colour-shaming’. Rural areas, however, have been left behind in this debate.

In Charson Village, the practice of colour-based discrimination has become a part of villager’s lives. A dark-skinned girl child after her birth would be called Kallo, Kalu, Kavli, Kauwa – all identified with colour black. As they start understanding the meaning of such slurs, the girls start questioning their identity. This is in addition to patriarchal and cultural norms that discriminate against them.

They have to listen to taunts about their skin colour almost every day. Such regular attack on their confidence is clearly visible in their body language. While some girls have been made to silently accept their fate that they are not ‘worth it’, some, despite their struggle, are fighting back.

Twenty-two-year old Shabnam Tulla, who was born and brought up in Charson Village, had a tough childhood due to her skin colour. “Ever since I started going to school, everyone started calling me Kauwa (crow). One day, I revolted. I asked my family, friends and neighbours to stop using that name for me. They brushed aside my revolt, saying that the name was given to me out of ‘love’. Depression, constant fear and shame had become a part of my life,” says Shabnam.

Everyone believed that Shabnam’s skin colour would not allow her to lead a normal life. “I wanted to change that notion. I decided to work hard and ensure I have a good education and a career so that no one gets a chance to discriminate against me based on my colour. With very limited resources at hand, it was a tough task,” points out Shabnam, who is currently working as a nurse in Jaipur.

Shabnam’s education, career and financial independence helped her to break free from the shackles of colour discrimination. “I have stopped reacting to people. I have grown out of the villagers’ mentality and have started to believe that I am more than my skin tone. There was a time when it affected my mental health and I cried every single day. Not anymore,” adds Shabnam fiercely.

In Charson, like in any other part of the country, the burden of possessing a darker skin tone goes beyond individual suffering. The parents are also constantly reminded of the liability they face as a result of having a dark-skinned daughter.”Although I do believe that the beauty lies in the human behaviour, constant mocking by others about how I look makes me question myself. It’s a constant struggle to not lose confidence and accept myself,” expressed Anju, another teenager from the village.

Most people don’t realise how the ingrained bias towards lighter skin leads to discrimination. To get fairer skin, girls and women are told, usually by other women, to use remedies. This makes them believe that something is wrong with them. A paper on India and colour discrimination states that, “Indians show apparent ignorance about the practice of exclusion and discrimination based on the skin tone of a person, although it is a deep-rooted problematic practice embraced by both the oppressor and the victim.”

According to Rita Joshi, a school teacher from the village, children learn about colour-based discrimination at a very young age. They start imitating discriminatory practices at home and in school. They start taking people’s emotion for granted and grow up into perpetrators of colour-based discrimination. There is a dire need to work with families and children to address such attitudes, she says.

Note: The writer is a development worker from Bageshwar, Uttarakhand.

(Courtesy: Charkha Features)

October 2022

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