Black Lives Matter, the anti-racist movement that spread globally after the tragic death of George Floyd on May 2020 in the US, had an unintended but very welcome consequence in India: national debate on India’s deep-rooted and highly gendered practice of color discrimination.
Calls for racial justice around the world resonated with dark-skinned Indians who face colorism, or dark-skin prejudice, in their everyday lives. The backlash forced skin-whitening multinational companies, which rake in an annual revenue of $500 million, to change the names of skin-lightening products.
Growing up in North India as the daughter of a fair-hued mother and dark-skinned father, the prejudice of colorism was intimate. Accustomed to hearing “thank god she is ‘wheatish’ in complexion. Imagine if she had inherited her father’s dark skin,” I would then wait for the anticipated dramatic pause from a well-meaning relative or friend of my mother as they assessed me on the color hierarchy. We were all expected to shudder at the imagined future horrors from which my “wheatish” skin had saved me. One such possible horror was rejection by appropriate suitors when I became of marriageable age.
Fast forward with me to a few decades to a village in rural West Bengal in east India. I was conducting a study on a new trend of marriage migration in North India that involved men sourcing brides from remote corners of India. Most homes of prospective, poor, marriageable women that I visited had tubes of frequently used skin-whitening creams lying alongside combs and bindis on the ledges of plastic mirrors hung on walls. Dark-hued young women admitted using these creams to gain favourable marriage prospects and lower dowry demands from local suitors.
Despite the vast majority of India’s people being dark-skinned, the obsession with fair skin dates back historically to the oppressive and exploitative caste system of the Hindus. Fairness is linked to higher caste status, while a darker hue is seen as a feature of the low caste and those who do menial labor.
Colorism is starkly visible in India’s arranged marriage market. Fairness of prospective brides is highly prized and newsprint or e-matrimonial advertisements use “fair complexioned” as a desired trait to filter out darker-hued women. In India, global capital has leveraged this national obsession to its advantage by marketing skin-bleaching products as an antidote to matrimonial hurdles.
In my recently published research article in Gender & Society, I show that colorism is foundational to a new form of gendered violence for dark-skinned poor women. Skin fairness emerges as pivotal marriage capital and diminishes the chances of dark-complexioned poor Dalit (a politically self-aware term for untouchable castes) women to marry in their own communities.
I conducted interviews across 57 villages in the North and East Indian provinces of Haryana, Rajasthan, West Bengal, and Odisha. My interviews and focus groups with women and men in such marriages, their families, and villagers have revealed that light skin operates as a “currency” tradeable for a lesser dowry. North Indian bachelors, faced with a bride deficit due to the sex selective abortion of female fetuses, have begun traveling across the breadth of India to deliberately “source” wives from remote corners of the country. They offer the carrot of “no dowry and all wedding expenses paid” to poor families with darker-hued daughters of marriageable age. This results in women entering colorism-coerced marriage with rural North Indian men. This colorism-coerced marriage migration leads to a lifetime of cultural exile and internal othering in their marital homes and communities.
MARRIED LIFE SHAPED BY COLORISM
This oppressive skin-tone bias haunts such migrant brides as married women. They have fewer fallback options due to distance from their parents and they must contend with their lack of ability to bargain about their own labor with their new conjugal families. Out of 113 interviewed brides, 57 told me that their husband and his family used dark-skin shaming to discipline them into docility and compliance whenever they resisted demands for excessive work.
These women face forcible cultural assimilation in North India, where the culture, language, customs, food habits, and even physical environment is different from their own. Caste discrimination within the family and in the community ranges from caste slurs, exclusion from family and kin gatherings, and segregation because of perceived untouchability. North Indian ethnocentrism, a peculiar blend of ethnic chauvinism, caste discrimination, and colorism directed specifically against east Indians from the provinces of Bihar and West Bengal, exacerbates the stigmatization of dark-hued migrant brides. Their very identity gets invested with connotations of crime, filth, savagery, and dim-wittedness, exposing them to ridicule and hate. My study also revealed that ethnocentric hate extends intergenerationally to the women’s children.
WE MUST “OUT” THIS NEW FORM OF GENDERED VIOLENCE
It is important to understand how new forms of gendered violence emerge for poor women in contemporary society. Such gendered violence builds patriarchy and caste oppression. Colorism creates a situation ripe for marriage brokers and traffickers to take advantage of poor women’s vulnerability. Societal pressure to marry off adult daughters renders poor parents gullible in the face of such offers and they often fail to check the prospective groom’s background, consigning their daughters to a lifetime of misery.
Multinational companies aggressively peddle feminine skin fairness as “marriage capital” to drive up the sales of their skin-bleaching products. The seductive narrative of a better life outcome has an estimated 60–65 percent of India’s women between 16 and 35 years of age using skin bleaching products. Global capital which produces and markets these products has a vested interest in keeping such discriminatory hierarchies alive as India is one of its biggest and fastest growing markets. We need to rid ourselves of skin-tone bias and disrupt profiteering by transnational capital if we want to truly dismantle colorism and ensure that this new form of gender oppression gets stamped out.
Reena Kukreja is Assistant Professor in the Department of Global Development Studies at Queen’s University, Canada. She is cross-appointed to the Department of Gender Studies and Cultural Studies Program at Queen’s University. She divides time between teaching, research, and film-making. Her forthcoming book Partial Truths Negotiated Existences focuses on cross-region marriage migration in India and how the neo-liberal accumulative process in India has dispossessed poor women of matrimonial choice.