All’s Fair in Love and War
by Farah Huzair
Revisiting Sri-Lanka gave me pause for thought on what is apparently an ingrained cultural mindset; that fair is beautiful. In Sri-Lanka and other South Asian countries, ‘fair’ also means pale of skin. And so the adage that ‘fair is beautiful’ has implications for this society, that are paradoxically, anything but fair.
Many residential areas of Colombo are home to an assortment of different communities. Sinhala Buddhist, Catholic, Muslim and Tamil families live peacefully as neighbours. In everyday life, people cooperate in business and within educational institutions. Prejudice and racism are kept heavily under guard by a watchful government whose covert complicity has been limited to its notable absence from the debate around the recent hard-line nationalistic rhetoric reported by international press (e.g. protests against the labelling of halal foods). Anything but covert complicity is of course unthinkable while the UN watches on and the government attempts to whitewash from the collective memory of its people, the 2009 white flag incident. But this is beside the point, which here is to expose the more subtle dimensions of exclusion (if not racism), and the extent to which it may or may not be embedded in the concept of ‘fairness’.
The custom of arranged marriage is alive and well in this tiny corner of the world, and is present in Sinhala Buddhist, Catholic, Muslim and Tamil families alike. Marriage proposals often seek brides (and increasingly grooms) who are fair. A paleness of skin is considered desirable and beautiful, and people will go to great lengths to achieve it. Indeed there is a burgeoning industry consisting of expensive spa’s and skin treatments which refuses to die even as concerns are raised about the safety of toxic mercury containing creams. Why has this situation arisen and what are the possible implications for exclusion? There are four possible drivers of the trend towards fairness:
First, Sri-Lanka has been the battleground for wave after wave of colonial force. The Portuguese arrived in 1505, forcible converting Sinhalese to Christianity and persecuting the coastal Moors. The Dutch attacked and took control in the 1600’s, followed by British rule in 1796. The descendants of European colonial families, sometimes noted by the ethnic term ‘Burgher’, often have fair skin. Historically they have been wealthy, upper class families, are educated in prestigious institutions and are drawn into the professions rather than manual labour. It may be worth considering how fairness might have been historically rooted and associated to the colonial empires that took upon themselves the duty to civilise the global south via religious indoctrination. (Religious icons such as the Virgin Mary and Jesus are notably white in the pictures and statues accompanying Christian and catholic traditions). Colonialisation in Sri-Lanka, especially through British rule is generally perceived by Sri-Lankans to have brought more benefits than disadvantages. And so the face of modernity and progress, for a time at least, was white. Second, and perhaps relatedly, darker skin is associated with being outdoors. Those involved in manual labour and those having to walk or take public transport, are victim to the unfaltering heat and sunshine. Thirdly, and linked to the preceding point, ethnic Tamil people are known to have darker skin than Sinhalese. Sri-Lankan Tamils have been on the island since the 2nd century BCE. A more recently appearing Indian Tamil group (or Hill Country Tamils) are descendants of bonded labourers sent from Tamil Nadu to Sri Lanka in the 19th century to work on tea plantations. And perhaps finally, globalisation, westernisation and the adoption of American and European norms, cultures and fashion have become iconic for the young generation of Sri-Lanka. ‘White is beautiful’ inadvertently transcends borders through magazines, television, and the internet.
All four drivers establish the grounds for three kinds of struggle or ‘war’. There is first, the class war. There is a danger that dark skin may continue to be associated with manual labour, with non-European descendent and poorer societies, and with the bonded labour of the historic Indian Tamil society. Darker skin thus has a socio-economic dimension. There is second, the obvious potential fuelling of the ethnic war. Inherited genetic darker skin which is more evident in a certain ethnic group leaves the group vulnerable to racial discrimination, with a socio-economic basis as described above. Lastly, these drivers can potentially fuel a gender war, leading us full circle to our opening on marriage.
In the paternal, male dominated society of Sri-Lanka, a bride is judged not by her own criteria, or in her own terms, but by the attributes and values assigned to her by a potential groom and his family. Beauty and ‘fairness’ I was disappointed to find, is still an important criteria, and is unequally imposed on men and women. While men may bring to the negotiating table, education or earning potential, financial assets or family reputation, women bring first and foremost their photos. In a society that places women in the role of child bearer and ‘face of the family’, and educates women accordingly, the entrenchment of the idea of fairness as beauty and its propagation by women themselves, does little to equalise relations between men and women. On a positive note, I witnessed a recent case, where a bride was able to mitigate the unfortunate circumstance of being “not so fair” with her possession of an outstanding education. This may be a sign of things to come, but we must question why ‘unfairness’ needs to be mitigated in the first place.