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Fighting colorism in Rural India

05:54 PM Jan 30, 2023 IST | pallavvjain
fighting colorism in rural india

Neelam Grandy, Uttarakhand | ‘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 colorism 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,’ worries Manju Devi, a resident of Charson village in Bageshwar district in Uttarakhand and a mother of 18- year-old Anjali.

The obsession with fair skin is not new. Colorism 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 this discrimination. People belonging to higher castes were considered to have lighter skin tones and they were the ones who were better placed in the political hierarchy as well. Rulers who invaded and ruled our country 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 a fair-skin fetish still dominates our country.

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

In Charson village, the practice of color-based discrimination has become a part of villagers’ lives. A dark-skinned girl child, since her birth would be called Kallo, Kalu, Kavli, Kauwa – all symbolic of to color black. As they start understanding the meaning of these slurs, they start questioning their identity – in addition to patriarchal & cultural norms that discriminate against them, they have to listen to taunts about their skin color almost every day. This 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.

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

Everyone believed that her skin color would not allow her to have a good 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 color. With very limited resources at hand, it was a tough task,” informed Shabnam who is currently working as a nurse in Jaipur, Rajasthan.

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Her education, career, and financial independence supported her to break free from the shackles of colorism. ‘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,’ added Shabnam fiercely.

In Charson, like 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 beauty lies in human behavior but constant mocking from 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.

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Most people don’t realize 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 Colorism, also 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 color-based discrimination at a very young age. They start imitating discriminatory practices at home and at school. They start taking people’s emotions for granted and grow up into perpetrators of color-based discrimination. There is a dire need to work with families and children to address such attitudes. It is important to create awareness in rural areas and start questioning these age-old practices. Girls who have been suffering at hands of colorism should have access to counseling and mediation. The fact that girls are made to prove their worth for having dark skin reflects how terribly wrong our society is towards young girls and women.

The article was first published in Grassroots. The writer is a development worker from Bageshwar, Uttarakhand. Share your feedback on connect@charkha.org (Charkha Features)

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Pallav Jain

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Pallav Jain is co-founder of Ground Report and an independent journalist and visual storyteller based in Madhya Pradesh. He did his PG Diploma in Radio and TV journalism from IIMC 2015-16.

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