Saudi Arabia: Stigma of Skin Color

skin colors

I became accustomed when I was living in India and reading the matrimonials in seeing such remarks as seeking a “white skinned” or “almond colored” mate as examples.  It never occurred to me that perhaps skin color would also be of importance in Saudi Arabia.  However the longer I have been here and particularly when hearing of families who are starting to look for a partner for their child, you do indeed hear such comments or questions such as “How dark is he/she?”  It is also not unusual for some Saudi women to choose to bleach their skin in order to be whiter which they also view as more attractive and appealing.  I have to acknowledge my surprise to this revelation for Saudis have a wide spectrum of different skin colors ranging from alabaster white to the deepest chocolate brown to black.  I have not seen any type of discrimination to a Saudi due to his or her skin color but apparently to some families when it comes time for marriage, it may be an issue.

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57 Responses

  1. I’m actually glad you brought this up. I wondered about how skin color is perceived in the Arab world. Again I’m African American so when issues of race pop up I take notice–and as such there are some Arabs that are darker than I and when I asked my Khaleeji friend about it–I asked if darker skinned Arabs identified themselves as black (or even if there is a concept of “black”) and he said no. They’re Arab and consider themselves to be Arab. I thought it was interesting considering the legacy of the East African slave trade in the Arabian peninsula to note whether an Arab person with African ancestry considered themselves to be equally both or more Arab versus African. hm…questions of identity politics….how fascinating.

    That’s all for me, looking forward to reading everyone’s comments. I’m taking the foreign service exam in a couple days so I can’t slack off on the studying anymore. :::crosses fingers:::

  2. Oh yeah…my friend is a marriage partner finder…mothers call her wanting a few prospects for husbands for their daughters…she writes down the requirements…white or light skin is ALWAYS one of the first things mentioned…along with hijab etc. Im always curious as to why skin color and wearing hijab are generally the two top must have factors…when personality, religiousness, honesty etc might be considered something a little more worthy.

    btw on the other hand…the first few criteria when looking for a man are…his job, model of car, and whether his mother is still alive or not…go figure.

  3. oops..I meant to say potential prospects for sons looking for wives in the first paragraph…got ahead of myself there…hate when that happens.

  4. Carol, great article.
    Coolred, you are too funny. It seems to me that they want light-skinned gals to help lighten up their grandchildren. As for hijab, it’s probably due to ‘window dressing’ as my friend calls it. From reading all the posts here, as well as countless Cosmo magazine ‘experts’ on men, I’m guessing that the Saudi men want a crazy wild woman to marry and have children with, but HIDDEN under hijab so that no one else knows she’s like that.

  5. People in SA usually recognize how they are connected within terms of social standing, tribal affiliations and area heritage. This will leave many of them unfamiliar with many things.. and your surroundings, especially from the other sex are pretty all what idea you have about your partner. While you might ask an Arab if he was racist or not.. it might not be an issue he was confronted with before.

    Some will mention a person with a stereotype of their nationality/origin when they want to mention them in a bad context.. it doesn’t have to be someone to be of different color.. just for him not to be from you.. even from the tribal side/social side. However its very rare to find someone who is blunt with it.

    is race an issue in KSA? yes, but its not in the one in the forefront. Does it play a part in marriage? Not really, he is just rolling a dice when he plans to get married, he just bets something close to what he is familiar with.

  6. i find it amazing that people associate beauty with lighter skin….
    people who have light skin spend so much money on fake tans and sun bathing. i guess we will always want what we arent born with 🙂

  7. As DW said, people usually marry those from the same background – I don’t know about Saudi specifically, but in Kuwait, Shias and Sunnis don’t normally marry each other; members of Bedu tribes usually marry within their own tribes, some wealthy and prominent familes typically marry from that same group of families, those with roots in Iran (but Sunni and Arab) usually marry from amongst each other’s families, etc. They’re comfortable with each other’s ways, and since it’s really a family marrying another family – not just a man and a woman – the families will know each other and be comfortable together. And of course, it’s not uncommon for a husband and wife to be related.

  8. Interesting topic. Genetics are now able to identify racial composition whatever the person’s looks. More people are mixed than they often believe. Arabs who may be mixed with Africans (Berber or Subsaharan) still self identify as Arab even if the mix is recent.eg. African mother and Arab father, Berber mother and Arab father.

    In terms of identity politics most probably self-identify with the major or dominant culture if possible.

    Tribal intermarriage and familial intermarriage have led to increases in certain genetic disorders in the population as a whole.

  9. I believe through history there has been settlements in Arabia from both Africa, Persia and the Far East. ( Particuarly Yemen, I think, but someone can correct me here)
    I noticed even a broader range of Arabs, some who even have very fair feature, such as a Syrian lady I met who has sandy blond hair and blues eyes and Omani who is very dark. It certainly ranges depending where ancestoral blood lines derives from, that is for sure.

  10. The match making criteria are interesting, especially as most seem to be looking within family, family connections or tribe.

    Marrying to lighten the descendants is common in other cultures as well, and sometimes as a sign of status, and the hijab seems in this context to be a sign of conservatism–rather ironical given that covering is required by law. Or is hijab here understood to mean covering beyond legal requirements?

    Job, car, and mother sound like universal criteria though not often stated (not mine, student, no car, mother far away–but nice, LOL 😀 )

  11. This is interesting. In Puerto Rico, my mother told me she had no concept of black and white…yes there are variations in color but to the extent seen in the USA she never knew until she married my dad (who is white) and move to America in 1967. She was shocked. It seems the color of one’s skin is still paramount when looking at the “worth” of a person in certain regions of the world.

  12. People from the Levant tend to be very fair, Lebanese, Syrian, Palestinians, also Kurds.

    The obsession with skin colour flies in the face of Islam which teaches that the only thing that seperates us is our piety.

    Being dark is not desired culturally. Being called Asmar’/Sumra is often meant as an insult.

    I dont understand it myself……..I like dark skin in the opposite sex.

  13. “Im always curious as to why skin color and wearing hijab are generally the two top must have factors…when personality, religiousness, honesty etc might be considered something a little more worthy.”

    Great point!

    “when looking for a man are…his job, model of car, and whether his mother is still alive or not”

    Hahahahahahaha….love the part about whether or not his mother is alive!

    Thanks for sharing that, Coolred. What a totally interesting job — a marriage partner finder! Cool!

    Interesting post, Carol. I love the variety of skin colors and features, and find beauty in people all over the world no matter how dark or light their skin. Our Creator surely is amazing in His creativity! My preacher makes me laugh when he talks about the “punk rocker hairdo” that God gave the cardinal. I’ve never seen a cardinal the same way since he said that in church! 😀

  14. I have found everyone’s comments to be quite interesting and educational.

    @Coolred – it would be fascinating if you were to interview your friend who helps find marriage partners on your blog!

  15. Abu Sinan, the “Samra”/”Asmr” can be actually identified as a desired skin color to some people.. as I said that many people identify with their surroundings.. I am not sure though that its considered an insult, all the times I hear Asmr/Samra are used they are in positive context to describe a person having beauty traits.

    Let me just put some examples here.. I am gonna use some Bedouin terms..

    describing a male: Mazyoon wa Asmr..etc

    describing a female: Mamloo7ah wa samra..etc

    (now you kids go figure Mamloo7ah and Mazyoon lol)

  16. “describing a female: Mamloo7ah wa samra..etc”

    I was just about to say: samra O mamloo7ah. 🙂 When someone says this-most likely after a gathering describing one of the girls-I can’t help but imagine a petite, thin, cute, dark skin, dark eyed/hair beauty. I also have a particular girl in mind that pops up in my head everytime someone says that, I don’t know why. It’s not like she’s the only samra o mamloo7ah around here :s…
    I haven’t gone for long & there are so many things that have been going on here….I’m home now & I’m confused. Checking this site yray7ny nafsyan:)

  17. Ah yes…the race factor. A part of it is something exotic, and a part of it is the perceived social elevation of lighter skin, as in “distance from slave looks”. Back home in Russia in my college days, all Yemeni and Palestinian students used to throw themselves at the homegrown blondie talent. I call it the “blue eyes, white thighs” factor. I imagine that the ease of access to said eyes and thighs was a factor as well. My Saudi fiance concurs.

    His family is not particularly dark, but some time after meeting me his mom said, “she’s so fair, you should have children with her.” Yeah, blue eyes, white thighs and straight hair are all sails for the perfect dreamboat to a Saudi.

  18. NN–The blonds were easier than the brunettes? or just Russians easier than Saudis?
    Your MIL wanted just grandchildren or a daughter-in-law too?

  19. My goodness Coolred you are the funniest soul.You know i was shocked with all the skin lightners products here,i thought to myself what is wrong with these women and being dark.I’m dark skinned and you know what i’m so beautiful it hurts,ya for sure.Not in a proud way,but i like what My Creator created.

  20. Chiara oops that’s funny and wellsaid.LOL.

  21. Ha ha…thanks ladies.

    Carol…I will ask her if she wouldnt mind. I think it would be interesting as well. Of course it all depends on whether she will be completely honest with her answers considering I know she will hate to admit that Muslims dont always use honesty, intergrity, and piety as benchmarks for mate searches…lol.

  22. I do agree with Marianna and NN as they brought up some interesting points. The worth of a person is indeed linked to skin color/ethnicity in many (in fact most) parts of the world. I think it just happens to be much more apparent in the Middle East and South Asia due to their courting/marriage practices.

    In most societies it is openly looked down upon to discriminate against a person due to skin color/ethnicity in relation to jobs and education. The only domain were is it considered acceptable is in marriage and family life. No matter how politically correct a person may be their true colors always show when they express to you what they considered acceptable for THEIR family. When the WORTH of a person is determined by their skin color and ethnic heritage that is a prejudice, not a perference. It can become dangerous ideology and will continue to morph and manifest itself in interesting ways from generation to generation.

    As an African American do I believe there is a stigma against darker skin in Saudi Arabia? Yes of course. Unfortunately it is there and it is there to stay for a very long time.
    I do think however that the gulf nations in particular are trying to rid their society of these stigmas…not so much out of moral responsibility but out of economic In my personal opinion they are trying to create these dual societies…and it doesnt work that way. You cannot be a proponent of fairness and equality in one realm….and behind closed doors adhere to something completely different….show me an example of where that has ever worked in the past? This is my personal opinion but I think it is so dangerous for a person or group of people to inherently posses so much power , admiration, and influence because they were born with a certain skin tone and certain features…for those that hold them in such high regard there is no liability.

  23. I meant to say, “not so much out of moral responsibility but economic feasibility.”

  24. One of my in-laws is continually putting some kind of beaching compound on her skin. I find her darkness absolutely stunning!! It’s funny – white skinned people sun tan to become dark and dark skinned people try to lighten up. Goes to show we are never happy with ourselves. I find dark skin very, very attractive!!!!!!!

  25. @DW,

    The Samra/Asmar thing, in my personal experience, isnt always positive. I know one Saudi young lady who is much darker than the rest of the family. She was given such a hard time about it, by her family and the general public, that she actually thought for a time when she was young that she was adopted from an Indian family.

  26. yea, if you are the odd duck, you’ll be poked fun at. It can be so mean. sometimes even the criticsim you recieve from your own mom can be harsh especially when they say”A monkey is a gazelle in its mom’s eyes” not only regarding skin color, any other trait …they have this thing for poking fun at you whether they love you or not. If you are white and chubby with fair hair and red cheeks and you talk a bit funny, you will be called “masriah.” when they say that they don’t mean Egyption in general. they actually associate it with an image of an egyption lady with big earrings shouting “ya lahwy” on the top of her lungs with a scarf tied around her forehead. Also, if you are dark skinned and behave in a certain way they will call you “tagagah.” Not everyne takes offence some like to call themselves that, some find it highly ofensive…it’s really weird
    ________________________
    tagaga: someone who sings at weddings and taps drum like instruments, sometimes even huge water bottles with a stick.
    ya lahwy: an expression of shock. when used sarcastically, it is almost always said with instant freezing of body movement, slapping one’s cheek, or slapping one’s forehead. Equivelnt would be: “OMG!” I think.

  27. It works the other way round as well…all my family are darker skinned, dark eyes and hair etc…and Im very white with red hair and blue eyes…so the “odd duck” can come in many colors…lol.

  28. Each culture seems to have its own ways and uses of teasing, some seeming or being quite cruel. It is one of the cross-cultural changes that rarely gets mentioned.

    If you come from a culture that would/should never tease someone about x and you move to one that does, or vice versa, it can be quite a shock. Also there is a style of teasing and a degree of persistence that changes from one culture to the next. The pointedness of the teasing and going beyond the “back off” limit for one can be different for another.

    The “odd duck” is usually a target, but may in fact be the norm for the culture or at least the norm beyond a given family.

    J–excellent points, especially about the overtness or covertness of privileged attributes

    Daifuku–thanks for the examples and the cultural translations.

    Coolred–so, did you also get told you had a fiery temper to do with your hair?

    A friend just told me that his and his wife’s 2 biological sons are so dark that they were accused at the US/Canadian border of having stolen them–thus terrifying the oldest tyke who was being asked gruffly and aside from his parents nearby “Is your name Jones?”, he of course thinking his name was “Jamie” and crying for his “Mommy”.

  29. Chiara…the fiery temper was kept burning low for most of my life…inside I was a cauldron…but I rarely let it get the better of me. Needless to say one fateful night not too long ago really got the fires burning and lets just say…the cauldron is no longer kept all inside and repressed. Not always good…but life tends to make choices for us sometimes.

    Alot of my teasing actually centered around my red hair…for some reason I was made to feel guilty for having red hair…as if it was shameful and in some way degrading. As a young one I did feel incredibly guilty for it and hated my red hair with a passion…as Ive aged Im like…eh…whatever. People can pick the damndest things to single others out over…sigh.

  30. Coolred–I only asked because other redheads have been labelled as having a temper no matter their own temperament, just on the basis of hair colour. That and speculation about their biological origins seem to be the 2 greatest downsides for them of red hair.

    Selective expression of anger is of course a good thing! LOL

  31. I find redheads to be a pleasant view. I can’t understand why someone would have a problem with the color red on someone’s head:S to each their taste i guess…Harry, yum yum^_^

  32. Daifuku–you know he’s available, right? With a little historical complicity you and he could become the first Muslim King and Queen of England–okay alot of historical precedents first! Or as the postcolonialists say–we’re here because you were there!

  33. Haha. Yes, one can only dream 😦 . If only he weren’t royalty, I could see us skipping in a feild full of daisies. I’m not big on conspiracy theories, but am keeping my fingers off THAT redhead. any handsome redheads out there? sorry, that was inappropriate.

  34. The royal family are specifically prohibited from marrying Catholics, aren’t they? I don’t know if Muslims are specifically forbidden, but I don’t think they’d take kindly to having a Muslim as the head of the Church of England. 🙂

  35. Daifuku and Munaqabah–yes indeed, that is the essence of our jokes. The King can only marry within the Church of England, and cannot be divorced. Hence the Scottish remarriage of Prince Charles and the promise that Camilla would remain a princess and neither a Queen Regnant nor Queen Consort. Daifuku wisely recalls the demise of Princess Diana subsequent to her consorting with a Muslim, and is seeking more eligible and less dangerous redheads. 😀 😀 :mrgreen:

  36. Generally in the ME women with lighter skins & European features are considered more beautiful. They are rare & very much desired by men. Families think that their children will become better looking if the woman has light features. I do not find that odd since many in Europe & the US might find “exotic” & oriental looking women very attractive.

    On the other hand, as a general rule true blonds are tough to find & supposedly more fun. loool

    @ Miriam Mac: I definitely agree with you & it has been my own experience too that Saudi men may want a wild woman to marry but HIDDEN under hijab so that no one else knows she’s like that.lol

  37. This seems nigh onto universal. The matrimonial ads in S. Asian newspapers spells it out with absolute clarity.

    Even in Thailand, skin color (or the lack thereof) is an important factor when it comes to marriages. Brides from the northern city of Chiangmai are seen as infinitely preferable spouses than those from near the Malayan border.

    Even within the American Black communities, lighter colored skin is valued at a premium by many–though not all, I hasten to add.

  38. What about the attraction of opposites?

    I’m so blond that when I broke up with a redheaded boyfriend, he quipped, “Well, we probably just saved a bunch of kids from being born with terminal skin cancer.”

    My uber blond niece is dating a dark young man of Mexican descent and a friend told her, “It’s a good thing. If you married another blond, your kids would be invisible.”

    Besides the racial prejudices, is there also a genetic induced desire for diversity that keeps the blood lines healthier.

    Hmm. . .I’m trying to express a sort of reverse racial purity here; please don’t beat me up if I’ve managed to be more offensive than eloquent. I just read about the shooter in the holocaust museum and his rebellion against the browning of America. With my sunburned neck after being out in the sun, I’m kinda wishing some this browning had happened in my ancestral genetic line before I came along.

  39. @Annie – I think you raised some very good points. And stay tuned…I will be having a post on genetics coming up!

  40. Tara Umm Omar just did an interesting post with an interiew, on an African American man looking for a “White Saudi wife”, as an extension of this post, which she cites.
    Her blog link is on the left side bar here.

  41. Interesting point actually as all the females in my immediate family have gone for darker skinned men as mates (whether boyfriend or husband). I find that odd that ALL of us apparently prefer darker skin…all though whether or not that was a coincidence is worth considering.

  42. Coolred– you all (or y’all) just love them for their melanin, right? You’re tired of burning to a bright red lobster-reminiscent hue? LOL 😀

  43. Thanks or mentioning that over here Chiara!

  44. You’re welcome! I hope others will also enjoy the post and add their 2 riyals/dirhams worth! LOL 🙂

  45. I’ve been living in Saudi for 5 years now. An African American Muslim coming to the Holy Land was supposed to be an uplifting experience. It’s sad however, to find that Muslims in the land of our Noble Prophet Muhammad (salla Allahu alaihi wa sallam) have prejudiced based on skin color. Am I back in the states in the 1950s? It’ s unbelievable. I can’t tell you how many times, people have asked me where I’m from…and I tell them I’m from New York…and they tell me…no really, where are you originally from? What do you mean originally? Black people have been in America since America…can people still be so ignorant in 2009? I guess so….it’s just sad to see it here in such a sacred place. What’s funny to me is that Saudis may look down on dark skinned people… but the moment they head to the UK and the US they are placed in the same boat! Some of the racist Americans don’t differentiate between blacks and Arabs. They hate them all! This is absolutely crazy. For me, beauty comes in all shapes, colors, and sizes…if we all looked the same…the world would be a very boring place!

  46. esta de pelos esa degiiu.

  47. Both Carol and J. are right about the skin-colour being of greatest importance in match making practices which are quite similar in South and West Asia. But, it is the girls who are required to be of lighter skin (called “fair” in South Asia); for the men any colour and features are right as long as they have a good job, come from a good family background etc. – people don’t realise that children can inherit their appearance from either side of the family trees. In fact, girls are told not to expect attractiveness in their husband, since it’s his ability to earn that matters more than looks. I’m not implying that girls should marry on the basis of skin colour, but just that this is a privilege of the prospective grooms, not of brides.
    While these people like the lighter skin, I’ve heard women from my mother’s generation saying they don’t find the white complexion of the Caucasians appealing – they think it looks as if a layer of skin has been peeled off their body! There are also some superstitions involved – blue/grey eyes are supposed to be indicative of a stingy and dishonest nature – perhaps because of South Asia’s long experience of Colonialism. My sister has typical Caucasian looks – White skin and blonde hair. When she was young, my mother got her head shaved several times, in the hope that she’d grow black hair! Of course in my generation people think differently. I wonder if there are any superstitions involved in Saudi Arabia regarding complexion or eye color.
    Because of my dark skin, I have always been considered of average looks in my own country. But I was pleasantly surprised when I was in London and many White men began to tell me they found me pretty and wanted to take me out all the time. I realised I should have gone to live in London many years earlier!

  48. Its sad that in the mist of all the troubles in the world,some still dont know GOD.Ask them do they know the color of fire?

  49. Me as a Saudi black boy I red a lot of books that said that arabs are originally black but after the Turkish people came to the arabian peninsula they have married arabs and brought white color to arabs and arabs originally come from Yemen and yemen was sticked to africa before 6000 years so yemen was in africa. That’s why arabs are originally Black people.

  50. […] Bedu’s post on the Stigma Of Skin Color in Saudi Arabia brings to light some startling observations: “I became accustomed when I was […]

  51. I’m a dark middle eastern girl, and my skin color has always been a topic that comes up when people talk about my looks. People acknowledge that I’m pretty but they would say, “oh shes pretty but dark”. I have a sister that is whiter, and I can tell that her marriage “value” is much greater than mine. I’ve actually been told by an older Arab woman that no one will marry me because I am an Indian looking girl. I’ve done the bleaching, the staying inside, and even the praying for whiter skin, but I now realize the value in my brown complexion. I notice that it is always a topic Arabs bring up as well. I feel like I have to try harder to be seen as valuable. Its frustrating, and annoying. But i refuse to wear the whiter makeup that I use to put on as a child. I’m learning to love my skin color for others and for myself. I won’t let my children ever feel inferior because of the color god has given them.

  52. @zeanmusa91 – ‘and I can tell that her marriage “value” is much greater than mine’

    Grrrrrrr!! I hate that! I hope that you find that someone who realizes that there is no ‘value’ great enough to be placed on you.

  53. @zeanmusa91 – If someone measures your worth based on your skin tone, you should NOT be marrying that person 🙂

    The world is made up of good,bad and inbetween people who have an opinion on any number of things, color happens ot be just one. This is not specialto arabs, half the world decides based on skin tone. trust me i have heard many people tell me my daughters prospects may be low sine she’s a darker skin tone than her brother !!! there are men who are good and then there are nut jobs, it is your responsibility to apply a filter and pick the good ones. don’t spoil your skin by applying junk…. would you drink bleach for breakfast??? NO why apply it on your face , the skin is our most protective resource don’t kill it .

  54. Wise advice for everyone, Radha!

  55. @Radhaa – I agree with you completely, I’ve long since applied anything to my skin, but I can’t fully blame myself for the poor decisions. My mother was the one buying them for me. I love my mother, and I know she loves me very much too, but she constantly would say bad things to me about my skin color when she would get mad at me growing up.Names I wouldn’t even say here. She took me out of sports, and wouldn’t let me swim outside because she was so scared I’d get darker. This is such a serious topic to many middle eastern dark girls, and boys. This also creates resentment for lighter skinned Arabs even though it’s not their fault. I’m just confused with why Arab people are marrying their children off like their objects. I realize that many middle eastern countries are set back due to the colonizations of these countries but its time for the people to get out, and learn its 2011.

  56. […] She is working on a research project regarding the women in Saudi Arabia and in particular, the Saudi women with black skin who are generally of African heritage. Specific questions she’d like answered pertaining to her […]

  57. I have personally heard of a Saudi man’s preference for darker skin tone- closer to what he was used to in his own family- so I imagine that there are exceptions to every situation.

    While I have a personal preference for medium-brown skin tones with reddish undertones in men (just like how some people may have a certain eye color preference), I do not date someone on the basis of skin tone. Whether or not the guy is white, black, or somewhere in between does not matter; how well we get along and how decent of a person he is does!!! Sure, there are going to be some guys I’m not attracted to but I’d say that for me attraction has a whole lot more to do with personality of the guy. I think for a lot of guys and girls (or at least the ones worth dating & marrying) it’s the same.

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