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Arab women use 'bottled racism' for whiter skin

Says women across Mideast "suffer" from olive skin

A phenomenon is sweeping the Middle East as Arab women seek whiter skin and use lightening creams that promise beauty, love and success for those who "suffer" from olive skin.

As women in the West compete for a year-round copper glow and pages in lifestyle magazines are devoted to self-tanning lotions, in the Arab world beauty is defined by the paleness of a woman's skin.

"White skin is the dream of all women, especially in the Gulf," added a blonde television presenter, describing how people "suffer" from olive skin.

Skin-whitening has long been a tradition in Asia and Africa, but has taken off commercially in the Middle East with certain brands ruthlessly advertising fair and lovely skin, which has been slammed as "racism in a bottle."

And while beaches may be teeming during the summer months, many women go to great lengths to shade themselves from the sun, particularly in the villages of Egypt, Morocco, Syria and Tunisia.

For example, they cover their bodies up for weeks on end before a wedding, striving for what is deemed to be an ideal alabaster skin-tone.

"What is rare is expensive," according to Hassan Ahmed, a professor of sociology at Cairo's Ain Shams University.

"Since in Egypt, like in the rest of the Arab world, olive skin is the most common, we prefer white skin," he told AFP.

"Racism in a bottle"

Television adverts for the various creams deliver a simple message -- that whiter skin is the key to a more successful life.

Each ad has a similar theme: whether she wants to be a dancer or a doctor, a young woman's olive skin is an obstacle. But after using the cream she clinches her dream job, earns the recognition of her peers or gains the attention of the man she wants.

But despite the popularity of some of these creams, the ads have been criticized as racist.

Two groups on the social networking Internet site Facebook condemn the brand, one using humor: "Fair and Lovely Cream is racist but I still use it." The other is more harsh: "Ban Fair and Lovely, racism in a bottle."

Habiba Hamid, who created one of the Facebook groups, told AFP that whitening creams "exacerbate and capitalize on the kind of racism which privileges lighter skin over darker."

"If the products themselves aren't banned, any form of advertising for them should be. They are clearly racist adverts."

But companies defend themselves against such accusations, saying that the product responds to a market need.

"I love you…despite your olive skin"

The attraction of white skin in the Middle East cuts across class lines.

Salwa, from a wealthy family and educated, well-traveled and sharing many Western values, was told by her boyfriend: "I love you despite the fact that you have olive skin."

Marwa, a 19-year-old Egyptian, works for a hairdresser in the poor Cairo district of Bulaq al-Dakrur, and is spoilt for choice in her quest for paler skin as cheap blends share shelf space with brand-name products.

Lightening creams are available in many forms, from unregulated brandless bottles to prescription creams aimed at treating acne scars and removing blemishes.

Dermatologist Rihab Sobhi says she has had to treat damage caused by the use of non-prescription skin products including lightening creams.

Patients come to her requiring treatment for everything from marks and scars on their skin to allergies caused by the creams or even burns.

Some whitening creams contain bleaching agents that are dangerous if used at high levels or too often, said Magda Abdel Samie, a Cairo beautician. "If used incorrectly the creams can cause skin conditions that take a very long time to treat."