Freitag, 9. November 2012

Material culture in Yemen I: Whitening spa salts and racism

When I went to a supermarket here in Sanaa the other day, I came across these whitening spa salts, manufactured by Siam Yoko Co., Ltd., a Thai firm. For anyone who has had the opportunity of living in or visiting Yemen for some time and particularly for those of us who have been able to interact and socialize with Yemeni women, seeing such a product on offer hardly comes as a surprise: Yemeni society, for all the kindness and generosity of its people in general, is a deeply racist society. Beauty is judged according to color of skin (the whiter, the more beautiful) and when preparing for social events (exclusively female, of course) some Yemeni women like to whiten the skin of their face in such a manner that the aesthetics of such an appearance - which usually comes along with the natural, darker skin color of the throat and numerous other colors on eyelids, cheeks, and lips - is hard to grasp for someone who has grown up into norms of aesthetics that emphasize the enhancement of one's 'natural beauty' when it comes to cosmetics.

Also, the social category most discriminated against here in Yemen i.e. 'the marginalized' [al-muhammasheen], is usually considered to be 'of black skin' and to come 'from Africa'. Next to refugees from Somalia or Ethiopia, this term particularly refers to the 'akhdām' [sg. khādim; lit: servant], an endogamous social category of people who have been living in Yemen for centuries, but continue to be considered non-Yemeni by other Yemenis to this day. They live in seperate neighborhoods, are often employed as street-sweepers or housekeepers (if at all), face all kinds of harassments by other Yemenis including state employees, find it impossible to enroll their children in school with other Yemeni children, and would never be considered for intermarriage with a non-akhdam Yemeni. Not even the application of whitening spa salts made by Siam Yoko Co., Ltd., will be able to change this as long as concepts of nationality and citizenship here in Yemen continue to be based on blood and descent.


© Marie-Christine Heinze

© Marie-Christine Heinze

© Marie-Christine Heinze

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