'The marriage market always demands a fair bride'
It’s true: Whether we like it or not, a single woman’s marketability in Bangladesh is influenced by her skin colour. From rural women to the elite upper class, the demand for a fair bride is widespread. Sadia Akhond faced a similar situation when she had a love marriage at 22. Her marriage was riddled with hurdles as her mother-in-law refused to accept her as she wasn’t fair and neither was she tall – two primary requirements. Despite having an undergraduate degree and a stable job, her credentials came second to her looks, a phenomena that is now common practice in Bangladesh.
“The marriage market always demands a fair bride,” shares Kazi Ashraf Hossain, more popularly known as “Ghotok Pakhi Vai.” With 44 years of matchmaking experience, he claims to have 12,000 couples married and was featured by Al-Jazeera for their show “Bangladesh Love Guru Reveals Secret.” He claims that “every kind of Bangladeshi bride (tall, stout, short or dark) can find a groom with the right match, but a ‘fair’ bride is and has always been a preferred choice.”
Quite a few of Hossain’s efforts to set up two families were curtailed when the groom’s family discovered that the bride wasn’t as fair as the families were initially led to believe. “Some parent’s fill out their daughter’s online profile, falsely claiming they are fair-skinned,” Hossain shared.
Hossain’s matrimony site, www.ghotokpakhivaibd.com allows interested applicants to create free marriage profiles that cover several grounds. Basics such as age, occupation and qualification as well as family history are included. What’s interesting to note, however, is the section on complexion. The options read: “fair”, “very fair”, “whitish medium”, “whitish brown”, “dark” and a very mysterious “others” option.
A quick search through some of the top Bangladeshi matrimonial sites revealed even more shocking tags for skin preferences. Bdmarriage.com, in particular had no option for “dark,” rather, it had “wheatish”, “wheatish-brown” and fair. “Dark skinned brides can choose the option ‘wheatish-brown’,” stated Rezwanul Islam, founder of the website. When asked why he didn’t include the option for “dark” skin, he said “it can easily fall under the “wheatish-brown” tag.” According to Islam, wheatish brown can be described to be the equivalent of the Bengali phrase “ujjol-shamla.”
“At least 70% of grooms say that it’s compulsory for their brides to be fair,” says Monjurul Karim Khan, the spokesperson from borbodhu.com, the largest and oldest Bangladeshi matrimonial site with over 212,867 active profiles “The grooms that have higher qualifications or are from the 27-35 age bracket are the ones that prioritize fairness. In fact, that is their most important criteria, more so than the woman’s education, religion or even family background,” shares Khan.
The profiles on borbodhu.com, however, have been more lenient with their complexion tags. From all five local, top matrimonial websites (borbodhu.com, bibahabd.com, banglamatrimony.com, marrybd.com and sensiblematch.com) Borbodhu stood out for having the “doesn’t matter” tag. As a welcome addition to what is a seemingly racist complexion profile, it was surprising to find that this option is rarely chosen. “Mostly it is the divorcees or widows that choose the ‘doesn’t matter’ option for their partners,” reveals Khan. From the data it was apparent that the more qualified the man, the higher his standards for female beauty.
“Back in the day, at least 60% of brides requested foundation shades that were at least two shades lighter,” says Kaniz Almas Khan, CEO and managing director of Persona, a top ranking beauty salon with over six outlets across Dhaka and Chittagong. With over 15 years of experience under her belt, Khan believes that the obsession with fairness has eased out over the years, with women preferring healthier skin as opposed to “fairer.” “We still have brides that want to be made to look fairer, but we also have some requesting to have their natural complexion retained.” Almas says the trend is slowly taking a turn for the better, with the demand for fair, “white” makeup being replaced.
With a large number of beauty salons and parlours mushrooming around the capital, many cater to the demand for fairness treatments, fairness packs and even fair polish. Bridal packages, in particular, often include fairness facials, “brightening” facials or other skin treatments.
“Women of all ages and social backgrounds seek fairness treatments, but it’s the younger generation that is more eager to avail these offers,” says Farzana Shakil, managing director of Farzana Shakil’s Makeover Salon, a renowned salon with multiple outlets in Dhaka and Chittagong.
“Over the years, more people come in looking for whitening treatments,” she says. However, she argues that what has changed is that women that prefer lighter skin “understand that these salons are not the ones providing chemical peels to shed off facial skin to lighten one’s skin tone.”
“Brides do want to look natural and not “cakey”, but at the same time they still want to look bright. Nowadays, most brides ask me to make them look beautiful and different yet not make them few shades lighter than their natural tone,” says the beauty expert.
Although beauticians are claiming that the obsession with being a fair bride is no longer as widespread as before, consumer trends suggest otherwise. With over 2,000 beauty parlours in Bangladesh that cater to the demands of an ever growing population of “fair conscious” women, most of these parlours have “brightening” facials, fair polish or bleach that promise lighten skin, often marketed as part of pre-wedding deals.
“Over the years I have noticed that young girls are under a lot of social and peer pressure to look fair. They are influenced to believe that fair is beautiful. Personally, I believe that beauty is not limited to fairness,” says Farzana.
With media playing a key role in upholding these archaic norms, the cultural pressure to be fair is still ever-present, especially for women in the marriage market.