Fatima Ali is often praised for her beauty, and she was Miss Sudan in the 2010 Miss Arab World Contest. But even so she has been attacked for her appearance, with strangers even trying to cut off her hair.
This is the reality for some dark-skinned people in Egypt, where black is sometimes praised, but is mostly condemned. “People called me beautiful growing up and encouraged me to model. I decided to enter some competitions including the Beauty Queen of Sudan and the Miss Arab World Pageant,” Ali said.
The positive representation was more than welcome, but it never showed the whole picture.
Beyond the media glamour, Ali notes that walking down the street in Egypt could be a different story. “Strangers sometimes point and stare at the colour of my skin. They openly insult my blackness and pull my hair,” she said.
Ali is Sudanese, but she was born and raised in Egypt. “My friends never make me feel like I’m not welcome here. We grew up in the same culture, but my experiences still differ from theirs in many ways because of people who think my sense of worth is up for debate,” she said.
Ali needed an outlet for her frustrations and a platform to raise awareness, so she shared her stories on social media, frequently writing down any racist experiences she faced. “Those posts sparked some strong conversations, and I was overwhelmed by people, particularly dark-skinned girls and women, who had similar stories,” she said.
Feeling that it was time for a change of scene, Ali left Cairo for the coastal town of Dahab on the Red Sea. Once an isolated village, this is now well-known to many backpackers and foreigners. “The harassment is a lot less there, but the real difference lies in the wide range of ethnicities that are always ready to embrace even more,” she said.
Despite her Egyptian accent, Ali was still targeted as an outsider, however. People often attacked her for her skin rather than for her race in a behaviour known as “colourism” coined by US author and Pulitzer Prize winner Alice Walker in 1982 to describe “prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on their colour”.
The term is not as strongly discussed as racism, but that does not mean it is not as widely felt.
Fakhr is a Sudanese journalist who used to study Mass Communications at an Egyptian university. He believes that his lighter skin means he is able to evade negative attention when in Egypt because people think he is Egyptian. But he sees colourism second hand.
“When I was in Egypt, there was a student from Aswan who was always teased for his dark skin. The message was clear that different shades of colour meant different social categories. It is a big issue in Egypt, Sudan, and many other Arab countries,” he said.
“Colourism and racism are reflected in the media, too, and especially in comedy,” Fakhr said. “We make it seem like it is just the West that is racist, but discrimination exists among us African-Arabs too.”
The under-representation of dark-skinned Arabs in the Egyptian media has become a hotly debated topic with time. “The Egyptian media is a large part of the discrimination against black people in this country. In film, the housemaid, doorkeeper, or any other role of ‘the help’ is typically depicted as dark-skinned or of Nubian origins,” Ali said.
These observations are more than just anecdotal. In fact, Egyptian cinema’s habit of depicting only white-skinned characters dates back to its earliest days, and this consistent pattern has even gained scholarly attention.
RACE ON SCREEN: In his 1962 book The Arab Role in Africa, author Jacques Baulin, himself born in Egypt, documented these observations and mentioned efforts to try to change them.
The author noted how Mohamed Ali Nassef, an Egyptian who worked as a film censor in the 1960s, had sent a note to top directors and producers urging them to avoid giving servants’ parts exclusively to darker individuals. The Egyptian review Nahdatu Ifriqya (African Renaissance) responded in its November 1960 issue by saying that “the era of the African servant is over. Now it is time for the African intellectual.”
Yet, Egyptian cinema has yet to embrace racial diversity. Egyptian films largely lack characters played by dark-skinned actors, and the late Ahmed Zaki may have been one of the few significant exceptions to this rule. Black representation is yet to hold a high distinction in Egyptian cinema as well as other forms of media.
In 2019, Egyptian actress and comedian Shaimaa Seif sparked controversy on the prank TV programme Shaklabaz. She appeared in blackface to impersonate a Sudanese woman on a bus, irritating people beside her by speaking loudly and even asking a stranger to kiss her. Seif later apologised for the sketch, insisting that she had only meant her role to be an innocent joke, but by then the damage was already done and Sudanese people were quick to voice their outrage.
Those who do not face this specific type of prejudice often do not see the issues with such portrayals. But the incident served as a clear example of why marginalised people should be listened to when they state that something seems racist to them.
Advertisements may also make no secret of their white preferences. Billboards and advertisements on television and in magazines not only often heavily depict lighter-skinned individuals, but also actively favour them. Beauty products often still hold white skin as a gold standard.
The satellite TV channel Al-Arabiya noted in a 2018 news report on chlorine use that Egypt’s media portrayals of beauty standards were bound to have a harmful effect on the public. Though other countries have had a documented history of using chlorine to lighten skin, Egyptian women may have only recently joined this dangerous trend.
The report noted that social media was rife with posts about the so-called benefits of chlorine baths, and self-described beauty experts also recommended its use to lighten the skin.
But Egypt’s preference for white skin is about much more than just colour. Its dimensions are often political and are steeped in a complex history. The damage such internalised racism has on a person’s self-esteem is astounding, but it even goes beyond that.
EGYPT AND AFRICA: This is because many Egyptians do not see themselves as Africans, and historical and political contexts have metaphorically led Egypt away from its own continent.
Egyptians can continue to feel Arab at heart while still embracing their obvious African roots, yet many hesitate to do so. After gaining their respective independences, countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region like Algeria and Egypt began to shape their Islamic and Arab images. Throughout the process such countries may have been unable to shake off some of the unflattering black stereotypes that arose from that same colonialism, however.
Scholars have different names for this type of internalisation. In her paper “What is Internalised Racial Oppression and Why Don’t We Study It,” US author Karen D Pyke mentions the term “colonised mentality” that was discussed by many anti-colonial writers in the 1960s who wondered about the psychological effects colonialism had had on people in South America and North Africa.
A primary feeling the oppressed often had was a desire to be like their colonisers, researchers found.
Some North Africans may hesitate to claim their natural African identity, for example, tying into the unwritten rule that being African goes beyond geography and should extend towards cultural understanding. In countries like Egypt, where skin colour comes in diverse shades, black people want Egyptians to recognise their own faults in order to move past them.
A UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) report has found that Egypt has over 256,000 refugees and registered asylum-seekers from around 56 different countries at present. Many of those displaced have darker skin that is not associated with the “Arab ideal”. Sudanese and Somali refugees in particular frequently speak of being bullied for the colour of their skin in Egypt.
According to a 2020 report by the Associated Press, “after our visits to several migrant communities around Cairo, at least 24 Sub-Saharan Africans (including four children) said that they faced racist insults, sexual harassment, or other abuses.”
In a similar way to how Fatima Ali felt her colour was only appreciated when convenient, some Egyptians may only line themselves up with Africa and black people when the subjects are being highlighted positively.
The Africa Cup of Nations football tournament and the US film Black Panther were at the centre of a 2018 Washington Post piece about race hypocrisy in Egypt, for example. The piece pointed out that some Egyptians say “I’m going to Africa” when they visit other countries on the same continent, as if Egypt “were floating in a bubble of its own”.
Such attitudes are continuing to shape how other countries view Egypt’s blackness. When the Confederation of African Football (CAF) awarded star footballer Mohamed Salah the African Player of the Year 2017 award, some social-media users were quick to argue that he was “not African enough” to hold the title. The controversy was soon cleared up, but it did remind Egyptians that other nations sometimes forget Egypt is African.
Over the years, the potential social and political benefits have steered Egypt’s administration in a more Pan-African direction, however. Dina Talaat, a political scientist interested in Egypt’s African relations, has a lot to say about the subject of Africanism in Egypt.
“The difference between our relationship with Africa now and years ago is quite striking,” Talaat said. She believes that in order to truly understand Egypt’s position with other African nations, we need to look at how much has been accomplished in a short amount of time.
“Until recently, our ties with many African countries had been either sour or non-existent,” she said. “Past administrations have somewhat neglected diplomatic relations. Egypt has been trying to remedy this by finding ways to help the continent,” she added.
The developments Talaat is referring to are a result of President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s focus on African unity. Previous presidents tended to put that aside in favour of Arabism and nationalism.
A March 2018 paper published in the international Journal of North African Studies analysed how after former president Mohamed Morsi was removed from power in 2013, the interim government in Egypt sought financial aid from the EU and US.
The study noted that though the diplomatic campaign by the ministry of foreign affairs was an obvious step, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the UAE were seen as main supporters. However, the decision to reach out to Egypt’s African neighbours was also an essential political move. It was even more crucial because Egypt was suspended as a member of the African Union for a year, before being reinstated in June 2014.
“After former president Hosni Mubarak was almost assassinated in Addis Ababa, he rarely visited other African nations, and many considered this to be the last straw in Egypt’s African relations. However, to the government’s credit, a lot of progress is now being made,” Talaat explained.
ROADS TO PROGRESS: “In many ways, Africa is still a young continent, and Egypt shares a lot in common with its neighbours. There is still plenty of untapped potential. President Al-Sisi’s work is paying off, and we are already seeing political and economic changes,” Talaat said.
Trade, economic agreements, and diplomatic relations with Africa are all being worked on. Programmes for African women’s development were one of the focuses in Al-Sisi’s year as president of the African Union (AU) in 2019.
The president then helped to launch the African Women’s Leadership Programme (AWLP), for example. “He invited around 200 delegates to attend the Conference of Business and Professional Women in Cairo,” Talaat said, and other focus areas have included the Economic Empowerment of Women for Africa’s 2063 Development Agenda, the Africa Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), and the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in Africa.
When Al-Sisi was president of the AU, Egypt also highlighted many priorities for Africa such as building bridges among Africa’s peoples and economic and social development.
In May 2019, the AfCFTA came into effect after being sanctioned by 22 countries. The focus is to “reinforce our negotiating position on the international stage, and it represents an important step forward,” Al-Sisi said at the July 2019 AU summit.
So, while the country as a whole is on the way towards a new Pan-Africanism, what can be done by average citizens? In Ali’s case, it has been her new-found passion for teaching.
“I know the racism will never really go away, but there are things we can do to make life better for everyone,” she said. As a nursery teacher, Ali has made some observations about people and their perceptions of race.
“Children only judge by colour when adults teach them to, but raising them right can make all the difference,” Ali explained. “I know that black people everywhere are constantly belittled, leaving some too depressed to even leave their houses. Being conscious of what is worth holding on to certainly makes me feel stronger,” she said.
Educating people on racism can be done in more than one way, and it already is. A group of activists from the Koma Waidi initiative, Nubian for “Tales of the Past”, has painstakingly compiled a dictionary collecting Nubian words, for example. The dictionary contains over 200 rare Nubian words and is a small but necessary step to preserving the language.
Discrimination can be found not just in negative portrayals, but also in a lack of representation, however. “I hope to see courses on African culture and history introduced as the core of school curriculums, “Ali said.
She is also not alone in her emphasis on teaching children not to discriminate. Fakhr also believes that discrimination needs to be addressed in Egypt by focusing on media representation in particular.
“Whenever a dark-skinned person is portrayed in the media, they are seen as secondary or lesser. Even when a character is Egyptian, he is somehow less so if he looks black,” he said. “People naturally feel inclined to pass on what they grew up learning to other generations. However, this also applies to harmful opinions and attitudes that children could end up adopting. You could say that it is almost a part of our culture now, and I worry that if we do not raise our children against this, the cycle will go on and on forever,” Fakhr warned.
It is also not enough for children to be non-racist; they should also become anti-racist. Children should not be blind to colour and the prejudice around them. They should notice when certain people are not being represented.
The recent Black Lives Matter protests in the US have thus been a wake-up call for many in the MENA region. Many Arabs have taken to social media to voice their solidarity with African-Americans and this ground-breaking US movement.
One rule that Arab activists are now following is applying the same standards of racism abroad and at home. Racial slurs have commonly been used by white people in the West, but Egyptians should also look at their own Arab equivalents.
“Abed,” which means slave, for instance, is one example of the many slurs Arabs still direct at those with darker complexions.
No Arab can decry racism in other nations if they have no desire to end it in their own countries. The Arabs need to remind themselves that racist words are remnants of a troubling past and that they have no business existing in the modern world. Continuing in this way will not help a nation grow and could even reverse steps that have yet to be taken and form a solid footprint. Everyday words we use to discuss beauty standards, racial stereotypes, and even our own identities reveal as much about ourselves as the places we live in.
The irony is that many Egyptians still reject an African identity in favour of Arab pride, but aversion to Africa and dark skin is a central part of colonialism and the western legacy. Besides, it is not an “either-or” situation, as both forms of pride can live equally and harmoniously together.
Egypt’s journey to Pan-Africanism is far from over, however. The government is still attempting to handle many complex deals and agreements both regionally and nationally in Africa, and citizens must continue to contribute in their unique ways too, constantly keeping open minds.
For Ali, her personal journey is following a similar narrative. Ups and downs are an inevitable part of it. She has thought about turning her experiences into a book, for example. “It would be called Diary of a Black Girl, but I’m not even sure where to begin,” she said.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 November, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly