By DEENA ZARU, ABC News
(NEW YORK) — Eiman Mirghani, a 28-year-old Sudanese Egyptian woman who grew up in Doha, Qatar, has been grappling with anti-Blackness since she was a child.
Mirghani, an Afro-Arab filmmaker, said that “for as long as I could remember, I’ve always felt like my skin color has been an issue for everyone around me.”
“It made me so self-conscious when I was young. I grew up in a family full of women, and I was the darkest skinned of everyone in the house. And often when I was a child, people would tell me things like, ‘Oh, don’t play in the sun for too long,’ or ‘Don’t get too dark,'” she told ABC News’ Good Morning America.
“On top of that, I have three sisters and all of them were a lot lighter skinned than I was, and people always complimented them for their beauty, and I never really felt that I was treated in that same way,” she added.
So, when she was gifted skin-bleaching products by a family member when she was 13 years old, she decided to use them in the hopes of gaining “a little bit more self-confidence.”
Mirghani said that her skin “started to become quite grayish” and she “started developing rashes” on her face.
“The thing that a lot of people don’t know about these skin-bleaching creams is that they can be extremely dangerous, because they contain really harmful chemicals that should not be exposed to the skin,” she said. “That is why between the ages of 13 and 15, I was using the creams on and off. I was in a weird space where I felt compelled to change myself in order to fit in. But at the same time, the expense that was paid was my own health.”
But a couple of years later, while in high school, Mirghani said that she had two nurturing experiences that helped transform her self-image: meeting a group of friends “who supported me and cared for me exactly the way I am,” and discovering her passion for film.
“Through [those friendships] I began to see myself in a different light. I began to appreciate who I am, I began to appreciate my Blackness more,” she said. “At the same time, around then is when I began to build my character through finding the things that I’m good at. That is the time when I discovered cinema, and I discovered how much I love and enjoy film and visual storytelling.”
After graduating high school, Mirghani attended the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom, where she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in media and film studies.
Upon returning to Doha in 2015, she worked as an assistant director and produced some short films. She said that she always loved documentaries, so she attended a documentary filmmaking workshop in 2018 at the Doha Film Institute with the goal of making a documentary about the trend of skin bleaching.
“I went in with the idea of making a film about skin bleaching, because skin bleaching is an issue that is very prominent and present in the Sudanese community. … It is something that is practiced and is very normalized, especially amongst women,” she said.
Mirghani originally planned to profile a Sudanese beautician who bleaches her skin as part of her beauty routine, but after her subject backed out of the project due to a strong hesitation to speak openly about the issue, Mirghani turned the camera on herself and became the subject of her own film, The Bleaching Syndrome.
“I made [the film] as truthfully as possible. It was one of the most difficult experiences I’ve ever had, because it is talking about something so personal and for a very long time in my life, especially growing up, was something very painful to deal with. But it was also a kind of therapeutic process,” she said, adding that the film prompted conversations about “unlearning” anti-Blackness with her family and friends, many of whom did not realize that she had been grappling with this trauma.
Mirghani said that some people who have viewed the film were surprised because she is “quite light-skinned” compared to other Black people or Black Arabs, but in her experience growing up in the Middle East, “melanin is just hated no matter … what shade you are.”
“Traces of Western influences continue to linger in any society of a country that has been colonized. And I think media plays a big part in this because even after a country goes independent, a lot of the media that is easily accessible for people has been Western music, Western films,” Mirghani said, explaining that these factors have contributed to colorism in the Arab world, where white beauty standards are sought after and considered “the best standard of what is beautiful.”
But according to Mirghani, the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States has reverberated in the Arab world by raising awareness and prompting conversations about anti-Blackness.
“With the Black Lives Matter movement, which is touching up on so many different areas around the world, including here, people are starting to question all these things about racism and inherent anti-Blackness in their society,” Mirghani said.
In the wake of the police killing of George Floyd, conversations about racism and colorism crossed borders and continents, fueling a passionate dialogue. Hashtags like #ArabsForBlackLives went viral and calls by Arabs and Arab Americans to call out anti-Blackness in the Arab world invigorated a debate about racism within the community.
“People are starting to finally realize and admit that racism, colorism — it’s not just a Western problem. It’s a global issue, and it definitely exists in our world here in the [Middle East and North Africa] region,” Mirghani said, adding that much of the discussion has been taking place online due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“At the moment, people have been taking advantage of the idea of having online panel discussions and meetings where people can discuss what is anti-Blackness, what is racism, and screening films, sharing art and sharing stories,” she said.
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