The old Yemeni saying that roughly translates as “ginger comes with dirt” is akin to the universal adage thatlooks can be deceiving. It’s a fitting way to describe my country’s social mores around beauty: Just as the beneficial value of herbs as a healthy, flavourful spice is hidden beneath its dirt-covered skin, many women and men purposely conceal their features and opt for a hardy-looking appearance. In many regions, wearing trousers and groomed haircuts is considered unmanly. As for women, even wearing makeup on special occasions is seen as a violation of tribal customs.
Discussing physical beauty is seen as shameful here, so men tend to converse about this in secret. It’s frowned upon for women as well. Even in Yemeni literature, references to physical beauty are extremely rare, according to Khalid Qasim, who has a doctorate in sociology from Sana’a University.
“Some Yemeni authors have been harassed as a result,” Qasim said. “University professors have faced threats and protests for approaching literary works with content addressing human physical beauty.”
It’s hard to overlook the contradiction, then, that the subject is seen as taboo while a certain preference for tall, slender, light-skinned Yemenis prevails.
“Weight gain may be seen in a negative light, or subjected to mockery,” said Samia al-Aghbari, a professor at the Faculty of Media at Sana’a University.
But this criticism is usually levelled against women more than men, whose image in society is undiminished if they happen to be bald, short and overweight.
“Discussing physical beauty is seen as shameful here.”
Sadly, skin colour remains a primary criterion for physical beauty in Yemen, especially in mountainous areas where inhabitants tend to be lighter in complexion than those living in valleys and along the coastlines. Yemenis of African descent are widely regarded as inferior and lower in social rank. In this respect, men and women come under equal scrutiny, resulting in an absence of inter-ethnic friendship or marriage.
While discrimination based on colourism is a sad fact of life here, Samia al-Aghbari is quick to point out the presence of less visible values of beauty such as verbal eloquence, respectable behaviour and a warm heart.
Social progress calls for an examination of historical teachings, personal experience, and dominant customs that have shaped our preferences. What mechanisms are still dictating our taste on a subconscious level? Only through rigorous inquiry can we distinguish between harmful, inherited norms and our true aesthetics.
Just as genetic diversity helps protect our species from disease, so does respect for social and ethnic diversity ward off social ills such as racism and class discrimination. Community and personal initiatives that celebrate equality will enable us to build a cohesive, open society for future generations.