Idealising Islamic womanhood, internalising whiteness

Malaysian actress Wardina
Malaysian actress Wardina

The meteoric rise of Malaysian actress Wardina and singer Waheeda in the last few years was by no means an accident. For decades, women who wore the tudung (hijab) had longed for high-profile role models who shared their values and dress code. Representation is, of course, a good thing, but their popularity can be partly attributed to the public’s preference for fair skin.

The Malay skin colour can be best described as a spectrum of tones; from the dark brown (hitam manis) to ghostly pale (putih melepak) – all a result of a half-forgotten history of intermarriage between ethnic groups that co-exist in Malaysia and beyond. While there isn’t a social and economic divide based on colorism in the country; i.e. the rich and powerful aren’t necessarily pasty white or vice versa, there is a culture of implicit loathing of darker skin. The solution to this, however, is easy: whitening creams.

Malaysian singer Waheeda
Malaysian singer Waheeda

Wardina and Waheeda represent the wholesomeness that many young Malay women aspire to. But they are also sending out messages that pander to neo-colonial conventions of ‘white is beautiful’ and ‘black is ugly’. Malaysia is awash with lightening cream adverts that suggest this. The thing people say about human nature – that we all, in some way, prefer looks that are different from our own, does not even apply here. Whitening can be a compulsive behaviour, an obsession. Friends I know who are naturally light-skinned use creams to make themselves even lighter. Whiter than white.

Purveyors of products like ‘Fair and Lovely’ and ‘L’Oreal White Perfect’ (what a racist name) reinforce the ideology of white supremacy and the sexist practice of biomedicalisation of women’s bodies. Upholding these ideas means that women should suffer from serious health implications or simply from self-hatred in the name of whiteness. What are your thoughts about this?

By Angry Malay Woman

I like plants.


  1. It’s amazing, because white women in America often feel pressure to make themselves less pale! The phenomenon isn’t exactly the same, because in their case they are the colonial class, but it’s a similar mechanism: exploit women’s status as objects for male visual consumption, and make some fast cash.

  2. ms liberty,

    I’m not sure that the reverse is that straightforward. In Britain, fake tans are normally associated with celebrity and lower middle/working class women. I don’t know for certain where this phenomenon comes from, but it’s possible that it originates from the age-old idea of wealth (i.e. rich enough to travel to sunnier climes in the winter). Pale skin is still a premium for women who aspire to cool glamour and elegance a la Kidman and Paltrow. In the United States, Eastern and Southern European women who are racially ‘white’ apply whitening creams to achieve a more ‘anglo-saxon’ look.

  3. It’s all absurd. My mom always says that in Malaysia, it doesn’t whether a woman has looks or not If she has fair skin, people will flock to her regardless!

    Personally, I’ve seen this prejudice affect women close to me. When she was younger, a friend of mine would get admonished by her grandmother for being dark and told she was of no worth. This, added with her not being skinny, upset her, but she didn’t tell this to anyone for the longest time.

    I have this urge to slap the people behind the beauty and advertisement industry every time I see a commercial promoting fairness, especially the ones that link it to self worth. Remember the Fair & Lovely ad where a Malay woman was having trouble with her relationship and her career? Someone then suggested F&L to her, and then lo and behold, her boyfriend fell for her again, and she got a good job as a media professional. Huh?!

    PS. Thank you for dropping a comment on my site. Frankly, I’m at a loss of where to start. That, coupled with a bunch of stuff on my hands right now, leave me slow in updating the site. I will soon! Your blog is certainly an inspiration. It’s great to see young Malaysian women blogging about feminism. And umm, sorry if I take too much comment space 😛

  4. PPS. I think the adoration for Wardina and Waheeda emphasise another kind of objectification: the objectification of Muslim women in hijab. It’s as if society is saying, look, who’s saying that hijabis cannot succeed in society? Remember the craze a few years back when everyone started to demand for “tudung Wardina”? Haha.

  5. Malaysianfeminism,

    Your mom is right. Malaysians tend to fetishise fairer skin – and how damaging that is, especially for young girls! The problem with whitening creams is that they can’t be banned that easily. For creams with safer ingredients, they are often marketed as ‘blemish-removers’, ‘sun-screens’, or simply as moisturisers (with extra *benefits*).

    The other thing about the popularity of Wardina and Waheeda is the commercial value of the hijab. This value can be used to an economic advantage particularly for the entertainment industry, because many Malays LOVE their pop stars (Mawi, Siti) and semi-celebrities (the Akademi Fantasia troupe). My guess is that by commercialising the image of famous hijabis and nashid boy bands somehow makes entertainment and mass consumption more ‘halal’ and ‘moral’, if that makes any sense. Wardina becoming the face of Mydin supermarket is one such example.

    Ah, yes. The ‘tudung Wardina’.. I remember the days.

    As for your blog, you can pretty much start anywhere, anyhow you like. I find that there isn’t a lot of analysis on Malaysian women online, so your work will be pretty much pioneering stuff. There are tons of feminist blogs out there to help you with formatting and content. Also, I’ll be more than happy to help out with anything!

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