Is it racist? Is it cultural appropriation? Or is it all okay?
The bindi. A topic of great debate. Is it wrong to find beauty in someone else’s culture? Is it wrong to wish to explore and experiment? Or is it all simply a matter of insulting a sacred symbol?
In a world where Indian men and women are insulted on the streets, beaten, and discriminated against, is women finding an aspect of their culture beautiful really the worst thing that could happen? Shouldn’t we be encouraging every human being to explore and experiment with each other’s cultures, to find beauty, to learn, to share? Our language is a mix of many languages, our food a mix of many foods, our culture a mix of many cultures. So why does it cause outrage and hostility when girls of different races have come together to love this part of Indian culture?
“My culture isn’t just some stupid fashion phase,” Says Kazdott on Instagram.
But shouldn’t it be okay to find other cultures beautiful? Even if momentarily? I love seeing Persian influences in jewellery and clothing, it makes me proud. That’s my culture so many people are bonding over. That’s my culture that people find beautiful. We’re all from the same planet, and the idea that one colour of human being is different to another – and allowed access to different things – is an awful, out-dated and regressive philosophy.
“Share your culture with other people. Invite them in,” Says Bornam Rezaghi, a professor of philosophy in Tehran.
“The root of racism is ignorance. If we ever hope to unify as human beings and eliminate that racism then we have to gently educate each other by sharing. Teach others the rich history behind your symbols and icons and trends and let them explore and enjoy. This is progress.”
Being able to appreciate other cultures and their food, fashion and beliefs is an incredible part of the human experience. The cross-pollination and evolution of our cultures is what has brought us all of our languages, foods, music, and clothing. It has always been a good thing.
Girls of the Indian community are also weighing in on the issue.
“Growing up there were no Indian models, or Indian actresses, or Indian dolls. No girl wanted to be Indian. We weren’t considered beautiful by anyone’s standards,” Says Navita Singh, 20 years old. “But now, thousands of girls are wearing bindis and Bollywood jewellery. Celebrities and models and girls on the streets, everyone wants to be Indian now! Everyone thinks it’s beautiful. I love it. I encourage it.”
Representation in mass media has always played an important role in combating racism and ignorance. As more human beings curiously venture out into the aspects of fashion and food and music of other cultures, we develop an appreciation for them. This appreciation leads to respect, understanding, and love. It is a catalyst for radical change.
But what of the people who find offence in this new trend? There are some who claim that wearing the bindi as a fashion accessory is cultural appropriation, no different to “black face” or geisha costumes.
“That is someone’s religion and culture,” says mermaidanimalhoarder on Instagram. “You have no right to make it some dumb fashion trend. Get it off your head!”
However, Indian men and women seem to agree that the bindi is used as a fashion accessory in India, and is no longer worn for any religious or holy significance.
“Bindis are a fashion accessory. They did (and still do in some parts of india) have significant cultural meaning but are now more just a part of the way people dress – people wear them all the time over there. Simple ones to school and fancy ones when they go out.” Says Ridd Dabhowale.
Keely Valentine agrees. “My grandmother says that even in India, the style of bindis they wear are fashion bindis, produced and worn by Indian girls for the exact purpose that non-indian girls use them for,” she says. “So she’s not in any way offended, providing of course that the wearer is respectful and aware of what they’re wearing and it’s significance to the culture it comes from.”
So even in India, the bindi is a fashion piece- which classifies it as culture, not religion. This means that wearing the bindi for its intended purpose is not disrespecting a holy symbol as so many people accuse girls of doing. Parallels are often drawn between wearing the bindi and wearing a Native American headdress. However, the Native American headdress that has become a popular accessory for festivals and costume parties holds a very sacred meaning to its people, while the bindi does not, and now appears to be simply a fun and fashionable accessory. They cannot be classed in the same category. Wearing a bindi for fashion, just as Indian women do, should not be offensive and met with hostility. It’s just culture sharing, isn’t it?
But the bitterness and resentment that many Indian men and women feel is very real and very valid.
“I despise the trend mostly because I spent most of my life being bullied for wearing bindis, cultural clothing and henna,” Says Ridd. “And it’s really frustrating seeing the same people who were so cruel to me suddenly latch onto the trend and act like its the coolest thing ever. Ill feelings and suggestions of cultural appropriation rise from the racism experienced by people such as myself.”
People who were outcast and discriminated against for their culture now see it as being exploited by their very oppressors. It’s no wonder that they feel wronged, and do not wish to share elements of their identity with people who had ridiculed it in the past.
“But you have to let that go,” says Murad, 42, victim of race related hate crime. “I struggled with this more than you can know. But I wish for the hate and violence to end and I have learnt that you must kill it with kindness. You must invite these people into your culture and show them its beauty. How can they hate something they find beautiful? They can’t. Then the problem is solved.”
The bindi, worn as a fashion accessory, does not insult a holy symbol or religion. It has the potential to irradicate the ignorance and barriers that two very opposing cultures have always had between them. It bridges the gap, invites multiculturalism, and looks super cute. Let’s explore more cultures, appreciate them, and starve out the ignorance of racism. – Newsha Tari
Top Photo from BrandyLee’s Flickr photostream.