April 26, 2019 | 62° F

THURAVIL: Henna does not belong on your hand unless you understand

Opinions Column: Sip on Your Chai


Recently, I haven’t been able to scroll through three posts on Facebook before encountering yet another video about how someone mastered the art of applying henna and has been crowned its “master” by some off-radar media company. While personally, as an Indian, I’m proud of the fact that one of our most treasured art forms has come to be appreciated in the light of the Western world, I’m uneasy when I see yet another person from a culture outside mine that is hailed as the harbinger of Mehndi, as someone who’s newly discovered it, when those of Indian, Pakistani and Middle Eastern descent have been wearing it for traditional and cultural purposes for centuries. It’s one of many examples of cultural conquistador-ism, in which people “discover” a culture that has already been well-established in the global landscape and create a hype surrounding it that makes it look like something “new” and “exotic.” There’s a fine line between appropriation and appreciation, and calling anyone the “Queen of Henna” without properly understanding and appreciating the history and the tradition behind it is an action that falls firmly on the side of appropriation, and hence can destroy the cultural symbolism of henna altogether and turn it into the next big Goop-sponsored fad instead.

A large part of racial and ethnic advocacy in recent times has focused around the issue of cultural appropriation. Defined by the Cambridge dictionary asthe act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture,” cultural appropriation has risen to become a powerful tool within an entire system of oppression geared against non-white, non-Christian people. This may be a heavy statement to make, but even though much of the appropriation we see is unintentional and meant to appreciate the appropriated culture, it’s harmful because of the position of the appropriating culture in the racial hierarchy over the appropriated culture, and the power that that dominance has to erase or dull the cultural uniqueness and significance of the aspect of culture being appropriated.

This doesn’t mean that people not from South Asian or Middle Eastern cultures should stop wearing henna. I speak for most people of different cultures when I say I love introducing people to my culture, having them try the food I grew up with and trying on clothes that hold traditional meaning. Of course, henna is included in all of these aspects of culture, and it’s a lovely way to express yourself and be creative about what you choose to display on your body.

However, it begins to turn into something else when, after having settled down to apply a traditional design with henna, I am instead asked if I could “tattoo a tramp stamp on instead.”

Not only is this disrespectful because henna is tied to Hindu wedding culture to symbolize spiritual awakening and joy and other traditional art forms like classical dance, but it is also a sign of what could happen if I acquiesce and apply the tramp stamp — with that one action, pieces of my culture begin to chip off the whole, as the value of Mehndi is reduced to nothing more than generic color on skin instead of all the beautiful history and tradition it holds as a pre-wedding ritual.

A larger, widespread example of appropriation is the use of the bindi. The bindi in Hindu culture represents many things, but the most widespread representation is of the third eye, the central point of all focus, concentration and wisdom. It also indicates the marital status of women. With so many meanings, many can and will argue that the bindi cannot be appropriated, and that its use for other purposes simply give it yet another meaning. Yes, the bindi has so many meanings and uses within Hinduism, but that doesn’t make it any less offensive when I spot another white celebrity at Coachella sporting a bright dot on their forehead as a fashion accessory, especially when I can’t get on public transportation in a saree and a bindi and not be glared at and told to go change because this is America.

When all is said and done, it isn’t really that difficult to know where to draw the line with appreciating other cultures. Putting on henna is beautiful and loads of fun and I will say that you haven’t truly lived until you’ve had henna on your shoulders, but you might want to think a little next time you feel like you want a new amazing, natural “Breathe” henna tattoo on the back of your neck.

Neeharika Thuravil is a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore majoring in computer science and astrophysics. Her column, "Sip on Your Chai," runs on alternate Wednesdays.

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Neeharika Thuravil

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