What trend can be found among music festivals, Hindu temples, Bollywood and Hollywood celebrities alike, the majority of the female population in the Indian subcontinent, and students on our very own campus?
Bindis of course, have been rising in popularity in the United States in the recent decade, especially because of well-known celebrities sporting them in order to look edgy and “cultured.” Examples include Gwen Stefani, Katy Perry, Vanessa Hudgens, and Selena Gomez.
Girls at music festivals and college campuses everywhere think it is acceptable to wear them as they please because they simply enjoy the novelty and “exotic” touch the bindi adds to their aesthetic. Yet, they must understand the context of the cultural symbol they are appropriating. The bindi is not merely a fashion trend and it is not something that can just be picked and isolated up from its historical, religious, and cultural context and be worn by whomever.
In Hinduism, the bindi is a physical representation of the sixth chakra which is also known as the third-eye (chakras are centers of spiritual power in the body). It has been rooted in religious and cultural significance in the Indian subcontinent for thousands of years. It is worn by almost all Desi women, which include non-Hindu Indian, Bangladeshi, Nepali, and Sri Lankan women, as it is also an accessory of cultural significance.
I have heard many arguments about how people outside of South Asian cultures wearing bindis is not problematic. I have heard that privileged white women wearing bindis is just a sign of how culture expands, and that my culture is being appreciated. I have heard that there is no harm in sharing culture and that we are all just human beings who are citizens of the world together.
But I disagree. I disagree because this implies that despite all of our different cultures and backgrounds, we have the same experiences and are treated by institutionalized powers the exact same way. Allowing the bindi to be torn from its religious and cultural context is to allow the erasure of the historical context of what my people have been subjected to.
The Indian subcontinent (like so many parts of Asia) has been ravaged by colonialism starting in the mid nineteenth century, invaded by white imperialists who arrived to expand their own empires and exploit the people of India. Imperialists who exploited India established economic power over those who have lived there for thousands of years and oppressed our culture and traditions. We were viewed as uncultured and barbaric by colonists who ironically thought they were bettering us. The process of decolonization in India left huge setbacks for the country, and in fact, the end of British India resulted in the country eventually splitting into India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan.
So today, seeing the bindi plastered on the foreheads of people who are not Hindu, who are not Desi, is simply a reminder of how once again our culture is being stolen from its meaning and context and manipulated to be something far shallower. If the bindi holds no religious or cultural significance to you, if you do not know what it is like to have been subjected to the after effects of centuries of colonialism and racism, please do not wear it. Because here’s the kicker: When a trendy celebrity wears a bindi, it is considered chic. But when I wear a bindi, I’m fresh off the boat.
*Featured photo shows Murshed’s mother at her Gaye Holud, which is a traditional Bengali ceremony of applying turmeric to the bride and groom and exchanging gifts before the wedding. Photo courtesy of Antara Murshed.