Friday, October 11, 2013

The one about the bindi

I have been asked a few times to write about bindis - can white women wear them? Should we? Or should we err on the side of caution and never wear anything from other cultures? Do the rules change if we are Hindu? Or if we're married to an Indian?

So many questions. The problem is that I'm not really qualified to answer them. I can only tell you that I sometimes wear them in certain situations, why I do, and why I don't in others.

I don't wear them on the regular just because I can and it's a free country.

I do wear a bindi when I go to the temple and when I go to certain Indian festivals and cultural events - Durga Puja? Yes! International Day street fair? No! University's India Night? Sometimes. It depends on the context.

I also wear them in India because in the area my husband is from, it is ubiquitous. The day after my wedding, my mother-in-law gave me a small packet of bindi cards; I did not wear them right away as our wedding was in the US but I made sure to wear the ones she gave me daily when we went to his home. It is one small thing that can help to put his family at ease, a marker that I accept and embrace his culture (he makes no secret of the fact he accepts and embraces mine). 

So why don't I generally wear them in the US? Aren't they fashionable? Aren't I connected to the Indian community here? Aren't I married to an Indian? To tell the truth, it is exactly for these reasons that I don't.

Apparently the bindi has been "on trend" for about a year now. I am not terribly on the up-and-up regarding such things; my utilitarian approach to fashion is limited to finding things that look good on me, aren't dated, but will last me twenty years; and to check and see if skinny jeans are over yet. But generally I have seen that when something becomes "trendy," a lot of license is taken with it. Fashion is both art and business; a couple years ago when biker chic was all the rage, you could find rivets on everything from handbags to shoes, none of which need rivets in the first place. It started as something artsy and novel, and then suddenly it was everywhere because it sold. The same has happened with bindis. The predominantly white fashion industry took a very visible marker of Indian tradition and culture and removed it entirely from its cultural contexts. Perhaps because it isn't as jarring to the average white person as, say, a leather mini and pasties accessorized by a white tulle Catholic wedding veil, bindis became accessories to cutoffs and see-through shirts, not just on the ramp but on the streets of Brooklyn and Seattle. And somewhere, gestalt in the world of fashion design died a slow and painful death.

As someone with a self-described utilitarian sense of fashion, I could not get behind the bindi trend for the simple reason that it makes absolutely no sense. But then there is a question of the morality of the trend. I find it odd that someone who would likely never wear fur because it hurts animals would wear a bindi in such a way that it hurts an Indian woman. (It can and does; I can link you to narrative after narrative after narrative.) Is this the cost of my self-expression? I think this is one trend that I can't afford to partake in.

Just one example of this: Have you seen some of the pictures in the bindi tag on Tumblr? Vacant-eyed, nubile girls wearing little more than a bindi with #exotic and #indian tagged...the orientalist stereotype of the oversexed, dark, exotic other is pretty played out in 2013 but these girls are jumping right on the "exotic=sexually available" bandwagon without even realizing it. I certainly do not want to reinforce a stereotype of a "bindi-wearer" as an object of lust, especially when I know and love many women who wear bindis as an expression of their culture or their faith. I am not interested in making their lives any more difficult.

So yes - the (white-dominated) fashion industry has taken the bindi, stripped it of context, and reduced it to a sign of exotic Otherness. And the ambassadors of this trend? Gwen Stefani, who has silent Japanese girls follow her wherever she goes? Selena Gomez, who doesn't even know the bindi is Indian in origin? Not exactly my role models. 

I said earlier that there's another reason I don't wear a bindi in daily life, and that is because I'm married to an Indian and have many Indian friends. This isn't counterintuitive. My Indian friends, with the exception of a religious few who wear kumkum, not sticker bindis, generally do not wear bindis themselves, except to temple or cultural events. What reason do I have to do any different? There's another reason too; I do not wish to invite unfavorable comparisons between me and my friends - "Andrea is more Indian than you! You have become so westernized." "It is nice to see a foreigner embracing our culture that others choose to reject." I have heard these things said in my presence. Awkward. Not every Indian woman wants to wear a sari, bindi, sindoor, glass bangles, toe rings. Many have fought their families, school principals, and surrounding culture to leave these things aside. Am I, by my choosing to embrace certain aspects of Indian culture, making it more difficult for the Indian women I know to make their own choices? I will be happy to remove my bindi in solidarity with them.

This is not to say that I think that white people should stay away from other cultures entirely. I do wear bindis in certain situations. I also choose to wear a wedding ring, loha, and sindoor, and choose not to eat beef, in the interest of carrying on family traditions and making my family members more comfortable. There are those who will not be okay with this; I deeply regret this but consider my commitment to my family to be paramount. I believe that there is a place for cultural sharing and syncretism, and that place is within community. Intercultural families, religious communities, close circles of trusted friends. And this sharing happens naturally, just as you would share information on what wine to serve with chicken or the best cloth diapers for your baby. It's other-centered, relationship-centered; not self-centered. The more involved I got with my local Indian community, the more I learned about various aspects of Indian culture from Indians and not from Wikipedia, the less inclined I was to just participate in the sparkly, pretty parts of the culture just to do it. Those parts come in context - for me, it is as the White American wife of a not very religious Indian Bengali, living in a small college town and all the good things and problems therein. 

A final criticism some will have is that this is a tempest in a teapot; this is an election year in India, the US government is shut down, and people have a lot more to worry about than what carefree white girls are wearing on their faces. I disagree; I think that first of all, white people have done a lot of taking and appropriation and we need to recognize that fact. We are products of our history and as such, even this issue of something as small as a dot requires a need for understanding on the part of us white girls, doing things that may not come naturally -- listening to the narratives of those whose culture we have embraced in part, learning about the context of that culture through a living community and true relationships, and accepting that even as we are individuals who make our own choices in life, those choices do affect others and we need to be aware of the consequences and our impact. In this light, we may not always get to wear whatever we want. And we may not always be able to please everybody. But pleasing people was never the goal; it's not about us. It's about how our actions show respect to others who generously share their culture with us, and how we can do our part to bring about more justice in this world. 

(Note: much of this was inspired by, and indeed written first in, a series of comments I made on Reddit in October 2013.)

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