Both the married and unmarried Hindu woman is often the first figure attached to the wearing of a bindi, a term which in Sanskrit means ’round’ or ‘drop’. The bindi decorates the forehead between the eyes and has religious connotations. It is also a symbol of beauty, femininity, sexuality and even fertility, and some additionally believe it to foster a mystical meaning, representing a third eye that awakens the inner sight. However, the bindi is not exclusive to Hindu women, and is firmly rooted in South Asian culture overall, taking on a variety of meanings.
For the last 7 months, ‘Reclaim the Bindi’ has been campaigning through Tumblr and Twitter to fight cultural appropriation and scrutinize a growing number of non-South Asian females wearing the bindi as a fashion statement or a ‘festival look’, often without consideration of the bindi’s widespread cultural and religious meanings. In erasing the bindi’s context, its cultural appropriation means that while a fashion season changes and the bindi appears ‘in trend’ during one season, by the next, it could be considered less ‘trendy’ and ‘stylish’.
“Since day one, my aim with this campaign has been to educate and empower”, says the anonymous face behind the ‘Reclaim the Bindi’ campaign. “There’s no single end goal, per se, but to bring awareness to the struggles of South Asians, provide a platform for us to speak, and to curate safe spaces for Desis to go to while fighting these fights”.
Indeed, while fashion seasons change with the ebb and flow of things, cultural seasons usually tend not to. The ‘Reclaim the Bindi’ campaign is therefore a revolt against the likes of Iggy Azalea, Vanessa Hudgens and Kylier Jenner, all of whom have more recently worn the bindi in music videos or shared pictures wearing it through social media. As music festival Coachella approached last year – and even this year – an increasing amount of articles and YouTube videos promoted wearing the bindi to be trendy.
‘Reclaim the Bindi’ raises the pivotal issue of more dominant groups wearing the bindi in an undeniably problematic, offensive and hypocritical way, and particularly since many South Asian females have faced ostracization from the same dominant groups for wearing the bindi as part of their cultural traditions, which stretch back thousands of years. The campaign highlights how the bindi is now becoming more acceptable, beautiful and normalised as non-South Asian celebrities are pictured wearing it or endorse it through their music videos and social media, which subsequently spurs others to do the same.
Talking about the movement, the anonymous campaigner behind it says she is reclaiming the bindi because of “the number of times I rubbed off my kumkum after leaving the temple because I didn’t want to be ostracized. The way I tried to hide my pattu langas under my coat as a little kid because I didn’t want to be seen as different. The absurd amount of racial microaggressions I was forced to face as a Desi growing up in America. On me, my culture was a reason to be harassed, but why is it so amazing on someone else?”.
But what about claims that now, people in South Asian countries are also adopting Western cultural habits on a greater level? It is incredibly easy to visit contemporary India, for example, and see that a lot of the youth want to adopt Western cultural behaviours and implement these within their own social reality, especially as they are exposed to more choice. While it is frustrating for many second generation South Asian females in particular to see the bindi, a cultural tradition they have felt ashamed of in the West, being reinstated and upheld as something ‘fashionable’ or ‘exotic’, the @reclaimthebindi Twitter account often retweets claims that “brown girls do it better”. While the cause is definitely empowering and an important one, it can be unnerving to see a backlash that for some, may border on confrontational and threatening rather than ‘educational’.
As such, while it is refreshing to see these South Asian women uniting, taking numerous pictures of themselves wearing a bindi and sharing it across social media, does it potentially create and perpetuate a further divide between “us” and “them”?
The campaigner firmly disagrees: “I’ve tried to, since the start, keep a polite tone and positive outlook no matter the responses I get. Tone policing, unfortunately, is something you often see when PoC try to speak up about their struggles… unless we making it pleasing to privileged ears, we are brushed off as angry and bitter… there are certain cultural and religious boundaries that shouldn’t be crossed under the pretenses of self-expression… when talking about Desis wearing ‘Western clothing’, we must take into consideration forced assimilation, colonialism, etc. South Asians (and all PoC, for that matter) have been fighting a never-ending battle against white supremacy, and being forced to wear clothes that Western society deems acceptable has been a part of our oppression. We don’t wear these things for fun, we wear them for survival. Because of this, we cannot compare me wearing a pair of jeans to a white girl wearing a bindi to feel ‘boho’ or ‘hipster’. The racial power dynamics at play aren’t the same… by telling white people to not use cultural and religious symbols that don’t belong to them, we are by no means being prejudiced or discriminatory, either. How are we marginalizing anyone by informing them to not take something out of context they shouldn’t be using anyway?”
While it is questionable whether ‘force’ plays into it, it must be factored in that it is a minority of females who wear the bindi and who are not South Asian, and that even within this minority, the intent may not be to superimpose their white privilege on another culture or trivialise the meaning behind the bindi. And what of those South Asian females who wear the bindi without any religious intent, and merely as a fashion accessory that compliments the rest of their outfit? Should we not be scapegoating them too? It is also hard to dismiss that many contemporary South Asian countries are also shifting their view of the bindi as it occupies again, a more stylish premise. In the UK itself, the bindi began emerging in mainstream culture in 1990s as Asian and dance culture meshed together, and soon after came the release of No Doubt’s single ‘Just A Girl’, showing Gwen Stefani wearing one in the video.
Even so, the ‘Reclaim the Bindi’ campaign taps into an relevant issue that demonstrates how the bindi should not be decontextualised to such an extent. As #reclaimthebindi continues to gain momentum and continues to trend on Twitter and Tumblr, the campaign proves it is the mouthpiece for a larger problem that has been avoided for too long. It is most fitting to end with a quote by writer Jarune Uwujaren, which the campaigner swears by: “so as free as people should be to wear whatever hair and clothing they enjoy, using someone else’s cultural symbols to satisfy a personal need for self-expression is an exercise in privilege”.