Selena Gomez wears a bindi in a since-deleted photo, via her Instagram
Earlier this month, Montreal’s music festival Osheaga banned First Nations headdresses in a move that was generally deemed long overdue and favourable by First Nations representatives, music critics and festival goers alike. In a statement made on their Facebook page, Osheaga justified the decision, citing the importance of respecting the cultural and spiritual significance of the headdress in native communities. The post garnered more than 12,000 likes and sparked a renewed national dialogue about cultural appropriation and sensitivity.
Interestingly enough, First Nations headdresses are the only cultural artifact banned from the festival amidst a list of other items like selfie sticks, drones and frisbees. Notably absent from Osheaga’s list of cultural improprieties, however, is the mention of other racist “fashion” trends, most specifically the bindi.
Bindis, a cultural and religious symbol mainly worn by Hindu and South Asian women, have peaked as a fashion trend recently thanks to the likes of Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens and an assembly line of Coachella-inspired fashion bloggers.
The bindi’s roots in popular culture are hardly new—cool white girl Gwen Stefani has been wearing them for years—but the rise of an identifiable festival culture has birthed a new female archetype to aspire to: the free spirit.
While the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” embodied the unpredictable alt female of the 2000s, the free spirit is her modern-day bohemian iteration. If the MPDG was difficult to place, her quirks hidden and only dispensed arbitrarily, the free spirit appears to be open and carte blanche. She juices, reads self-help books and takes naps in the park. She feels entitled to don a bindi at a music festival because she, like, meditates.
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But similar to the original hippie culture, festival culture thrives at the expense of minority groups who find their traditions and symbols bastardized through their heavy commercialization and callous representation.
Only 50 years following Britain’s violent rule over India, the west has succeeded at appropriating the crap out of the bindi—one of the country’s most important cultural symbols—by crudely positioning it as a must-have festival accessory. But much like First Nations headdresses, the bindi is shockingly not meant to be paired alongside high-waisted denim shorts and copious amounts of white powder.
In response to the concerning number of festival girls sticking things on their foreheads that don’t belong, hundreds of South Asian women took to Twitter to voice their distaste through #ReclaimTheBindi. The movement, as the name suggests, encourages young South Asian women to post photos of themselves wearing bindis in a proud declaration and ownership of their culture. Many of the photos are selfies with captions like “Our culture is not your fashion statement” and “Go ahead and steal our culture but we’re gonna do it better. Stay in ya lane.”
As many young women pointed out through #ReclaimTheBindi, a white girl wearing a bindi doesn’t run the risk of being called a dothead, paki, or any of the million racist slurs still used against South Asians. And she’ll certainly never be viewed as a failed lesson in assimilation, mocked relentlessly in popular culture for her foreign-ness or be the victim of a violent hate crime.
Ultimately, if the members of a culture who created an artifact cannot wear it with the same mainstream acceptance, its meaning and history become one more thing that was stolen.
No need to panic though, being critical of the bindi’s appropriation does not mean that South Asian people are going to start yelling at you for wearing a sari to an Indian friend’s wedding, practicing yoga or buying a Groupon for a Bollywood dance class. In fact, there are hundreds of non-offensive ways to show your interest and appreciation for South Asian culture. Try reading Indian poetry, studying feminism in Pakistan, listening to Ravi Shankar and most notably, educating yourself on the devastating effects of colonialism. (And yes, the effects were devastating).
There is no monolithic experience amongst South Asian women growing up in the West and naturally, many have nuanced and complicated relationships with their heritage. For many, the bindi represents strength, power and an important tie to a homeland thousands of miles away. Truthfully for me, growing up in a non-religious home void of most Indian customs and traditions, the bindi doesn’t fully feel like mine either, but it somehow still feels like mine to protect.
The other day I was at dinner with some friends when one turned to me and asked if I thought it would be offensive if they wore a bindi to a concert that night. “Kind of.” I replied. “It may not be the most offensive thing you could do, but I think it’s insensitive and unintentionally disrespectful.”
“Cool. Then I won’t,” they agreed and just like that the conversation was over.
So if you’re going to Osheaga, Lollapalooza or any other festival this summer, leave the bindi at home. The only thing white people need to be liberally applying to their foreheads is sunscreen.
Neha Chandrachud is a writer living in Montreal. Follow her on Twitter.