Henna: Cultural Appreciation or Cultural Appropriation?
by Isabel Oberlender
Sifting through the illuminated webpages of social media sites such as Instagram, Tumblr, and Twitter, it is practically inevitable to come across a photograph of skin adorned with the intricate, brown-red patterns of henna. Many celebrities, including Rihanna, Ariana Grande, and Gigi Hadid, have openly sported the traditional designs and have therefore given way to the increasing popularity of henna.
With henna booths and stores popping up in towns and festivals all over the U.S. as well as the growing availability of henna kits, these temporary tattoos are becoming commonplace in American society and easier to attain. To some, these beautiful, wearable artworks are harmless, but the nontraditional wearing of henna has been met with widespread outcries of cultural appropriation.
The artform of henna, called mehndi in Hindi and Urdu, has been practiced for thousands of years in India, Africa, Pakistan, and the Middle East. Henna, known for its natural cooling properties, was originally used to soothe people in the heat of the desert. Soaking palms and the soles of feet in a henna paste was a common practice to refresh the body. The stains that endured on the skin’s surface after the henna paste was removed inspired the use of henna for decorative purposes. Temporary henna designs on the skin became significant in many cultures and transcended castes as both the rich and poor populations wore them. Henna is most commonly a wedding tradition among Muslim and Hindi brides, but is worn during special occasions as well. Prior to a Hindi wedding, a gathering is held for the bride and the women in her family to have their henna done professionally. The bride’s arms and feet are embellished with symbolic and historical designs that are meant to demonstrate the love and strength the bride will have in marriage. This custom holds great cultural significance in Hinduism as it is said that the darker the henna, the deeper the love within the marriage.
With a basic understanding of the cultural relevance of henna in mind, it is important to consider what causes the wearing of henna to surpass cultural appreciation and become cultural appropriation. For those who are unfamiliar with the term, Susan Scafidi, a law professor at Fordham University and author of Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law, defined cultural appropriation as follows:
“Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else's culture without permission. This can include unauthorized use of another culture's dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc. It's most likely to be harmful when the source community is a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive, e.g. sacred objects.”
In the simplest of terms, cultural appropriation is taking something special from a culture without permission and normalizing it to a point where it is robbed of its importance. In an attempt to understand those affected by cultural appropriation, I created an example scenario: as a culturally-affiliated Jew, seeing someone use a menorah as a standard candleholder or fashion a yarmulke into a kneepad would infuriate me. Before crafting a concrete opinion on whether the wearing of henna is cultural appropriation, I urge you to ponder the effects of cultural appropriation on your identity and consider how it would make you feel.
The most common arguments for the nontraditional wearing of henna I came across were that wearing it was empowering and that it was done in appreciation of the beauty of the tradition. After educating myself through the many opinions of those affected by this sect of cultural appropriation and other explorative writings on the wearing of henna, I negate these arguments with the simple fact that a culturally-significant custom is not a fashion statement or a trend. For the most part, the majority of henna wearers are unfamiliar with the origins or applicability of henna to many peoples and cultures. This actually leads to the opposite of cultural appreciation. Without background knowledge on the custom and appreciation for only the aesthetics of henna, there is no credit delivered where it is due. The “trend” of henna thus leads to ignorance rather than potential to learn about and sincerely appreciate other cultures. In my opinion, borrowing the sacred practices of a culture does not constitute appreciation; educating yourself on that culture does.