Students should avoid cultural appropriation – stealing what is considered the beautiful aspects of another culture without respect for the tradition from which it originates. It ignores the racism and xenophobia the creators of the items face. In Brown and Bothered, columnist Sidra Rashid discusses her experiences with appropriation of her Desi culture.
Vogue India recently released its May 2017 10th Anniversary Collectors’ Edition issue. You might think that for such a celebration, the magazine would feature one of the many Indian actors that grace our screens – Priyanka Chopra, Aishwarya Rai, Dev Patel, Mindy Kaling or Aziz Ansari.
Instead, the issue, titled “Indian Affair,” featured Kendall Jenner as its cover girl.
Vogue India opted for Jenner instead of an Indian woman, and Vogue Arabia forwent a hijabi woman with Gigi Hadid for its cover – neither celebrity fits the messages the magazines attempted to convey. The publications ignored the countless models that could have brought Muslim and Indian representation into the mainstream.
If 10-year-old me were to stare at an airbrushed white woman on the cover of Vogue India, my discomfort in my heritage would have been magnified, because it would have enforced my societally warped notion that Desi culture is only desirable when modeled by a non-Desi person.
Despite obvious opportunities for representation for the next generation of little Desi girls, Vogue India featured Jenner instead.
If little Desi girls don’t see themselves on covers of magazines meant for their countries, where do Desi girls get their representation?
Christina Skilbred, a fashion photographer who has shot for clothing brands such as Brandy Melville, Aéropostale and Coach, said she doesn’t know what type of contracts were signed between the celebrities and magazines, but said the celebrities likely have much more creative license than a working model.
“I’m assuming (Hadid) and (Jenner) have a lot more leeway than an average model,” Skilbred said. “If they said something, nobody’s going to force them to do something they don’t want to do.”
Vogue India’s decision represents the painful cycle of whitewashing. Jenner is presented to countries of color, and magazines like Vogue India perpetuate the shame of embracing Desi beauty.
A number of Vogue India’s staff is Indian, including the editor in chief, who seemingly support the idea that white skin should be coveted in the minds of Indian women. The Desi executives are pushing a desire to be whitewashed onto their women.
Meanwhile, less than two weeks prior, Hadid, one of Jenner’s friends, wore a hijab – a headscarf worn by Muslim women – on the inaugural cover of Vogue Arabia.
Though Hadid’s father is Muslim, Hadid has not publicly announced herself as such. Her identification as half-Palestinian in no way is indicative of her religion – not all Palestinian people are Muslim.
While her Palestinian roots validate her position on the cover of Vogue Arabia, she should not be adorning a headscarf just for aesthetic appeal.
Arab people are not Desi; however, the issue of accurate representation remains. Putting a Palestinian woman on the cover and depicting her as Muslim perpetuates the stereotype that assumes all women living in certain regions of the Middle East are Muslim. Culture and religion are not the same, and it’s toxic to depict them as such because it fosters stereotypical ideas of both Arab people and Islam.
Deena Aljuhani Abdulaziz, the former editor in chief of Vogue Arabia, said in an interview with The New York Times that she wanted to accurately portray Arabia and modest dressing to the publication’s readers.
However, Hadid’s shoulder is exposed and the hijab is sheer. Many Arab women who wear hijab would probably never wear one in such fashion; this choice suggests that Hadid’s hijab in the magazine was stylistic rather than educational.
Abdulaziz could have accomplished her message in a more impactful way by using hijabi models, like Mariah Idris or Halima Aden. The choice to feature Hadid does not seem to be the accurate representation of Islam that Abdulaziz sought.
Stereotypes about terrorists and racist remarks are thrown around in a derogatory manner against Muslim, South Asian and Middle Eastern demographics. By using Hadid and Jenner to act as these groups, the magazines are seemingly ignoring the marginalization that real people face every day by focusing only on artistic aspects of the cultures and religions.
On a high school trip back from Nicaragua in 2015, out of a group of 20 teenagers, my Arabic first name and Pakistani last name were the only ones chosen for a random security check, forcing me to relive my past discomfort with my heritage.
But these offensive comments and situations are the least of our problems.
After a politically divisive year in the United States, hate crimes against Muslims and Desi people assumed to be Muslim – such as the murder of a Sikh man who was told things to the effect of “Go back to your country” before he was shot – prove these groups are being physically harassed for their supposed religion or race. Hijabi women are being choked and robbed because of their religious beliefs.
And yet, Vogue Arabia thought it was okay for a non-Muslim person to adorn a hijab for the art, rather than tackle real issues of Muslim representation.
Don’t be mistaken – Desi culture and the hijab are beautiful. But they can only be fully appreciated when cover girls are the ethnicity or religion they are representing.
Vogue India and Vogue Arabia had the opportunity to depict this beauty. Yet they wasted their chance with a misrepresentation of culture and religion.