Yoga, Henna and Sweatshops

Dr. Amer Ahmed, in conjunction with the Otter Cross Cultural Center, held the “Yoga, Henna and Sweatshops” webinar regarding the cultural appropriation, exploitation and commodification of South Asian culture.

During the 90’s, Ahmed observed a contradicting shift. When the Sept. 11 attacks ensued, various communities experienced a swell of xenophobic rhetoric and hate violence.

“Hindus, Sikhs, Middle Easterns, Arabs and South Asians were all different groups impacted by the realities of Islamophobia, which altered the experience of living in the United States,” Ahmed said. This spike in violence, however, paralleled the rise in the cultural appropriation of South Asian culture.

“Capitalism can transform something sacred to people into a commodity,” Ahmed said. As sanctified customs are entirely averted into an item to be sold and bought, the divine meaning behind them is lost.

An example of a commodified custom is henna. This body art is integral to plenty of South Asian traditions. Whether it is for the Mehndi ceremony, which beautifies the bride and groom during weddings or for Diwali, Dussehra and Karva Chauth festivals, the henna upholds cultural significance for people. It’s rising popularity within Westerners has caused it to be merely watered down just for its aesthetics.

Yoga, a spiritual practice that originated from India, became increasingly popular within the Western world.

“Most people participating in yoga are not connected to the spiritual component or the cultural roots of yoga,” Ahmed said. “Nor are they invested in South Asian struggles or issues both amongst the diaspora, as well as the people in South Asia.”

Westerners lack awareness and have provided inadequate action on significant issues ailing South Asia. Currently, there has been a wide scale apprehension swelling between Pakistan and India over the state of Kashmir. An overwhelming amount of casualties have been the result of the seperatist violence. Another problem that has been circulating is the ongoing violence toward minoritized populations.

The Dalits of India are undergoing heavy marginalization and conditioned to “be treated to be worthless and outcasts in their world,” Ahmed said. These are just some of the primary problems growing rampantly within South Asia that have not been acknowledged.

Exploit of labor practices that benefit Westen societies in terms of consumption have also been a significant issue that has arisen in South Asia.

“Companies like Lululemon ironically source their exploited labor products that make billions from South Asia,” Ahmed said. “What compounds the horrors of appropriation is that it sits on top of the exploitation of labor from people in the region and beyond.”

Ahmed advises that prior to engaging in yoga or any other South Asian cultural aesthetics, to navigate with a cultural consciousness about the spiritual, economical and political realities, both in South Asia and among the South Asian diaspora.

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