This past summer, a lot of music festivals chose to ban the wearing of Native American and First Nations headdresses because of their use by people who were neither qualified to wear them, nor were they aware of the cultural meaning of that particular article of clothing. Most recently, Miley Cyrus’ wearing of dreadlocks at the VMAs, sparked outrage online at her poor practice of taking from cultures without giving credit where it is due– something Cyrus is not unfamiliar with. According to one source, “cultural appropriation is when white media [or people] trivialize and adopt aspects of other cultures without proper recognition, representation and respect.” As one of the latest buzzwords in the current deluge of social media advocacy, netizens everywhere are calling out cultural appropriation as they see it. However, there are a few points about cultural appropriation that are worth talking about and make this well-meaning category more problematic then it would first seem.
Firstly, cultural appropriation is disproportionately applied to white women. While cultural micro-aggressions by way of adopted cultural practices without reference to their source are never appropriate, regardless of the gender propagating them, it seems that these days, accusations of cultural appropriation not-so-subtlely act as a front for patriarchal tendencies. It seems like almost every cultural appropriation story from headdresses to cornrows and twerking is focused on the women that appropriate these practices inappropriately. However, with only the occasional mention of a horribly stereotypical tribal tattoo, men rarely make the cut as those criticized by cultural appropriation watchdogs. If you’re going to call people out for these acts, you better make your call-out gender-neutral and fluid.
Secondly, how can people display the correct level of cultural recognition and respect to certain practices while still enjoying their aesthetic and practical appeal? This is an honest question. Is Miley supposed to have a billboard on her head that says “Dreadlocks have long been associated with rasta culture and while I recognize that, I also recognize that for many people –white or otherwise – dreads have become a legitimate hairstyle and I just like the way it looks right now so I hope that is alright with everyone”? I should probably stay away from the Cyrus issue but this point is important for something I want to discuss below: is abstinence from cultural appreciation the best option, lest you be accused of appropriation? How can one be respectful without pissing anyone off?
Thirdly, the notion of cultural appropriation marginalizes people who embody liminal positions between cultures. This is directly related to point number two. For people who straddle cultures socially (and especially those who do not appear to physically), the wearing of cultural garments or doing cultural practices to which one does not appear to belong can lead to harsh, external criticism that leads to social isolation and self-esteem issues.
One such group that I want to discuss with regards to this point are white converts to Islam who choose to adopt the hijab. In these cases, I am not distinguishing among typical –cis genders of male and female, as both men and women have specific parameters for maintaining modesty in Islam. These things can include the wearing of a head veil, the wearing of loose clothing, the wearing of a beard and other such stipulations. Historically, the various manifestations of hijab have evolved to mean different things in different cultures across the world. Even within the same society, one version of hijab (such as a longer veil) carries social currency that varies from other versions of it. In the case of a longer hijab in most Arab countries, the implication is that the wearer of that veil is more pious and engages in the practice of the rituals of Islam more rigorously. Further, the showing of hair and provocative clothing sends a message that is the opposite (an excuse to perpetuate rape culture, in my opinion). Ultimately, however, these definitions are part of intracultural communication – the nuances of which can be lost on outsiders. If we are to continue with the example of the head veil, there is really only one binding stipulation scripturally speaking, which is that the hair, neck and bosom must be covered. However that is achieved is usually acceptable, and given the widespread nature of Islam, cultural variations were/are bound to arise.
So what happens when you convert to Islam, accepting the tenets of a religious faith, but having little to no knowledge of the various cultural morphologies and historical evolutions of the practice of those tenets?* You tend to be accused of cultural appropriation from both Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
Non-Muslims often question your adoption of visible religious practices like the head scarf or even prayer rituals as mere “interest in Arab culture” or “likely because you married a born-Muslim”. These microaggressions tell the convert two things: you couldn’t possibly believe in Islam (demonstrating a pervasive xenophobia evident in much of Western society) and you only make aesthetic decisions based on the whims of your spouse (demonstrating a lack of faith in your intelligence and level of feminism). This is not even to mention the poor conflation of Islamic practices with Arabness – which, to be honest, might be understandable if the non-Muslim lacks adequate knowledge of the Islamic world and its history.
Perhaps more surprising are accusations of cultural appropriation that emerge from within the Muslim community and are directed towards converts. One area this happens is with language. Whether converts translate common Islamic terms from Arabic into their mother tongue, or they opt to use the Arabic instead, there is always an aunty or an uncle waiting to criticize you for using or not using the appropriate terminology. Perhaps more often converts are the subject of seemingly endless scrutiny from their Muslim brothers and sisters mainly with regard to dress. If a new sister chooses to wear abaya one day, and jeans with ballerina slippers and a boyfriend sweater the next, her modesty is called into question and she is accused of giving “mixed signals”. If I had to count amount of times I have been told that if I wear abaya or a long hijab, I have to wear it for forever, I’d be counting for awhile. Same goes for the length and tightness of skirts, the colour of headscarves and the age-old question of whether or not to wear make-up. Even further, the same goes for brothers who adopt the Sunnah beard and waffle between various styles and lengths, not realizing the various cultural signals they are giving off in the meantime. I am not even going to get into the amount of times that so-called Muslim progressive-reformist “feminists” have accused me of being culturally backward without realizing I’m not Arab, or culturally appropriative (see: lack of faith in my intelligence above). Finally, if we do create inventive hijab styles, we are accused of cultural contamination, or worse, biddah (innovation), even though it is likely that at some point, most hijab fashions were inventive in the first place – riffing off each other like battling saxophones at a jazz improv session. The point is this: are converts culturally appropriating because they lack the understanding of what their interpretation of Islamic practices mean to other cultures in which they might be found? Or are they forging their own traditions based on a shared religious past? Where is the line between appropriation and adoption or adaptation?
I don’t have exact answers to those questions but I will say this. The consequences of appearing to appropriate Islamic culture in the eyes of non-Muslims and born-Muslims alike are highly disturbing. Converts are the most likely to feel alienated and isolated in every community they inhabit – whether amongst their pre-conversion friends and family, or heavily-criticized by the Muslim groups they find themselves in now. Unsure of where they fit in, if at all, converts tend to have a heightened sense of “feeling strange” which (positively) can contribute to awareness of the temporary nature of this life but, (negatively) can lead to poor lifestyle choices in order to fit in (including comprising their interpretations of Islamic texts, seeking solace in forbidden activities and, at the very worst, leaving Islam completely).
This article raises more questions than it answers but what remains to be said is this: cultural appropriation, while a noble cause, threatens to contrast the nuances of society too heavily, and in doing so, leaves the grey areas silenced for fear of harsh criticism and isolation. Far more appropriate would be to communicate with a person who appears to be appropriating cultural practices “not their own” to discover their reasons for doing so, rather than making rash, misogynistic and even xenophobic assumptions.
*Please note that I am not referring to religious tenets as anything more than cultural manifestations in the end anyway; however, for lay purposes only, I have made a distinction here between superficial, “anthropologically-visible” culture and religion.