Have you ever told your mother that you didn’t want to do something and she said something along the lines of “in ten years you will thank me”? For me, that thing I didn’t want to do was henna.
Ten years ago, before henna became oh so trendy and inspired western fashionistas to get in touch with their ~creative~ side, it was something my mother used to decorate my little hands to celebrate Eid-ul-Fitr (Muslim holiday following the Holy bluehost fasting month, Ramadan). I’d walk into class showing off all my cool designs and describe the process of applying henna. It was wonderful because it was something my mother did for me every year, and something that made me feel distinctly Pakistani.
Unfortunately, my teachers and friends didn’t know what henna was even after I explained it, and so henna translated into something deviant or weird. I felt like I wasn’t allowed to love my culture or my heritage. Anything that made me feel Pakistani was wrong. It first started with henna, but hating my culture and where I came from spread to all and any other thing desi.
I started to hate my food, my clothes, my hair, anything that was Pakistani, foreign, deviant. I told my mother that I wouldn’t wear salwaar kameezs to school, that she couldn’t speak Punjabi to me in public, and I never wanted her to draw on my hands again. She was hurt, but I couldn’t let people see me participating in a “weird” culture, in fear that they would see me too as weird.
Imagine my surprise when a non-desi girl asked me to do henna on her hands. I thought why on Earth would you want to put something so deviant and weird on your hands? Isn’t henna supposed to be weird. It shocked me how incredibly popular henna became, so much so that name brands stores used traditional henna designs as prints for clothes, shoes, and purses.
I quickly realized that desi culture is only beautiful if it is worn by a white face. Its only creative if a western designer uses it. That’s the problem with being born brown, you’re not allowed to love your culture, but everyone else is and will use it to benefit themselves.
Now there are many spaces in the internet where bloggers talk about cultural appropriation, so instead, I’m going to leave you with a poem. Enjoy Volume Three of the Poetry series.
I’m staring at the mirror above the sink
My chubby cheeks were painted scarlet
I’ve been sent to this sink as many times as I have fingers on my right hand
The same hand I’ve been washing for what seems like an eternity
Finally, I give up and I report to my teacher
She looks at these hands again; she says
“Don’t draw on yourself with markers”
I say, I didn’t
She looked at me once more, she sighed
I make a vow to never wear henna again
That day I went home and cried to my mother
I told her how I wasn’t allowed to play any games during free time because I had to wash my hands
She was so confused, she asked me why
But I couldn’t tell her
my teacher didn’t like the drawings my mother made so lovingly on my hands
I couldn’t say anything, fearing that I will say too much
Like I hate my culture because everyone else hates my culture
I hate how when people ask me why I never wear shorts, eat smelly food, and where the hell I am from
I only said that I hated henna with all my heart
I hated its smell, how it stunk like earthy mustard
and filled my nostril like it was acid
how when you made it in a bowl it stained everything it touches
Like Its very function is to be seen and never ignored
The way it felt on my skin when it dries up
it feels restricted and limited
Like I’m trapped but there’s nothing around me
its ugly dark color
Like something was burning in the fire and everyone ran away from it instead of embracing it for warmth
I said I hated henna and I cried
I cried like tears were abundant
Like I needed to fill the well and quench the thirst of everyone in Punjab
my mother held me
She said henna translates years of tradition and heritage
Into beautiful designs you can wear proudly on your hands
You can remember all your history as you work and play with these small hands
Do not hate henna
Continue to love it and enjoy
Practice it and make the designs that your heart beats to
One day others will begin realize the beauty of this paste
And they will try to mimic it and use it
But they can never mimic its tradition and significance
Henna on these hands are more beautiful and meaningful
These decorated hands are powerful