Henna and Cultural Appropriation

This month's Editorial is going to focus on a somewhat touchy topic.  Cultural Appropriation. 

Cultural appropriation is the adoption or the use of elements of one culture by members of a different culture.  For some people, it is seen as controversial or wrongfully oppressing, when elements of a minority culture are used by members of a cultural majority.  People view this as wrongful when the elements are copied from the minority culture and used outside of their original cultural context.   Often, the original meaning of these culrural elements are lost or distorted, which may mean that these "new" uses may be viewed as disrespectful by members of the originating culture.  Cultural elements which may have deeper meaning to the original culture can be seen as "exotic" fashion by those from the dominant culture. 

In terms of henna--there is no exact location or culture that can be traced back as the one where henna originated.  It has been historically used as a cosmetic, medicine, and dye.  It does not "belong" to any one culture, nor to any religion (so no, it's not sacrilegious to do henna).  The henna plant is native to the Mesopotamian area, which is present day Iraq, Syria, and Kuwait, including areas around the Turkish-Syrian and Iraqi-Irani borders.  At the same time, the plant grows wildly in South India, and is considered a "feral species" (Asouti, 109).  It has been suggested many times that the King Ramses II of ancient Egypt dyed his hair with henna, although this claim remains unconfirmed by research.  The use of henna is known in Sanskrit, in Hebrew, and in Arabic.  It is referenced in Islamic Hadiths, and quoted in the Bible (Book of Song of Solomon).  Basically, there has been a continuous and widespread use of henna for thousands of years, and so it does not "belong" to any one culture. 

Uses of henna date as far back as the ancient Egyptians, for uses of hair and nail dye (cosmetic), and used by Indians as an inflammatory, among other medicinal uses. 

Now some people may be offended by the various applications of henna body art, on various parts of the body.  Traditionally, as seen in various paintings, henna was applied to the palms and soles of the feet.  Offense is taken by some when they see henna being applied to the backs, pregnant bellies, or even bums of people.  Yes, that was not traditionally done, but neither was having pizza that is mass produced in factories.  Do artists who are offended by Boudoir or belly or bum henna only apply henna on the palms and soles of the feet, because photographic evidence only shows us that placement of henna?  Do people really believe that henna was never used elsewhere on the body except the hands and feet?  And if henna artists are getting so irritated with the idea of cultural appropriation of henna, then why are they going out to make money from this art form?  Culturally, it was done as a beautifying agent, there is no evidence or history pointing at its use for monetary gain--do to do this as a business may be considered cultural appropriation.  These are a few questions to consider before getting angry about the idea of cultural appropriation with henna.

The idea of cultural appropriation is something that people can agree to disagree on.  It is an anthropological and academic topic that has been brought into the world of the internet and turned into a topic of outrage and insensitivity. 

There is an old Bollywood song called "Mera Jootha Hai Japani" meaning my shoe is Japanese.  This song goes on to say how this guy's shoes are Japanese, his pants are British, a red cap on his head is Russian, but nonetheless, his heart is Indian.

This just goes to show that each and every single day, we are doing things that we are adopting from other cultures.  Why are we then going into a heated debate on whether henna is cultural appropriation.  Who has the right to "appropriate" a culture?  Our culture is constantly evolving and each and every single day we take advantage of that.  The concept of Cultural Appropriation is a heated debate topic, with a slim hope of ever coming out with a resolution.  As the human race we SHARE cultures, and to get angry or irritated with the placement of henna body art on the skin and then to claim it as negative cultural appropriation is hypocritical. 

Instead of being involved in a heated debate on cultural appropriation, perhaps we should spend more time doing research on henna.  Look through its history, its uses, the cultures associated with it.  Since henna is rooted in so many different cultures, across many borders, it does not have a home, and it is ever-evolving.  Think about how henna has evolved into intricate and beautiful bridal henna designs, how it's evolved into design mash-ups from various parts of the world, how its evolved into instant gratification and black henna, how its evolved into healing and henna crowns.  Instead of focusing on the negatives, let's move along and be positive.  Love henna and Henna Love.




Handbook of African Medicinal Plants, Second Edition. Maurice M. Iwu