by Maneesha C
The rise of the #reclaimthebindi movement has caused a lot of division in the South Asian American activist community. Some say white girls wearing bindis to Coachella is oppressive to them. Others say it’s fine, desis always embraced cultural sharing, and ask why young desi activists are creating bindi politics.
Personally, I don’t say bindi at all. I’m South Indian. Many South Indians say pottu. But in my regional accent, I say it more like bottu. However, the language is not even the biggest issue in this debate. These young women did not invent bindi politics and bindi politics did not start with white girls at Coachella. Bindi politics have been around for centuries and is one of the greatest forms of gender-based oppression in our society. I know. I am the daughter of a widow.
I am not just a daughter of any widow. I am the daughter of a Hindu widow. And to be a Hindu widow is to be an outcast. To be a daughter of a widow is to share in her shame. To be fair, I have been quite privileged in this journey compared to most women in my spiritual tribe. My family is from the city so my mother’s circles leaned more progressive. Yet, even as a young child, I was very acutely aware that all the other Indian aunties my mother’s age wore bottu. They are a dazzling display of South Asian beauty and femininity. All the other women wore them, except my mother.
I was four the first time I asked my mother why she didn’t wear a bottu when all the other women did. She had just taken the subway home after a long day working a minimum wage job trying to raise three fatherless girls of color in a country that wasn’t her own. She didn’t answer me. All she did was break down and sob.
It wasn’t until my mother’s older brother’s wife immigrated to the U.S. I learned what the secret whispers were about. I always knew I was less. I always knew I was inferior. I always knew I didn’t have a voice. I always knew even the nicest aunties and uncles looked at me with sad pitying eyes while they brought me candies and small gifts trying to make up for something. I just didn’t know why.
But I was beginning to learn. Seeing my uncle and his wife together helped me realize my mother was alone. Seeing my cousin with her father helped me learn I had no father. Seeing my aunty interact with my mother helped me learn that in Hindu society, widows are abused. My aunty was nothing like the other bottu-wearing aunties who looked at us with sad pitying eyes and even encouraged my mother to wear a bottu.
“To hell with those customs! You are an Indian woman! It is your right!” our downstairs neighbor would say.
No, my aunty was a different type. She was an old school matriarch and wife of the oldest son of the family. She said the right words on the outside to fit in with our progressive-leaning circle. But behind closed doors, she was a monster. Being from a progressive circle won’t save you from widow abuse.
My aunty and uncle lived with us and every day it was abuse. Every day she told me I had bad karma. Whenever I misbehaved she told me this was why my mother was a widow. I was four years old at the time. She took my mother’s money, made demands in the apartment my mother paid the rent for, and always accused me and my fatherless sisters of casting an evil eye on her daughter. She would try to influence other families not to include us in their marriage ceremonies because of the bad luck we may bring the bride.
I used to hate weekends because I had no school to escape home from. One day, when no one but me, my sisters, and my mom were home, my mother took one of my aunty’s bottus out of the little cardboard and cellophane package. She placed it on her forehead and admired herself in front of a mirror. My aunty unexpectedly burst in through the front door and saw. She humiliated my mom and accused her of bringing bad luck to the family. I listened as my mother cried herself to sleep that night. I cried myself to sleep too.
One day, a handsome uncle visited from Europe. He was a former co-worker of my uncle’s. He remembered my mother from those days. He stayed and asked my mother to marry him. She said yes. We were saved from our shame. My mother’s community celebrated with such great sincerity. My mom was a trailblazer. She was breaking taboos and it was a win for desi women everywhere. She was hailed as a hero. And she started wearing a bottu again. Except the celebration didn’t last.
It wasn’t long after my mother and stepfather got married he started sexually abusing me. I didn’t hate it at first. Mainly because I was too innocent to know what was going on. I was an attention-starved child who never saw her mother because she was always working, was being raised by an aunty who abused her, and had no father to call her own. It was nice to know someone knew I was alive.
But very quickly I realized something was going terribly wrong. I was afraid of the nighttime. I was afraid of being alone. I was afraid my new dad who I loved dearly would pay me another secret visit. I was ten years old when I had my first suicide attempt. The first of many that were to come.
My mother caught me and stopped me. She was crying asking why I would do such a thing.
I don’t know, I told her. I am unhappy. You don’t love me anymore now that you are married! I shouted.
Should I tell her? I was going to tell her.
Please, my mother pleaded. Please try to get along with your father. He is the only reason why we have anything. A place to live, enough to eat, status in society, it’s the only reason why I am wearing a bottu. Do you want me to stop wearing a bottu again?
No, I didn’t. I remembered how lonely and miserable my mother was in those days. So I didn’t tell her. I just quietly tolerated the sexual abuse because I didn’t want her to be alone again. I knew since the day I was born that I was an outcast. I knew I was less. I knew my place was to be humble and that I didn’t deserve a voice. I was lucky someone married my mother at all. Who was I to expect anything more? Who was I to complain? This is how I spent my childhood. By the time I got to college, I was completely dead inside.
However, in my young adult years, something amazing happened to me. I met a young man and he loved me. I shared my story with him. He didn’t think I was less. He didn’t think I belonged in the shadows. He thought I was special and felt lucky to have me. I came alive again. His parents loved me and spoke highly of me.
So he thought it would be fine when he told them that he loved me and wanted to marry me. But he was wrong. His parents loved me as the strong, hard working girl who overcame extreme obstacles in her life. But they did not love me as a bride for their son. This is when I learned what Indian aunties and uncles meant when they said a boy or a girl was “from a good family.” This is when I learned that I was not.
I never did get married in the end. I just don’t know if it is for me, really. With everything I went through in my life, I am put off by the whole institution. This makes my mother cry. She always says she never wanted me to be alone like she was. She feels like it’s her fault. She also knows about the sexual abuse now and blames herself every day she did not stop it. I often wish I never told her. I see the guilt is killing her. But it was not something I could keep a secret forever.
Seeing young desi women, mostly high-caste, well off, from privileged families, marching to “reclaim the bindi” is a very triggering experience for me. Each hashtag re-traumatizes me.
There are the obvious problems with the “movement.” One, it promotes northern supremacy with the use of the Hindi word bindi. It erases all the other cultures that also use a form of the bindi, including several East African and Middle Eastern cultures. It leans into the belief only Hindus wear bindis.
But most harmful, it is a form of historical revisionism. It tells a narrative where all desi women proudly wore bindis and bindi politics started with white girls at Coachella.
In addition, it paints the picture that privileged western desis are the victims of these politics. When the truth is bindi politics are as old as Brahminism and the real victims are the widows of South Asian society, especially in the most rural areas, at the hands of South Asian society. The widows who are standing up against this and fighting and claiming their rights to wear bindis or bottu or pottu or whatever it is that they call it are the true heroes. They are reclaiming the bindi. They are the ones we need to stand behind.
All this said, I understand why young desi women are reclaiming the bindi. We live in a white supremacist world where anything non-white is constantly being attacked, demeaned, and disparaged, while the same so-called liberals completely ignore the acts of violence they perpetrate on the non-white world. Defending our culture is a means of survival for us. And the same white world that thinks we are one dimensional non-human wants to appropriate the beautiful things our culture produced.
I often hold back from writing about social problems in the South Asian community, because even our narratives are snatched up and appropriated. A white feminist somewhere will get her hands on it, most likely retell it, make a reputation for herself a journalist, build her own career, take the story I told for the sake of my empowerment, and use it to disempower me more. If you are one of the white feminists I am talking about and you are reading this—I have this to say to you. Yes, I have been shamed in my society for things outside of my control. But I am also shamed in your society every moment I step out of my home simply for not being white. Your white supremacy won’t save me.
As I said before, I am amongst the more privileged of my spiritual tribe. Highly educated, living in the west, from a progressive circle from a city. I am loved and respected in my local desi community. I also have escaped widow stigma to a great degree because I am not surrounded by people who have that type of mentality. But not everyone is as lucky as I am. Though there is a rising consciousness about widow abuse, so many young women, especially in the most rural areas of South Asia are being left behind.
As a South Asian feminist, I have to be honest and admit South Asian feminism often overlooks the most oppressed South Asian women, especially in rural areas. The widow stigma is real and it murders your soul. The abuse is a daily non-stop event. Just because a considerable number of us have it better now doesn’t mean we can leave these women behind.
So many of us are so concerned about whether or not white girls get to wear bindi or pottu but we are erasing the existence of the multitudes of South Asian women who are not able to wear them at all. Bindi politics are one of the most horrific systems of oppression against women in our own society. It is a form of violence against women, especially aimed at some of the most vulnerable members of South Asian society-South Asian widows.
My mother’s best friend is a widow. There are obvious reasons why they are such close friends. She is much younger than my mother. And like many widows of her generation growing up in urban areas, she never stopped wearing her bindi.
“Fuck all of them,” she says if anyone challenges her. “I am not illegitimate. I have my family, my friends, and my god. And I will wear what I want.”
She takes shit from no one and raised her children to feel no shame. She also extends a helping hand to other women in her position and works to empower them. Now she is reclaiming the bindi.
Maneesha C. is a writer, activist, poet, and South Asian feminist. She worked for many years as a women’s rights activist and cares deeply for the empowerment of women that mainstream feminist movements often leave behind, particularly women who are poor and the ethnic other. She regrets to have to write this piece under a pen name. However, she is doing this because the story she is sharing is also her mother’s story and her mother does not want public exposure. Maneesha wants to respect her wishes because she believes women who have been victimized should always have ownership of their narratives and to disregard that is another form of violence against women.