Several times over the last year – in fact, over the last decade – I have been told that I don’t look Asian, Indian or Sikh. Another common comment I receive is, “You look different”. Usually, I overlook remarks like this; I don’t worry myself with what others think of me.
But since this was said thrice in one weekend recently, it led me to think: “Why does it matter?”
I do know where this behaviour stems from. In my experience of the Indian culture that I’ve grown up within, people like to know where you’re from. By this, I mean the exact location in India, including map coordinates if you can give them! The thought process that usually follows is: “In that case, how were you brought up? What liberties should you have had, or shouldn’t you have had, or didn’t you have as a girl? Do I agree with this, and if not, why not?”
Some of these questions are complex, even to me, but such thought processes are “normal” in this culture.
And that’s what I’m trying to address. It’s been so long since I surrounded myself with company who cares about where you’re from, that when that same old statement – “You don’t look Sikh” – appeared three times in one weekend, I was taken aback.
If it’s a cultural thing, and not something I typically care about, then why am I bothered to talk about it now? The answer: because this statement came from people I really didn’t expect it to, and more than once in a short space of time. That’s what threw me.
A little bit more about me: I am Kenyan, living in the UK, and have ancestry that stems from Asia. I think it’s Pakistan, but it could also be India; I’m not entirely sure. Yes, I do have an Asian ethnicity, but this is heavily mixed with my Kenyan roots and my beautiful English life.
I like to think I show this in the way I dress, and in my personality. I love to wear Kenyan fabrics and integrate these into Indian outfits – this helps me express my passion for prints and colours. (Anyone close to me will know that I don’t wear black!)
But what has this got to do with henna? Well, for starters, this is the foundation of “me”, and I am the foundation of my business.
Naturally, you will see my heritage flow through the henna boutique when you engage with us – in my ideas, the way I am and my dress sense. More importantly, these comments have revved me up to expand my campaign, “Henna has no Borders”, even further.
This campaign aims to bring joy to as many people as possible, through the art of henna which is typically thought to be exclusively for Asians. Henna is used for self-expression, regardless of your skin colour, gender and whether or not you are attending an event. You might want it as an accessory to your outfit, or you can wear it simply as part of you; celebrating you, because you deserve it. A grounding medium straight from the earth, hand-mixed with love and care, used to stain the skin, without discrimination, absolutely as if to say “we are all worth it”.
I now plan to take this a notch higher; I don’t see why society needs to put people in boxes anymore. Comments like those I’ve received are so last century.
And times have moved on – not only by people travelling, meaning that more of us have a multitude of cultures and experiences, but also by genders being understood as more fluid. I have fallen in love with the strength and courage it takes for people to come out as LGBTQ, even though this is still surrounded by stigma and backlash. People are fighting against gender norms, barriers and boundaries, which I think is fantastic.
From this stems my conversation on being boxed in. Why should we be placed in rigid categories? Yes, I am South Asian by ethnicity, but that doesn’t own me. I am more than my ancestry.
So, I’m making a conscious effort to bring you more henna from the heart, and to reach out and have conversations with people who don’t fit into a box. Because it’s 2020 – and so what if I don’t “look Sikh”?
More from Tanya Vyas
Our campaign ‘Henna has no borders’ aims to bring joy to as many people as possible, through the art of henna. Henna has no borders is bridging the gap between what is typically thought to be exclusively for Asians, to anyone who wants henna. Henna is used for self-expression, regardless of your skin colour, gender and whether or not you are attending an event. You might want it as an accessory to your outfit, or you can wear it as part of you; celebrating you, because you deserve it. A grounding medium come straight from the earth, hand-mixed with love and care, used to stain the skin, without discrimination, absolutely as if to say “we are all worth it”.
There’s more on this theme in this blog post: http://bit.ly/ culturalmisappropriation where I also linked to my BBC coverage regarding cultural appropriation and henna.