By Divya Joshi:
Matthew Gordon, a 21-year-old Melbournian was recently harassed by an angry Indian mob in Bengaluru due to a tattoo of the goddess Yellamma on his shin.
Debates have been started on various platforms such as online newspaper comments, Facebook and other social media.
This is a case of cultural appropriation. Whilst not illegal, using something of religious and cultural significance as a decoration or fashion accessory could be deemed disrespectful. Symbols such as bindis and henna/mehndi are also culturally significant, yet it is becoming very common for others to use them as fashion statements. If bindis and mehndi can be accepted by us as fashion statements, decorative tattoos should not be regarded as offensive as well. After all, Matthew did say in an interview with ‘The Hindu‘ that he has a strong attachment to the faith.
Arguably, Matthew should have been aware of this. Whilst the majority of Hindus couldn’t care about what tattoos anyone else has, there are religious extremists in every country, for every religion – India is no different. As more than 70% of Indians are Hindus, it is no surprise that we too have our share of people who take things offensively and react harshly. Hence, the reaction by these extremists in response to his tattoo is barely surprising. What is more is that this tattoo was on his shin. In some states and societies, having cultural ornaments worn below the waist is extremely disrespectful, let alone a tattoo of the face of a goddess. In other societies, having something near the feet is seen as being “below you”. Such as when you ask for Aashirvaad from an elder and you touch their feet, you’re seen to be saying, “You are of a higher status than me, I seek your blessings.” Hence, having a goddess near your feet could be seen as the ultimate disrespect.
Whilst Matthew Gordon may not have intended to, or meant any disrespect from his tattoo, one can identify why his lack of understanding meant that others took it offensively. However, two things about this case astounded me. The first was that his girlfriend was harassed due to his tattoo. This is at the most basic level, stupid. One should not be punished for someone else’s mistake. Why is it that in our society, whatever one partner does is seen as the other’s crime as well? This has happened multiple times, with sisters being punished for their brother’s actions, and wives being punished for their husband’s crimes. Whilst the examples I used are specifically female’s being punished by males for another male’s crime, there is no doubt that this works in reverse too. But this is for a different discussion.
The other astounding part of this case was that they were taken to the police station and made to stay there for three hours without having committed a crime. Regardless of whether religious sentiments have been hurt, having a tattoo is not illegal. There was no reason to keep Matthew in the police station for three hours, nor was there any reason to make him write an apology. If the activists did want to take this up further, they could have filed for a mediation session.