Protests broke out in India this past weekend over what might seem like a trivial matter to Westerners. But in Southeastern Asia, it speaks to a bigger cultural crisis that’s been underway for some time.
Members of the right wing Hindu organization Shiv Sena and the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata political party are angry at the Aussies for unintentionally disrespecting their culture. In fact, they burned images of the Australian flag and held up pictures of models in Hindu deity-adorned swimsuits at a protest in the Indian cities of Hyderabad and Amritsar this weekend, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.
The groups were angered by the use of Hindu deities like Ganesha and Lakshmi on designer Lisa Burke’s swimwear, which was modeled on the catwalk at Australian Fashion Week. (Burke’s label, Lisa Blue, donates 25% of net profits to protecting whales and dolphins in the South Pacific.)
While we’re not completely insensitive to the religious values of these folks, we were a bit perplexed over the brouhaha, given that there are plenty of clothes already out there emblazoned with Hindu deities. Everyone from Gwen Stefani to yoga fanatics have worn these icons in the past–why the backlash now?
We asked Hitha Prabhakar, a retail analyst whose family also happens to hail from Southern India where many of the protests took place. She says it’s less about the specific incident and more about the timing. “It surely has something to do with the fact that these women are scantily-clad in bathing suits, but it’s also about India’s cultural identity crisis,” she told us. “So much of India is embracing Western norms now, and conservative communities are grappling with these changes. The protests seem to be a manifestation of that.”
Burke, the designer, has released multiple apologies and vowed to stop production on the collection. What do you think? Are these communities overreacting, or did Burke act inappropriately by using these religious images on spandex?