Experts: Fashionable to adopt cultural expressions

KUALA LUMPUR: The Internet has been abuzz with the term "cultural appropriation" after photos of a Malaysian actress adorned in full-on Bollywood-styled outfit to promote contact lenses went viral on social media.

Mira Filzah (Nur Amirah Filzah Badioezaman), decked in a festive lehenga (traditional Indian clothing), complete with nath (nose ring) and tikka (head accessory), also shared a video of her lip-syncing to the song, Maar Dala, from the Hindi movie Devdas on Instagram.

This had Internet users divided with some calling her out for "cultural appropriation", while others saw it as cultural appreciation and described "appropriation" to be a Western concept, non-existent in multiracial and multicultural Malaysia.

The dictionary defines cultural appropriation as "the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc, of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society".

Simply put, it means a person adopting something from a culture that is not his or hers, such as a piece of clothing, accessories, hairstyle, a type of exercise, or even a manner of speaking.

Experts, however, say in the 21st century, cultural appropriation, like globalisation, is not just inevitable, but also potentially positive.

They view the exchange of cultures, styles and ideas as one of the tenets and joys of a multicultural society.

Sociologist Professor Datuk Dr Denison Jayasooria, who is also a principal research fellow at the Institute of Ethnic Studies in Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, said in an age of globalisation, it was fashionable to adopt from other cultural expressions.

He said the reaction towards Mira's clips should have been one of appreciation for moving out of her culture comfort zone to adopt another cultural expression.

"She has taken from a Bollywood movie and tried to follow her iconic actress. I do not think anyone has a monopoly of music, dance or even dressing of any culture. Hindi songs, dance and dressing have become popular, and I do not see why there is a negative reaction.

"Fan clubs imitate their hero or heroine. Bollywood has captured the hearts and minds of many outside of North India or from the Hindi world like how Korean Hip Hop has or even rap music and the dance moves have.

"The reaction should have been positive towards Mira's favour. This should be viewed from an artistic point of view. Whether in music or in professional attire."

He said if an artise had used another culture or even his or her own culture in an inappropriate way, such as indecently or by making fun of it, then it could be viewed as being demeaning.

He said while the buzz over the shoot could be seen as an "over- reaction", its reaction needed to be studied.

"We need to look at why they (those who accuse Mira of appropriation) say that?

"I see it positively — more Malaysians should move out of their comfort zones and appreciate other culture, including food, music, dressing and way of life, to display the rich cultural diversity of our land and the Asian region.

"Imagine if the British reacted to (others) adopting English and Western clothing like a full suit. Why discourage Mira? I hope she continues and adds colour to her songs, dance and attire.

"The question on motives is subjective and even if it's for money, I don't think it's wrong for artistes (to do that) as they are required to act in different roles."

Anthropologist and sociologist Professor Dr Kamaruddin M. Said, who is also National Council of Professors deputy president, said the online chat about "appropriation" was very much related to the fifth tenet of Rukun Negara, that is, Kesopanan dan Kesusilaan (mutual respect, good social behaviour and morality).

"It is timely to talk about Rukun Negara as we will celebrate National Day soon. Rukun Negara is important in shaping social interaction and integration in our multiethnic society."

He said while people enjoyed their freedom of thought and expression, especially in this digital and cyber era, they should be sensitive to differences of cultures, customs, ideologies and value orientations.

"Kesopanan dan Kesusilaan in Rukun Negara deals with our mindsets as citizens of this multiethnic society.

"Sensitivity and politeness are keys to guiding our mindsets so that while we share our individual views with others, we must also be ready to accept differences of opinion with others, hence agree to disagree, politely and humbly."

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