February 26, 2021

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‘Our culture is not your costume’: Rihanna photo sparks social media backlash in India

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Written by Oscar Holland, CNN

Rihanna is facing accusations of cultural appropriation and religious insensitivity after she posted a topless image of herself wearing a pendant depicting the Hindu god Ganesha.

The photo, which appeared on her Twitter and Instagram accounts Tuesday, shows the singer in a pair of lavender satin boxers by her lingerie label, Savage X Fenty. Among her matching purple jewels are a bracelet, a large pair of earrings and what appears to be a diamond-studded carving of the elephant-headed deity — a move branded “disrespectful” by some Hindus and other social media users in India.

“You’re wearing a deity necklace and a Murthi (image of a deity) of my culture that’s already been culturally appropriated enough in the past few years,” read one reply to the post, liked over 5,000 times on Instagram. “How is this okay when a person has more than enough resources to at least find out the meaning and significance of the chains and pendant around their neck?”

“Can we stop sexualizing people’s religion for clout,” read another comment. “I just don’t understand the purpose of having a necklace with lord Ganesh as part of a lingerie campaign.” Another user, meanwhile, wrote: “Our culture is not your costume.”

Not all of the comments expressed outraged, with one user stating: “I’m fine with you wearing this as long as you respect Hinduism.” Others complimented the star’s style without referencing the controversial pendant.

On Rihanna’s Twitter account, the image has amassed over 40,000 retweets. Savage X Fenty also posted the photo to Instagram, where it has accrued over 345,000 likes, alongside the caption, “Stay up off my Instagram, pure temptation.”

Savage X Fenty did not immediately respond to CNN’s request for comment about the Ganesha pendant. The boxers worn in the post are currently listed as “sold out” on the brand’s website.
Ganesha traditionally represents wisdom and success, and is often called upon by Hindus embarking on new business ventures. Producing paintings or statues of deities is widely practiced in India, and they are used to help worshippers connect with the gods.
The controversy comes just two weeks after Rihanna divided opinions in India by expressing her support for farmers protesting new agriculture laws in the country. The singer sparked a wave of celebrity statements on the issue after she tweeted a link to a CNN story examining how internet access around New Delhi was cut off following violent clashes between police and farmers. “Why aren’t we talking about this?!” she wrote.

The move drew the ire of India’s government, which issued a statement condemning “sensationalist social media hashtags and comments, especially when resorted to by celebrities and others.”

A number of commentators were quick to link Rihanna’s decision to wear a Ganesha pendant to her stance on the protests. Lawmaker Ram Kadam, a member of the country’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), suggested that she had now discredited her involvement in the matter.

“It’s appalling to see how @Rihanna shamefully mocks our beloved Hindu God #Ganesha,” he wrote. “This exposes how #Rihanna has no idea or respect for Indian culture, tradition and our issues here. Hopefully, at least now (opposition politician) @RahulGandhi and other Congress leaders will stop taking help from her.
It is not the first time in recent years that the Barbados-born singer and businesswoman has been accused of cultural appropriation. In 2019, she faced online backlash after posing in Chinese clothing and ornaments for the cover of Harper’s Bazaar China. The images had been intended to show what happens “when western style icon meets eastern aesthetic,” the publication said at the time.
Savage X Fenty then faced criticism from some Muslims, after it used a song containing sacred Islamic verses during a lingerie fashion show last October. The label later apologized, telling CNN at the time: “We truly apologize for the song that appeared in the Savage x Fenty show. We shouldn’t have used it. The song’s vocal tracks are being replaced and the show is being edited.”

Top image: Rihanna pictured at the Savage X Fenty Show Vol. 2 in October 2020.

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