Illustration by Nisala Saheed

Appropriate or Appropriating?

Since religion can be an important part of a culture, the use of the word haram as a joke might make Emiratis or non-Emirati Muslim students uncomfortable.

Oct 9, 2016

Cultural appropriation might sound like one of those fancy, pseudo-intellectual phrases that are constantly thrown around. However, the phrase represents a severe issue today. Cultural appropriation is essentially when one culture takes the intellectual property and cultural traditions of another without that culture’s permission or approval. The culture being appropriated is usually an indigenous or peripheral culture while the individuals appropriating the culture tend to belong to the dominant culture.
Among many other factors, cultures are made up of dance traditions, cuisine, storytelling techniques, music and dress. When someone from the dominant or mainstream culture tries to appropriate the above-mentioned aspects of a previously or currently oppressed culture, a problem arises.
For example, when Miley Cyrus started twerking live and in her music videos, she faced a lot of backlash from people who felt she was appropriating African American culture. An article in The Guardian explains that the problem lay in Cyrus using “the tedious trope of having black women as her backing singers, there only to be fondled by her and to admire her wiggling derriere.”
In her twerking performances, in addition to using a traditionally African American dance form, Cyrus also objectified black women and black culture. In this scenario, people belonging to a peripheral culture were deprived of the credit they deserve for a traditional practice.
In addition to denying credit where credit is due, cultural appropriation can also perpetuate negative stereotypes. Katy Perry dressed up as a geisha in her performance of the song Unconditionally for the American Music Awards in 2013. Perry chose the look for a song in which a woman pledges her unconditional love for a man without the need for apologies as long as the man agrees to be with her. By matching the look with this song in particular, Perry was criticized for misrepresenting the Asian American community and perpetuating negative stereotypes about passive Asian women. Cultural appropriation in pop culture often results in misrepresentation of a group that has previously experienced systematic oppression by formerly oppressive groups, which these pop artists tend to belong to.
But cultural appropriation doesn’t always happen on such a grand scale. It could embed itself in Halloween costumes when people decide to dress like an Indian or a Native American. They might even put a lot of thought into their costumes, model a long piece of cloth into a sari and wear a bindi on their foreheads to make their outfit seem more authentic. As an Indian, however, this costume might be quite disconcerting if you see it as something that belittles what is normal and ordinary in your culture. The word costume itself is loaded with specific connotations. It implies an artificiality and a performance.
Cultural appropriation is different from cultural exchange, which is bound to happen in a global society. Cultures are neither static nor do they grow in isolation. The intersection of different cultures often produces interesting developments within various cultures. The diversity of the student body here at NYU Abu Dhabi provides a foundation for cultural exchange as well.
The desire to familiarize oneself with the culture of the UAE can lead to cultural assimilation that values and respects the traditions of the host culture. If Emiratis feel comfortable sharing their culture, the process of cultural exchange that involves non-Emiratis wearing kandoras or abayas or calling their friends habibi or habibti could be a positive byproduct of cultural exchange as opposed to an exercise in cultural appropriation.
“[I have] an appreciation and enthusiasm for the culture when foreigners implement cultural elements into their daily lives, considering it is not done in a mocking or insulting manner,” said Emirati sophomore Nada Al Bedwawi.
However, there are some exceptions to this accepting appreciation. Emirati sophomore Amal Muhammed echoes Al Bedwawi’s sentiment and values non-Emirati students’ desire to learn and use Arabic but feels that sometimes things can go too far, especially if Islam, as religion, is involved.
“The only word they take too far is probably haram, and they kind of overdo it,” said Muhammed.
Since religion can be an important part of a culture, the use of the word haram as a joke or in casual conversation might make Emiratis or even non-Emirati Muslim students uncomfortable. When benign cultural appreciation turns into a mockery of another culture, whether intentionally or unintentionally, it leaves the realm of the simple and harmless and enters the realm of the dangerous. It could hit a nerve when something we hold sacred is turned into a joke or when someone who naturally looks like us is turned into a fashion statement.
Taking over something that intrinsically belongs to another culture without trying to understand its significance or without making sure people from that cultural group are comfortable might be more than just borrowing from another culture. Wearing the kurta your Pakistani roommate got you as an Eid gift is not appropriation. Neither is liking sushi even though you’re not from Japan. With so many cultural and ethnic groups on campus, it is easy to overstep a line, but it is always possible to stop and ask if something is appropriate or appropriating.
Rida Zafar is a contributing writer. Email her at
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