Visibility, Passing, and Bindis

It’s always fascinating to me how many concerns and issues are the same across different religious communities. I enjoy reading the essays and stories of other young people who are religious, whether they are Jewish, Muslim, Christian, or something else. The other day I ran across this great blog written by a Jewish woman who covers her hair.

She has a number of posts talking about visibility as a Jew.

She wears a head covering that is distinctly Jewish and so marks her as a member of that community. Yet in some parts of America, it isn’t known that that’s what that head covering means and perhaps it simply looks like a style choice and not a religious expression.

In a guest post another young Jewish woman said:

“Visibility is…an interesting problem because I’ve found there’s a difference between looking different and being visible as a member of a group. There’s a strange space between passing and proclaiming identity where I look different from everyone else, but my surrounding culture lacks the necessary cues to identify me…I never know if the statement I’m making is the same one other people are hearing.

I just want to say “Exactly!” to that. If I present myself in a Hindu way, it doesn’t identify me as Hindu unless the people around me know what a Hindu is and what they might wear or do.

Also, she noted that Jewish women can “pass” more easily than other religions with head coverings because Jewish women can wear hats. Hats are a head covering that also obscure and hide the reason for that head covering.

There is a difference between her ability to pass with her head covering and a Sikh man whose head covering gives him away immediately as religious.

These are things that I also think about a lot. By default I “pass” as non-Hindu. There is nothing about me that looks visibly Hindu and that often bothers me. I want to be identified as part of the group to which I belong.

The visible mark that I have used is wearing a bindi. But I am all too aware that I can exercise my privilege by simply not wearing it. I can take it off when it’s convenient for me and then am easily part of the dominant culture.

In fact, I haven’t been wearing it outside of Hindu functions for a while now. It stands out so much. It confuses people, causes questions, makes me feel like there is a spotlight on me all the time. And the very definition of privilege is that I can take it off and all that immediately goes away!

At times visibility as a Hindu feels very important to me and then at other times it doesn’t; at those times it feels like enough that I know I’m a Hindu and no one else has to believe me.

From a different blog I saw a woman give an explanation for why she wears a hijab that sounded like exactly why I wear a bindi:

“I do it because I’m proud to know God the way that I do and I want people to know that about me. Adopting this cultural symbol is the most efficient way of doing this.”

Proud to know God in the way that I do. Yes, that is exactly what I feel.

Bindis, of course, can also be interpreted as a fashion choice rather than a religious choice. If you want to wear a colorful or sparkly bindi or match your outfit, then you look more like an oblivious culture-thief. My experience is that the bindi comes across as a religious decision as long as I’m wearing a small and plain bindi (previously black, now red).

Should I really be making a choice about when I wear it and when I don’t? Should I make a commitment to always wear it rather than picking and choosing when I want to identify and when I don’t?


Here is another Jewish woman talking about “hiding” behind a wig and the different reactions based on whether she’s wearing a wig or a headscarf:

“Still, I feel like a mime on a tightrope; part of me wants to be invisible, unremarkable, yet obviously, since I now wear a headscarf, I want to be able to convey—proudly, without fear— that I’m a religious Jewish woman.”

Another great question the Jewish blogger asked was about appropriation.

“Is borrowing from the past as inappropriate as borrowing from other contemporary cultures? How appropriate is it to borrow from Jewish cultures that aren’t your own ethnic background?… But when the question is- which group affiliation is dominant- religious community (which dictates the practice that is shared) or ethnic community (which dictates the style that someone wants to copy), how do those things interact?  Does the passage of time change any of these factors? Do I still have ownership and identity connections to a style my great-great-great grandmother last wore, and which I likely have never heard of or seen? What if I’ve seen it in a museum?”

It’s interesting to me that this is a question for her. I always think that if you’re Jewish, then all of Judaism is yours to use and be. Apparently it is not that simple and American Jews are facing some similar questions to non-Indian Hindus.

I think Hinduism, as it continues to expand and spread, can learn a lot from Judaism in how it deals with ethnicity and religious identity. Judaism used to be strongly associated with one ethnic group. Now it has expanded a lot. There is still what people would consider a “Jewish look” but most people also realize that there are many many Jews who don’t fit that stereotype.

For those Jews that don’t look stereo-typically Jewish, how do they declare their identity in their day to day lives? How do they make themselves visible as Jews?

Visibility for minority religions and groups is important, I think. If no one is identifiable as anything other than the default white Protestant (WASP, as it is called here) then we forget the diversity of experience of our neighbors. We all benefit from the diversity of America. Things become stale when you don’t have multiple perspectives and ways of looking at things. Better solutions for problems are found by drawing on the different beliefs and understandings of multiple kinds of people.

Sringeri Week: Blessings From My Guru
Scripture Study: Bhagavad Gita, book two verses 31-34
Full Time Spiritual Life
Hindu Holiday: Holi!
About Ambaa

Ambaa is an American woman of European ancestry who is also a practicing Hindu. She is fascinated with questions of philosophy, culture, and the meaning of life. Join her in the journey to explore how a non-Indian convert to Hinduism experiences her religion.

  • dashifen

    I have a Pagan friend who veils for religious reasons and she’s so often assumed to be Muslim that she adopted some of the dietary restrictions of that faith community simply to avoid having to explain the whole situation! Unfortunately, she and I never had the chance to delve into her reasons for veiling, but there’s a subset of the Pagan community that veils (just Google “pagan veiling” and you’ll get some hits, even a few from Patheos). I suspect they encounter some of the same thoughts and feelings that you’ve shared here.

  • Maya Resnikoff

    I’m just so pleased that my writing and blog have contributed to this piece.

    • Ambaa

      It’s a wonderful feeling to discover new inspiration! Your blog has made me think and there’s nothing I love more! :)

  • esha

    The way people know I’m hindu is because I go to the temple a lot and before puja they tie sacred red thread on my wrist :)
    I don’t really like wearing a bindi because I don’t feel comfortable lol
    I guess that’s just a personal thing.

    But its really good to read about others religion and how the dress. I never knew that female jews wear hats. I honestly never knew. Just thought men did it.

  • Y. A. Warren

    Apparently, a bindi is an outward sign of the belief in a sacred space inside oneself. I am often confused by the need of others to proclaim their inner selves in any way other than in their actions.

    • Ambaa

      True. I wonder about that in myself. I seem to have a drive to show my religion on my outside and I don’t really know why that is. Partly a desire to belong to my “group”, I think. Partly that I grew up dressing very different from mainstream and I got so used to being “other” that I don’t know how to not look different.

      • Y. A. Warren

        I find that my life is so much more interesting when I fly “under the radar.” I don’t even like to identify my gender, unless absolutely necessary. People seem to be much more open when they don’t automatically pigeon-hole me with their preconceived notions of what i find offensive, and what I believe.

        • Ambaa

          That is such an interesting perspective! I never thought about that.

          • Y. A. Warren

            I am often called an enigma because i am not easily understood or pigeonholed. This greatly facilitates my learning, while often making others quite uncomfortable.

  • Amit

    Bindi signifies that the woman is married and not a widow. Widows don’t wear a bindi.
    Men wear Tilak right in between the 2 eyebrows on forehead. It is because it is the position where our 3rd eye(kundalini shakti) exists. Only an enlightened soul has it like Lord Shiva. Traditionaly bindi was supposed to be RED but now it has become a fashion accessory. I mean why we wear bindi on forehead only and not on chin o neck?
    It signifies something.

    • Andrea

      I have seen widows wear black bindi. Not colored; certainly not red. It may depend on what region of India you are from. They don’t wear sindoor though.

      Treatment of widows is something that bothers me a lot in India. Some are loved and revered but others are cast out without a second glance; it bothers me that a woman’s worth is connected to her husband’s life. My mother continued wearing her wedding ring after my father passed away for a very long time; I do not understand why marriage symbols have to be so cruelly denied to women who wish to remember their husbands in such a way. I guess, because they’re for other people, not for the woman herself?

    • HARRY

      @ Amit women who are shadhvi’s wears Tilak as well, but only on their neck in certain Vaishnava branches.

  • Channah Mace

    I come from a Jewish background where covering hair when married is a normal thing and a way of showing yourself as religious. Im also fascinated by hijab and Islamic clothing partly because I feel that its more authentic Jewish clothing than the modern jewish way of dress today . I rxperimented with hijab for a while as a way of exploring my jewishness and I loved the sense of privacy it gave me. I read a lot about hair covering and modesty in Judaism and Islam and it reimforced my belief that regardless of what faith I practise I do believe in covring and keeping certain parts of my body more private

    I made the decision that when I marru I will cover my hair the Jewish way..I love the fact that I can do that in Hinduism. Thats my dedication to my heritage and ancestors and I believe strongly in the reasons for doing it.. Ill continue to wear saris but my hair will be a secret to be shared only with my husband..

    In the meantime I have my own showing the stomach is fine but I dont believe in showing my legs- so no skirts above the ankle..trousers are ok but if they ate tighter than hareem pants- they are worn with a butt skimming Kurta or dress..and arms are ok but under arm are not. And cleavage is out too.. I alsó dönt wear my hair loose in public – its always tied back in a bun or might seem extreme but it makes the Times I spend with my partner in hot pants and loose hair and bikini tops very special..

    And tbh there are times when I really want to be covered. So if I want I wrap my hair in a hijab and put on an abaya..I have to odd bit of explaining to do but most Muslims love it and it doesnt make me any less a Hindu in my opinion.. At the end of the day its just a cloth covering for a temporary material body after all;)

    • Ambaa

      I love your idea to honor your heritage with Jewish hair covering while still wearing sari!

  • Channah Mace

    And on the subject of bindis im definatly in tje pro camp. Im aware of their meaning and I wear mine to work as a tiny red dot made of kanku and a dab of tilak – along with neck beads a kvacha, a Kara bangle, nose ring and jumkha earings. I look ethnic, I look “Indian”..yes people will have pre convieved ideas but imo theyll have them with or without the bindI so I might as well wear it if I want..

    Religious and spiritual meanings aside theres something that feels v ancient about the whole BindI and tilak thing..people have been decorating heir bodies with paint and clay and earth for thousands of years. From aboriginies to native Americans to middle eastern desert tribes..I think its beautifull, I think it looks beautifull and when I put on a Bindi its like a physical connection with people and especially “Hindus” stretching back right to the beginning of time. I love it;) and if people want to male assumptions or judgements abt me bacause of it then they can go ahead and have a,party on me;)

    • Ambaa

      “people will have pre convieved ideas but imo theyll have them with or without the bindI so I might as well wear it if I want..”

      Good point!

      Lately I’ve been wearing a very tiny mark that I make myself. I think it’s really not noticeable unless you’re looking for it. My sindoor is more visible, though!