“Bala hasad, Yasmine, say Smallah so you don’t give ayn”
This is a phrase that has been regurgitated to me throughout my life. When complimenting family and friends, I have always been careful to not cast the “evil eye” onto someone. Whether I have been conscious of it or not, the evil eye has played a significant role in how I talk to and coexist with others.
The evil eye: a sacred phenomenon and the superstition of all superstitions. In my religion and culture, the evil eye is a widely held belief. It is a malicious gaze cast by an envious person, preventing one from good health and fortune by sending negativity their way. In order to be protected from hasad, or evil, various cultures have promoted wearing or displaying the symbol as a form of defense. Over the course of my life, my home was littered with evil eye wall decor and I was constantly gifted evil eye jewelry by my loved ones. I was taught to bless others after giving compliments so as not to cast evil or bad fortune upon them. If my evil eye decor or jewelry were to break, I’d quickly become suspicious; legend has it that if your evil eye emblem breaks, it has successfully protected you from someone’s ayn or harmful “eye”. I would wonder, “has it really served its purpose?” After, I’d promptly replace my pendant, whether that be a necklace, anklet, bracelet, ring or keychain. Believing in this protection from evil almost became second nature to me, treating the evil eye as not only a superstition, but a way of thinking that translated into my everyday life. This easily discernible symbol, composed of a royal blue outer circle, white midsection pupil and small black iris, is more than just a colorful work of art. However, over time, the evil eye has lost its historical significance, becoming more of a fashion fad than religious and cultural hieroglyph.
The evil eye stems far beyond popular culture. Dating as early as 5,000 years ago, the first-ever recorded evil eye was marked on clay tablets by the Mesopotamians. Intersecting both culture and religion, wariness of evil is found in the scriptures of various religions — Islam, Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism (among others) — while also dating back to ancient Greek and Roman cultures. From the beginning of civilization, humans have feared a harmful gaze, doing whatever was in their power to protect themselves and their families from evil.
As a practicing Muslim, the evil eye has always been something I am wary of. I’ve been taught to be careful of the language used when complimenting someone, almost always blessing them afterward with Islamic reaffirmations such as Mashallah and Smallah, in order to prevent their good fortune from being jinxed. Throughout my life, I have gifted friends and family with variations of evil eye pendants as protection from evil. As I write this, I am wearing an evil eye necklace and gold bracelet with multiple evil eye pendants interlinked together. To some, this symbol ignorantly serves as a cute jewelry piece — an uninformed infatuation with cultural symbols without actually bearing the weight of carrying that culture. For those who practice the culture it originated from, the evil eye serves as a protective measure from harm they may not be aware of. In Islamic culture, the Hand of Fatima and the evil eye symbol are equal signs of protection that have reappeared hand in hand throughout my life. I often see new parents pin an evil eye charm to their newborn child’s clothes, while others hang the Hand of Fatima or evil eye symbol in their new homes or business establishments. Some may even choose to dangle the symbol from the rearview mirror of their car. Protection from hasad or “destructive envy” is a recurring theme in Islamic culture. Both religiously and culturally, the evil eye holds tremendous weight for those who believe in it, serving as much more than a trendy wardrobe fad, later to be found in a pile of other short-lived “fashion must-haves” in the back of someone’s closet.
So how did the evil eye end up on my TikTok For You Page? Prior to and throughout the course of the pandemic, TikTok has been a platform that amplifies the “microtrend” phenomenon; week by week, dance trends, short song clips and fashion fads circulate the app in excess. It’s safe to say that there is never a shortage of content and ideas on TikTok. The very first time I saw an evil eye pendant on my For You Page was last summer, in a video where a girl is showing off her collection of various incense sticks and crystals. The evil eye pendant, hung on a thick twine-like string, sits glaringly on her chest as a necklace. I was confused at first — I knew the evil eye was a cross-cultural symbol, but from context from the video, it seemed as though the symbol was worn flashily as a fashion fad, emulating a “spiritual girl” aesthetic. The comments were praising the spiritual “vibe” brought by the necklace-crystal-incense combination. I scoffed while watching the video replay — this girl who seemed to know nothing about my culture or religion wore something so significant to us, and wrote it off as a stupid fashion trend?
I’ve seen this glorification manifest in spaces larger than just TikTok. The evil eye has gone so far as to be found on bathmats, pillowcases, shoe-emblems, sweaters and more; gentrified by the Western fashion industry, the evil eye has become a cutesy symbol, littered with gems, sequins and glitter, catering to a demographic far away from its origins. However, this is not an isolated issue, as cultural appropriation is rampant in Western media and entertainment. We often see the perversion of sacred cultural symbols in fashion trends, music videos, movies or TV shows. Even your “celebrity faves” aren’t absolved of this behavior — they too are some of the worst perpetrators of a grander cultural appropriation scandal. Kim Kardashian has repeatedly been accused of appropriating Black culture, from darkening her skin in photos to be 10 shades darker than her natural tones, to wearing her hair in African braids in the name of “fashion.” Similarly, Victoria’s Secret supermodel Karlie Kloss has strutted the runway dressed in a traditional Native American headdress and fringe-lined lingerie. At the 2013 American Music Awards, Katy Perry dressed as a Japanese geisha, traipsing around the stage emulating her perception of Japanese culture in her outfits and mannerisms in order to put on what she considered an entertaining show. Why is it that those with such large platforms choose to ignore the significance of cultural and religious minorities for the sake of entertainment? I want to rule out the possibility of ignorance — why are adults appropriating other people’s cultures instead of embracing their own? Why do they believe tokenizing the culture of one group generates more views and interest in their art? Ultimately — why do we allow people to appropriate our cultures when there is so much harm in doing so?
Although celebrities play a large role in normalizing cultural appropriation, the most common perpetrators exist in our everyday personal lives. We often see a narrative that pushes people of Color and allies to “stop being so sensitive” in response to people imitating cultures that aren’t their own. This stems from a deep misunderstanding of cultures, and the truth is that people don’t really care to learn. This digs deeper than just wanting to partake in a silly trend, but proves a deep disrespect of cultures that differ from Western norms. One Utah high school student wore a traditional Chinese dress to her senior prom — a red cheongsam, also known as a qipao. Quickly going viral, she faced criticism for choosing to facetiously wear such an important traditional garment to an event as insignificant as her prom. Even after receiving backlash on social media — from those of Chinese descent and others — the student claimed she would still “wear it again.” Similarly, every year around Halloween, the phrase “my culture is not your costume” is highlighted in order to combat the ignorance of dressing up in “sexy” cultural garb for the sake of a “good” costume. Native American garments, sombreros and Blackface are common examples of the casual racism that comes with disregarding non-white cultures and traditions. The University of Michigan’s campus is not devoid of this ignorance — in 2017, various fraternities hosted “themed parties” that disrespected minority cultures, such as “Ancient Egypt,” “Hood Ratchet Thursday” and “Cinco de Drinko,” facing backlash from ethnic and cultural groups on campus. What does this blatant disregard for non-white cultures within our communities tell us about Western society’s disrespect of certain groups?
Justifying cultural appropriation needs to end. Capitalizing on the cultures and religious traditions of certain identities contributes to a larger systemic pattern that reinforces harmful stereotypes onto groups who never appreciated being made a mockery of in the first place. As a society, we need to stop accepting excuses of “cultural appreciation” and understand that if someone truly respected or appreciated another culture, they would leave these traditions to the people who belong to that culture, because they actually understand the weight and significance they hold. By contributing to a society that reinforces and encourages microtrends rooted in cultural appropriation, we actively take part in whitewashing and commodifying marginalized communities and their cultural and religious histories. While the evil eye emblem circulates society as a fashion staple, I will continue wearing the evil eye with pride and honor, representing my own culture, protecting my energy and strengthening the historical significance of my religious traditions.
MiC Columnist Yasmine Elkharssa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.