A Toano-based business has issued a formal apology for selling a mini skirt that featured a Hindu deity on the front.
Enlighten Clothing Company started selling a skirt that featured the Hindu deity Lord Ganesh, who is regularly worshiped by those of the Hindu faith, across the middle portion of a wearer’s pelvic area.
While the company started selling the item last year, owners Justin Chamberlain and Melanie Bodnar had originally designed the image years ago, Chamberlain said.
The couple started the business in 2011 by selling artwork on the road and eventually turned it into an artist collective that helped sell artwork from around the world. Chamberlain said the goal of the business was to create affordable, socially responsible items through organic products and environmental efforts.
The business closed its only storefront location in Newport News in 2018 because of a dispute with the landlord, Chamberlain said. Now it mainly sells products online and at events.
Chamberlain said his wife came up with the design when the business first started as a way to modernize a depiction of the deity that would appeal to the “art scene.” The design was created through detailed research of the deity’s history and meaning that would be conveyed on the products.
The image appeared on the business’ website more than a year ago through a direct-to-seller format. This means the buyer could select an item from a range of options that the image would be printed on through a third-party vendor. One of the company’s employees eventually listed a mini skirt as an option for the design, Chamberlain said, but since the item didn’t get many orders, the business didn’t think much about it.
“We didn’t get a lot of orders for it so we didn’t think anything of it,” he said. “I didn’t think of it [in] a sexual way, but now I can see how it might be offensive.”
However on Saturday, the Universal Society of Hinduism urged the business to remove the skirt from sale and issue a formal apology.
The organization in a news release called the clothing item “highly inappropriate” and said it promoted religious appropriation.
“Lord Ganesh was highly revered in Hinduism and was meant to be worshiped in temples or home shrines and not to adorn one’s hips, groin, buttocks, genitals, waist, crotch, thighs and pelvis for mercantile purposes,” said Rajan Zed, president of the Universal Society of Hinduism. “Inappropriate usage of Hindu deities or concepts or symbols or icons for commercial or other agenda[s] was not okay as it hurt the devotees.”
Enlighten Clothing Company issued a formal apology Monday and said they would remove the item from the store.
“Our goal is to create a clothing line that is environmentally responsible and to shine a light on the shared spiritual and artistic nature of humanity not to misuse them in ways that are offensive or hurtful to the native cultures from which they came,” the owners said in their apology.
Chamberlain said he understood Zed’s perspective and was happy to take the item down. He added that removing the skirt from the website also wasn’t a difficult task because it wasn’t something the business had invested money into because the items were created by order through a third party.
However, the company also sells tapestries, t-shirts and pendants that feature the design that have already been created with organic fabrics. Chamberlain said he was grateful the organization didn’t ask the company to pull those items as well.
That’s the first time the business has experienced backlash from any of the items sold, Chamberlain said, and it was a surprising experience.
“It’s a little surprising especially because nowadays, everything in our culture is under a microscope,” he said. “I was a little taken aback by reading [the email] but now I’m seeing more about Rajan Zed and it seems like his mission is to protect his culture, so I was happy to comply.”
In a news release from the Universal Society of Hinduism, Zed suggested companies like Enlighten Clothing should send their senior executives to training for religious and cultural sensitivity. This type of training would help provide companies with a greater sense of understanding for various communities before launching new products and advertising campaigns.
“Such trivialization of Hindu deities was disturbing to the Hindus world over,” Zed said in the news release. “Hindus [are] for free artistic expression and speech as much as anybody else if not more. But faith was something sacred and attempts at trivializing it hurt the followers.”
The business stated in its apology its No. 1 goal was to respect the wishes of the Hindu community by removing the item.
However, Chamberlain said the experience hasn’t caused the business to look too closely at the other items it sells.
“I think personally, I have a hard time agreeing with the idea of cultural appropriation,” Chamberlain said. “To me, cultural appropriation is nothing more than cultural appreciation. In America, we’re a melting pot of cultures and it’s part of the American experience to take part in these cultures…[However], I understand when it comes to clothing, how something like a skirt can be offensive.”
Chamberlain said he doesn’t believe the store sells any other items that are culturally offensive.
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