Opinion: Shein Must Stop Its Cultural Appropriation

Updated: Oct 19, 2021

The opinions in this article are those of the author.

SHEIN, commonly known as Shein, an online shopping platform for fast fashion, has been making extremely inappropriate decisions as of late. It has been selling products that symbolize hate towards another race or ignorance towards another religion. Although Shein claims to target its sales towards European countries, America, Middle Eastern countries, and Australia, it has not been displaying respect to any of the religions that are practiced in these areas.

To begin with, on July 3rd, 2020, Shein sold Islamic prayer rugs on its website. Unlike rugs that are used as decor, these mats are designed in rectangular shapes with Islamic symbols and sacred writings. Every mat has the illustration of a mihrab, a niche in the wall of the mosque. Additionally, many mats have mosque lamps on them.

In an interview with Lenses, Asbah Qadri, a Muslim-American student, talked about how these sacred mats are used to pray on five to six times a day. The mat is meant for cleanliness purposes during the various positions of Islamic prayer. While praying, Muslims set the mat in the direction of Mecca, a sacred city for Muslims.

So long as these mats are strictly emphasized as Islamic prayer mats, there is nothing wrong with Shein selling them; however, this did not happen. Instead of labeling the rugs with their appropriate names – ‘sajjāda,’ ‘namazlik,’ or ‘Islamic/Muslim prayer mat’ – Shein described them as ‘Fringe Trim Carpet’ or ‘Flower Print Tassel Trim Carpet’. Because of these ignorant names, many people have purchased these mats, oblivious of their importance, to give their cats a place to eat and drink, to place on top their coffee tables, or to put as a decorative piece in their closet.

It is beyond appalling to see that Shein had dared to sell such important mats of Islam to the general public as regular house decor items. These mats are not even supposed to be walked on, and yet without a single utterance of this rule, Shein assumed it would be acceptable to sell these mats as regular carpets. Additionally, as said earlier, Shein states that their products are partially aimed towards people in Middle Eastern countries, regions where Islam is practiced the most. By selling these prayer rugs, Shein is not showing any respect towards these countries.

To address this issue, Shein recently apologized for selling these rugs. However, did Shein learn its lesson from this incident? No.

On July 9th, 2020, Shein was also found to be selling a necklace with a swastika pendant. In Jewish culture, the swastika is an anti-semitic symbol. It was first introduced to European cultures by German archeologist Heinrich Schliemann in the 19th century and was later adopted by other European scholars as an auspicious symbol of good luck. However, Hitler corrupted the symbol during World War II to show his hatred towards the Jewish race and represent German nationalist pride. Therefore, many Jewish Americans and Jews were offended when they saw this necklace on sale. However, several people of Indian and Asian origin soon spoke up, pointing out that the swastika in their religion is faced upright, sometimes left-facing, and usually has 4 dots in between the open spaces, whereas the Nazi swastika symbol is tilted diagonally and always right-facing. The necklace was upright and left-facing.

The swastika is also a significant positive and auspicious symbol in Buddhism, Jainism, and Hinduism and has been for centuries. In these religions, from which the European swastika was adopted, the swastika is a sign of peace, luck, wealth, and prosperity. In Hinduism, the symbol can depict the four Vedas, core Hindu texts, the four goals of life, and the four yugas, seasons, directions, and epochs. The swastika is celebrated and used during special occasions like Diwali, Ganesh Chaturvedi, and Navaratri.

Additionally, the symbol is drawn in front of many Indian households as a symbol of fortune and luck. Similarly, in Buddhism, the swastika symbolizes Buddha’s heart and footsteps; in Jainism, the swastika identifies the seventh of the 24 spiritual gurus.

Therefore, people who follow Buddhism, Jainism, and Hinduism were quick to support Shein selling the necklace saying that the swastika pendant was a symbol of their culture and not the symbol of hate.

As someone who follows Hinduism, I do not see anything wrong with Shein selling the swastika necklace. It is unfair that we have to give up a symbol that is important to our culture just because someone else exploited it as a symbol of hate. It is frustrating that many people who are not Hindus, Buddhists, or Jains only associate the swastika symbol with anti-semitism or the Nazis. Some may argue that the swastika symbol was targetted towards western countries, and hence the symbol was associated with the Hakenkreuz, the Nazi symbol; however, it is important to understand that there is a large population of Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains living in these ‘western countries,’ who will always respect this holy symbol. Hence, people should be more educated about the original meaning of the swastika in these cultures.

However, Shein was very ignorant towards the Jewish race by selling this necklace, given that not many people are aware of the positive connotations the swastika has. If Shein wanted to sell this necklace, they should have mentioned the intentions of the necklace in the description or name of the item.

Shein has come forward to apologize for the necklace, acknowledging their ignorance toward Jewish people. However, Shein still has not stopped being inconsiderate towards other races.

The company sells necklaces with the word ‘Allah’ as a pendant along with other chains that have the words ‘baby girl’ and the symbol of a Scorpio on them. In Islam, Allah refers to God. There was no need to include the Allah necklace along with the other necklaces as it is disrespectful to the God of Islam and extremely condescending to see their God mentioned amongst words that say ‘baby girl’.

Furthermore, Shein sells Indian/Pakistani Kurtis and salwar sets as ‘Longline Tops & Pant Sets.’ They also use white models to showcase these clothes. This is unfair to South Asian societies as they are stealing their cultures by giving these clothes a new name and have failed to give credit to their origins.

Not only does SHEIN practice cultural appropriation, but the brand is neither environment friendly nor ethically-sourced.

Fast fashion companies have the habit of replacing out-of-stock clothes with new ones, enticing the public to continuously buy from them. Eventually, people will throw away the clothes they bought for several reasons: the size does not fit, cloth is worn out, or the piece is simply unwanted. Each year, a U.S. citizen disposes around 70 pounds of clothing, which ends up in landfills, an extremely detrimental practice towards the environment. Furthermore, when these clothing items are made, dye spills run into bodies of water and excessive carbon dioxide is emitted to the atmosphere, causing severe pollution. Shein is amongst these fast fashion companies who ruin the environment.

Fast fashion companies also practice child labor, which is illegal in most countries. Around 170 million children involved in children labor, in which many work in textile and fashion companies. These children work for long hours without adequate breaks and are paid an insufficient amount of money for this work. By supporting fast fashion companies, including Shein, children’s rights are at stake.

Although Shein has apologized for their actions in the past, it continues to make the same mistakes by culturally appropriating sacred symbols from various cultures and religions. Therefore, their apologies are very insincere. In addition, as a fast fashion brand, it contributes to environmental pollution and harms the human rights of children. Shein needs to understand that freedom needs to come with responsibility and sensibility to different communities of society.

Through Teen Lenses: Do you think Shein selling Islamic prayer mats and swastika necklaces is appropriate? Why or why not?

“Regardless of their intentions, Shein’s actions and decision to sell symbols with historic/religious significance reduces them to commercial objects. Especially with the swastika necklace, the significance to the Jewish community was overlooked. Similarly, it is important to acknowledge that the swastika is auspicious to the Hindu community. It is incredibly hateful that Shein commercialized this item and in a way, endorsed the swastika which symbolizes the hatred and genocide of the Jewish people; but that isn’t the only reason why the sale of the necklace is distasteful. Commercializing and reducing a symbol with religious significance is religiously insensitive to Hinduism.” Aashna Singh, 17, Rising Senior at Thomas S. Wootton High School, Rockville, MD
“I think that there are a lot of cultural nuances that can complicate what Shein’s business decisions should be. While without context it may appear that Shein, a multicultural company, should be able to sell Islamic prayer mats and religious swastika necklaces, in reality, it failed to target the proper audiences and promoted cultural appropriation. Marketing Islamic prayer mats as “frilled Greek carpets” when they have the Kaaba, one of the holiest sites in Islam, on them wipes away their rich and sacred significance. Advertising the swastikas without also explaining that they are an important spiritual symbol for people of religions like Sanatana Dharma (Hinduism) and Buddhism is negligent and complacently stirs up anti-Semitic views. I have heard other people who believe that no company should ever be selling swastikas, even if they look slightly different from the Hakenkreuz, the symbol used by the Nazis. I may be in the minority in disagreeing with this sentiment, as religious people who wear the swastika do so to feel at peace and connected to their spirituality and have no anti-Semitic intents at all, although it should be on the burden of the company to be culturally sensitive enough to properly explain this. Ultimately, I think it is okay for Shein to be selling Islamic prayer mats and swastika necklaces but they need to with cultural sensitivity and appreciation in mind, which involves advertising to the proper religious audiences (Muslims and Hindus/Buddhists/Jains, respectively) in the titles and descriptions of these items; because they have not done so, it currently stands as cultural appropriation and hateful expression.” Anonymous, 16, Rising Junior at Thomas S. Wootton High School, Rockville, MD
“I don’t think so. Out of respect, it isn’t right to use our cultures commercially. South Asians have fought racism for years and years, our culture is who we are, and we are very proud of that. Taking a culture and using it commercially completely strips the culture of its respect and the importance it deserves.” Ayan Ghosh, 15, Rising Sophomore at Thomas S. Wootton High School, Rockville, MD
“I don’t think it’s ok for SHEIN to be selling the necklaces or the mats. First off, they represent something important and meaningful to the different cultures and religions which they aren’t taking into consideration of how it can affect their customers. The swastika should never be sold as just some necklace because most people know why the swastika is offensive and what it represents to the Jewish people; the slaughtering of innocent lives because of one person’s decision. Whoever decided they should sell it should be either suspended or fired. The mats are once again a religious item to the Islamic community. It shouldn’t be sold as some throw rug just because “it has a nice pattern.” Religion or any kind of offensive item should never be sold as just some “normal” thing for profits.” Jamie Reyer, 16, Rising Junior at Thomas S. Wootton High School, Rockville, MD
“I definitely don’t think it’s okay, especially in the format SHEIN is selling them in. Starting with the prayer mats, SHEIN was selling them as decorative items (“frilled Greek carpets”) rather than something that’s important to an entire religion, which I personally view as disrespectful to the religion itself and extremely misappropriating. Then, from my point of view, I believe selling the swastika necklaces was harmful on multiple different fronts. In the western market where SHEIN was attempting to sell the swastika necklace, the swastika is often considered the Nazi symbol of hate and oppression towards the Jewish community rather than the Buddhist and Hindu symbol for peace. While SHEIN has taken down this listing and clarified that they were attempting to sell it with the intent of it being the swastika used in Buddhism and Hinduism, the fact is that the manner and location of how and where SHEIN was selling the necklace lead many to believe it was the Nazi symbol of hate meant to oppress the Jewish people which is not something that’s okay to try and make a profit off of.” Joel Shapiro, 18, Rising Freshman at Boston University, Boston, MA
“I think Shein selling Islamic prayer mats and swastika necklaces is extremely offensive considering the great value and importance they have in their respective cultures and religions. Especially at a time when racial equality movements like Black Lives Matter are prominent, it was very insensitive of Shein to culturally appropriate religious items. For centuries, many minorities have been oppressed and discriminated against due to their religion, and for a large global company like Shein to take these religions and “market” them for profit, it is not okay. ” Mrudula Rapaka, 15, Rising Junior at Chantilly High School, Chantilly, VA
“It is definitely not okay at all because that’s cultural appropriation and items that belong to a certain religious belief and a culture should not be sold for fashion.” Parnika Venna, 18, Rising Freshman at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, VA
“I think it’s unacceptable that Shein has prayer mats and the swastika pendant necklace on their website. The prayer mats that were being sold were under the term ‘decorative mats’. The Kabba and other religious symbols on the mats were sold as “aesthetic” which I think is highly offensive. The swastika is a symbol that has different meanings throughout Jewish, Buddhist, and Hindu communities, which should not be used as a “fashionable statement”. It is extremely important to be understanding and sensitive when it comes to culture and religion. There is a clear difference between appreciating culture/religion and appropriating culture/religion.” Sathvika Sangoju, 15, Rising Junior at Westfield High School, Chantilly, VA

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