A Bershka T-shirt wreaked havoc in Lebanon as some Christian Lebanese called for a boycott of the Spanish clothing chain over a design they believed mocked the Virgin Mary.
“Boycott Bershka ... Share so the whole world [will] know how the Mother of God is being insulted,” read a post by a local Orthodox Youth Facebook group. The post was shared by more than 100 people.
Anger erupted over social media following a number of Facebook posts of a gray tank top from Bershka’s spring-summer 2013 collection depicting Santa Muerte, the Mexican patron saint of death with roots in ancient tribal religions, which many confused with a morbid image of Mary.
Another post juxtaposed the Bershka T-shirt and a painting of Mary from Latin America to show that a skull was in the place where Mary’s head should have been.
Above the images read: “Bershka Scandal: Humiliating the image of Holy Mary Mother of Guadalupe!!! What a shame!!! Share it..!! Let people know..!!!” More than 400 people shared this post.
In response to the viral anger, a number of local bloggers and tweeters defended the design by identifying the image as Santa Muerte and arguing it was not a mockery of Christianity, but in fact a part of Mexican Catholicism.
“Let’s agree on this, it’s not Mary. It’s Santa Muerte,” local blogger Abir Ghattas told The Daily Star. Ghattas, who has an interest in Mexican culture, was one of the first bloggers to defend Bershka’s design and her post immediately went viral by others defending the tank top.
Santa Meurte, which literally means Saint Death in Spanish, is a sacred figure that emerged from Catholicism and the Mesoamerican tribal religions that venerate the dead and is typically depicted as a women’s skeleton.
The tank-top graphic depicts Santa Muerte with her hands clasped in prayer, surrounded by flowers and images of peace, and shrouded in a robe similar to the one Mary is typically shown wearing. “Lady of Skulls” is written below the graphic.
Tuesday morning, when the controversy was ripe, Bershka’s entire website was down with a message that read: “Oops! The model doesn’t like how she looks in the picture ... We are retaking them and we’ll be back ASAP!” Several hours later the website was running again, but the picture of the controversial tank top could not be found.
By 5 p.m. here, Bershka headquarters in Barcelona did not return a phone call for comment, and neither did Azadea Group, which manages regional branches of the brand.
Staff at the Bershka store in Beirut Souks said they were unfamiliar with the tank top and the controversy.
Tribal patterns were a main trend among high-end designers on the runways for spring-summer 2013. Accordingly, Bershka’s summer collection on display at the shop is steeped in tribal themes: neon Aztec-print leggings, tribal bead work and tribal-patterned skulls – making a tank top of Santa Muerte a pretty appropriate image for a collection based on stereotypical Mesoamerican tribal art.
And though the rest of this summer collection was already out in the store, this particular shirt was not available and supposedly unknown.
“People are basically saying that Bershka should be culturally sensitive, but if you’re importing the clothing line, then you’re getting the concept and the culture,” Ghattas said.
Elie Fares was one of the first local bloggers to criticize the T-shirt. He told The Daily Star he has since received some backlash from those who argue the tank top had nothing to do with the Virgin Mary and was not meant to be offensive.
But Santa Muerte is all but unknown in Lebanon and local Christians have every right to be offended with what they perceive to be a stab at their religion, Fares said.
“I’m not a very religious person, but the first thing I thought when I saw the T-shirt was that it was very odd,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s Santa Muerte or the Virgin Mary. Santa Muerte is not culturally relevant to Lebanon, and when someone sees the shirt on the street, it will provoke people. ... My entire point is that it’s OK if you’re offended by it.”
Ghattas, who defends the design, said that ultimately there is demand for imported fashion and the international trends that come with it. “The whole trend this summer is tribal Mexican. It’s in the colors, in the prints,” she said. “There are lot of things we should be offended by other than this.”