The following text is a transcript of a conversation recorded on December 3, 2017, with Hoda Katebi, the self-defined “sarcastic (& angry) Muslim-Iranian writer, photographer, and activist living in Chicago” behind the political fashion blog JooJoo Azad (“free bird” in Farsi). In January 2017, a few days after the inauguration of the current U.S. President and the subsequent massive feminist protest, she wrote an article entitled “Please Keep Your American Flags Off My Hijab” about which we discuss in this interview, along with many other facets of her work with regards to clothing in relation to imperialism, capitalism and the contextualized politics of the hijab between the West and Iran. This conversation is published online on The Funambulist podcast.
LÉOPOLD LAMBERT: In a 2016 article on Joojoo Azad entitled “On the Political Value of Fashion,” you explain how you perceive clothing in general, and fashion in particular, as being inherently political, which works well with our editorial line for this issue. Could you tell us more about it?
HODA KATEBI: Yes definitely. Just as a background for this piece, fashion has always inherently been political. I have never really seen them as separate entities. On that thread, all art is political. You either have the ability to use art for liberation, for self-care, and as a kind of vehicle for social change, questioning the status quo, and imagining alternatives, or if you’re not, if you’re silent and complacent. But silence is still political because it’s a reflection of your privilege in that situation. For me, growing up in Oklahoma, in the South of the United States, made me really understand, looking at the way that people view me just because of the way that I dressed, that wearing a hijab on my head rather than a scarf around my neck, drastically changes the way that people interact with me. My growing up in that kind of environment is the background of my interest in fashion; it was almost purely from a political lens from the start. Looking at the way that its communicative properties can be exploited or can be used to really create a powerful message — that is the kind of the framework from where I understand fashion, from where I’m coming from. I think there are so many factors that make fashion not seen as this political medium and I think it’s because we live in a patriarchal society that deems women’s work inherently invaluable. Anything from emotion labor, child-rearing, early education; a lot of this kind of job sectors that have historically been “women’s work” have always had little pay if any, little value, and yet, just like the fashion industry, women have also historically dominated this industry, both in terms of consumers and producers. For me, the reason why we don’t see fashion as anything but shallow, vain or silly is really because of this patriarchal framework through which we’re viewing these historical and traditional “women’s works.”
LL: It resonates a lot with what we’re trying to do with those two issues about clothing politics. You distinguish six dimensions in political fashion: one is production, two consumption, three appropriation, four gender presentation, five social conformity and six symbolism. I think it will be obvious that these six dimensions are going to frame this conversation but, since you were just talking about your own experience, I would like to talk about the article that you named “Making Racists Uncomfortable, One Outfit At A Time,” where you describe your capacity to “command stares” instead of getting the usual “non-consensual glares,” can you tell us about this agency that you are getting from your clothes that reverse the nature of the gaze?
HK: I started wearing the hijab or headscarf in sixth grade. I think I was 9 or 10 years old, and I still remember feeling so alien and walking down the street just feeling so self-conscious as everyone was staring at me. You know you can try to not make eye contact, and look up or down, but you could still so strongly feel the glares, like it was piercing right through your body. That was how it felt when I first started wearing the hijab — feeling like I was always being judged and looked down upon or even pitied. Fast forward several years and I’m in Chicago, becoming quite a bit more unapologetic and fierce in my politics and identity, I would wear all black and my shirt would say “DEMILITARIZE” in all caps across the chest, and my clothing started to mimic my politics. And I also noticed something different in the way people were reacting to me as they saw me walk down the street. I noticed that I was still being stared at and looked at, but it was a very different look; it felt like they didn’t want to look at me at that point but they really had to. I felt so much more confident, like I truly had control over the situation, and reclaimed my agency in a public interaction — that is, being stared at — I would have otherwise been subjected to unwillingly.
I realized that by being able to dress in a certain way that makes people around me uncomfortable, or basically shatters their conception of what they think hijab-wearing women should dress like, allows me that agency against non-consensual transactions. I’m not asking to be stared at when I walk down the street, but when I’m wearing something that I know is going to command people to stare, I get my agency back. I am now not being stared at unwillingly, I am demanding that they’re staring at me, and they have no choice staring at me. For me it’s a reversal of being an object, of being looking at rather being an active person playing the role and how my body is being perceived as I walk down the street.
LL: One of the ways we encountered your work at the office was from a particular article called “Please Keep Your U.S. Flag Off My Hijab,” which related to the time between the elections of the current U.S. President and the following weeks following his inauguration. One image that circulated a lot was this painting by Shepard Fairey a.k.a. Obey with this Muslim-American woman wearing a hijab with a U.S. flag pattern on it — it’s not the first time that this artist uses women for his paintings, which does not go without problematic questions. Could you reiterate your argument here?
HK: For me, seeing this image pop up, in a time of already heightened emotional and mental crisis, was deeply shocking and disturbing. I think a lot of Muslim women and Muslim people felt that a certain way too but it might not have been immediately clear why. A lot of people weren’t able to really articulate why this seemed so problematic and I stressed that a few times. For example I was in a protest, the rally at the airport after the first Muslim ban dropped. I walked up to somebody and said, “this image is really problematic and as a hijab-wearing Muslim woman who with you’re trying to be in solidarity with, as an Iranian you’re trying to come to support me and my family being affected by this ban, I ask you to bring down this image because I find it harmful.” I was always responded to “Oh but you should be happy; I’m here anyway in this time of crisis. I’m on your side, go after somebody else!” Even if this image may have good intentions, in times of political crisis, I feel it’s aggregating so much harm we’re continuously told to ignore. “We’ll come back to that, we’ll do it later, go after the actual problematic like I’m trying.” That really stayed with me when I went to write this piece because we’re going to get free if one type of overt harm is just replaced by covert harm. This image was problematic for a number of reasons. Mainly because what does this American flag symbolize? The reason that we were all protesting at the airport was because the U.S. has bombed or destroyed, had inflicted heavy sanctions on these seven countries that they are now banning. The U.S.’s legacy as represented in a flag is now being draped over or as my hijab, which for me is incredibly spiritually antithetical to everything that this capitalist imperialistic nation stands for? It’s not only deeply insulting but, like, “how stupid do you think I am?” I’m not going to wear the flag of a country that flies every time my people is being bombed in the Middle East. But also, Muslims in the U.S. and I’m sure across the West are constantly being asked to prove that they’re American so that they can be in solidarity with you, or so that you deserve respect. But I don’t have to look American; I don’t have to present myself as American or as a citizen, or even have to pretend to love this country to deserve respect. I think that it’s a basic level that every human should receive and I shouldn’t have to bend over backwards to prove that I’m American, and only then be worthy of respect or support. This country is corrupt; I’m not going to pretend to love it. So I think there are a lot of layers to this outfit that were very harmful.
LL: I know that you also did a bit of ‘archeological’ work on how the painting itself was made. Can you give us more details?
HK: I think it’s also important to note that, as you mentioned, Shepard Fairey, a white non-Muslim man, created this image. He did create it out of a photo taken by a Muslim man of a woman who actually does not usually wear the hijab herself. She literally just wore the American flag as a hijab for the purpose of this photo so no hijab-wearing woman clearly was consulted throughout the making of any of these images, and even the photographer himself actually reached out to me and mentioned that he agreed with a lot of my criticisms about the way that Shepard Fairey recreated his image through his painting, and that it was not really conducive to what he was trying to convey either. A lot of this white male Western gaze on what a woman should look like in order to receive solidarity, was a sort of whitewashed and sanitized image. It’s just a sanitized image of a Muslim woman that now people are holding above their head saying “we support you,” but in fact, would you support an image created by a Muslim woman of bombs being dropped by the United States around her? What does an actual Muslim woman look like in the Middle East with whom you’re trying to be in solidarity with?
LL: Staying with the topic of the West’s orientalization of Muslim women, you wrote extensively about something we have touched upon in the first issue of clothing politics; what you define yourself as a trend to use hijab-wearing women as being as synonymous to the Muslim identity in order to push forward the inclusive spirit of a given brand or another. It becomes quickly obvious how essentializing this exercise can be. You specifically wrote in your article “If You Use Our Faces Stop Killing Our People,” “The overemphasis on the hijab as synonymous to the Muslim identity essentializes and flattens what it means to be Muslim and it allows the Muslim identity to be easily appropriated and exploited for social, political and economic benefits.” Could you develop a bit more the way in which you try to deconstruct what may look at very first glance as a “positive inclusivity” but in fact act as another layer of essentialist violence?
HK: I like to call it “surface-level inclusion.” At first glance, you feel excited that you see someone who looks like you is finally on the news, not being called a “terrorist.” So you’re like “Great, finally a few Western brands are going to include clothing that you don’t have to layer or wear longer or turn in certain ways to fit your needs.” In some senses, it’s a good thing and lots of people are excited about it. Nike came out with a hijab for sportswear and, sure enough, they already won an award for it. It was infuriating because, at the end of the day, what this does first and foremost is that it erases the fact that Muslim women, Muslim people, have been creating sport hijabs for ourselves for as long as Muslim women have been running. This is not an invention. This is not new. A lot of Muslim-owned brands, which have been existing for such a long time and have been creating this clothing, are now quickly overshadowed by highly capitalistic corporations. They are almost putting out of business a lot of Muslim-owned companies that are actually produced in a slow fashion model of production: their prices are much higher just because they’re not made through exploitative labor.
So economically this has been destructive and I’m sure it will only continue to be so. Particularly I think with this idea that you can just wrap a scarf around any non-Muslim white skinny model’s head and call her now representative of a population that you’re just trying to tap into their pockets, is incredibly disturbing in a way. Dolce & Gabbana came out with this incredibly expansive hijab collection, for many Muslims, and again we’re not monolithic, we obviously see a hijab in different ways, but for many Muslims the hijab is rather antithetical to capitalism. It’s supposed to show humility rather than “I’m wearing a seven hundred dollars scarf on my head!” For lots of Muslims it almost erases the significance of the hijab in an end on itself. But also the fact that so many of these corporations, new hijab collections or clothing for Muslim women are saying that they’re doing it to support Muslim women in a time where it’s politically sexy, where everyone wants to be helping the refugees,
everyone wants to put a hijab on things and call themselves radical and be part of the resistance. But if you actually dig a little bit deeper you see that most of these corporations are still using exploitative sweatshops run by Muslim women. So exploitative Muslim women labor behind the scenes yet they add a scarf on a model to be able to sell to the Muslim market and say that they’re helping Muslim women, while in fact you’re doing quite the contrary.
A lot of my work has becoming showing the hypocrisy of this — that you can’t just use the hijab to symbolize Islam and then say that you’re A-ok and I’ll give you thumb up and a gold star. If you want to support Muslims, it’s a little bit more complicated than that. It’s a huge complex system that profits from anti-Muslim racism internationally. Furthermore, to the point of the quote that you read, I think it’s also problematic in another way in that we start to, as a society at large, associate hijab with Islam and, anyone that wears a hijab, is therefore Muslim and those that do not wear hijab are therefore non-Muslims. You can’t just re-create a Muslim by just wearing a scarf on your head, and yet it is being attempted time after time by non-Muslim white models. This hijab therefore becomes Islam, in its entirety. So you can wear it for a day, you can experience what it feels like by just a single piece of cloth. Not only this incredibly minimizes and flattens what that means like to be Muslim, the complicated life experiences that we have that are beyond wearing a piece of scarf on our head, but also the fact that it’s harmful to Muslim women who choose not to wear the hijab. In a way, it’s almost compelling them, “You can’t be seen as Muslim unless you fit what now these western corporations have deemed, through their advertisement and through the targeted marketing, to be Muslim.” It creates frictions even within the Muslim community because now Western corporations have created this line of what they have created to be the image of a Muslim woman. So it’s just flattening in so many political, economic and social levels as well.
LL: Perhaps that’s a good illustration of what a fetish is, don’t you think? On the one hand, we have the French colonial fetish for Muslim women’s veil, as described by Ryme Seferdjeli in this issue; on the other, you have this propensity of Western corporations that aim at a broader market to flatten Muslim identities into the single object of the hijab.
HK: Ah! Do not get me started with the French! (laughs)
LL: Hey, that’d make a great new name for the magazine! (laughs)
HK: More seriously, I would be hesitant to even say it’s an affirmative culture when it comes to the hijab because it’s still very much not. Because it is again stripping a lot of the meanings of what it is, what the hijab means so it’s almost recreating the hijab to fit economic or political or social needs of white Western corporations. The hijab is essentially turning into a meaningless object and a symbol by Western corporations, and it doesn’t seem to extend beyond an advertisement or a clothing rack.
LL: You wrote a book entitled Teheran’s Streetstyle and an article called “Breaking the Law and Dress Code in Iran,” which also show well how everything we’re talking about right now is also extremely contextualized.
HK: Yes definitely, I think it’s a very sort of orientalist idea about Islam and particularly the hijab, to view them as a monolith, decontextualizing and saying that this is what the hijab means, like hundred percent of the time, forever and around the world. Like all clothing, hijab can be also contextualized based on where the society is, rules and regulations of the land, what’s happening politically, economically and socially. In Iran, there is a mandatory hijab for women as many people like to point out time after time again. What people don’t know about this is that this mandatory law really came from wanting to create an egalitarian form of dress after the revolution, which was Islamic and Marxist. So everyone talks about the dress code now, but no one talks about what the dress codes were before 1979 and the Revolution. Under the Shah, who was an imperialist puppet of the West, there is actually a period of mandatory unveiling. There are stories of police coming and ripping off women’s hijabs in the streets. Many women would not be allowed into restaurants, would not be offered government jobs if they wore hijabs.
So there was an incredibly hostile and anti-Muslim society in terms of how women dressed. Again, because women’s bodies, both in the West and the East, sort of globally, unfortunately due to the silly thing called patriarchy, are always being used as a marker of societies’ morality, whether it’s France, saying that morality means dressing this way without hijab, or in Iran where it’s sort of the opposite. I think that’s a universal thread, unfortunately, of how women’s bodies are seen and used by the state as markers of a society’s morality or progress. In Iran, right before the revolution happened and the hijab has been at this point fully devalued, it became a marker of social class because most women who wore the hijab were not allowed many jobs or opportunities, a lot of them were now stuck in lower-economic sectors. Hijab really became a very clear marker of social position. This revolution, which was also very heavily Marxist, had this idea of wanting to create egalitarian uniform to erase class distinction. Men also had a set of dress codes that they were required to have. Right now in Iran, the dominant body for public space is a demasculinized male body as the template. Anybody, both men and women, who have anything that stands out from that norm are asked to cover it. Men are supposed to maintain clean haircuts, they’re not allowed to wear shorts, they’re not allowed to wear clothing that some people would call obnoxious. Now the dress codes have turned into more of a sort of enforced conformity at the end of the day.
What’s complicated is that, while this is the political arena, socially it’s not very well enforced. In Tehran, where fashion is at its height of exploration in differences and variances, I tried many times myself in the course of my research to get stopped by the morality police, Gaste Irshad, which are walking down the streets. Unfortunately, or fortunately, I failed every single time wearing kinds of outrageous clothing. A lot of people, who told me that they had been wearing something that would be breaking the law, weren’t arrested. Of course there are many people arrested and it ranges from just having your photo taken and signing a waiver saying that you promise you will never do it again, and in some cases it has gotten worse, but that’s really quite rare according to the stories that I’ve heard. In this time, in the context of increasingly minimal enforcement and distinctions that were imposed in Iran around six or seven years ago, the underground fashion movement really started to flourish because no clothing was coming in really. No one really produced the manteau that most women in Iran are required to wear so it all became really domestic production. From this, it’s this huge flourishing underground fashion movement happening in Iran that is really quite amazing. But, this underground fashion movement is largely designated for upper-class women, as they not only have the money and leisure time necessary to find such expensive designers, as advertisements are scarce and oftentimes they have private Instagram accounts, but also have the financial ability to bribe, or pay the ticket for, the Gashte Irshad when stopped wearing illegal or strange clothing. So, while the upper socioeconomic classes are wearing illegal clothing more often, they are also able to get out of, or afford, tickets cited by the Gasht for their fashion faux pas.
LL: Is it mostly anonymous or do you have names of designers that you could share with us?
HK: There are quite a few designers who I love and I worked with them. For their safety, anytime I do an interview I actually ask whose name I can mention. I photographed a lot of people in my book as well. Most of people in my book are actually breaking the law. The purpose of that is to show the normalization of ‘law breaking’ in Iran essentially but also in terms of fashion at least. It also deals with a kind of challenge against the state. It actually shows the multiplicity in variances of beauty through modesty and showing that modesty does not mean one single thing. You can still break dress codes and dress in a way that is Islamically accepted by many.
LL: One last question I wanted to ask you — and I’m sorry because there’s not much of a transition beside perhaps the association we can make of modest and minimal — is about one of your manifestos, which invites to adopt a minimal wardrobe. As a form of conclusion, could you tell us more about it?
HK: As an anti-capitalist fashion blog, I always think about “what the hell does that mean?” Typical fashion blogs work with brands and get money if people are buying from the brands that you work with. But I didn’t want that to be my business model. I do not want to profit when I’m making people buy things. For me I think that the fashion industry is at the state of where it is because of this intense capitalization/commodification of the art of fashion. Actually I think this flows a lot more that you expected because the underground fashion in Iran is a slow fashion site of production. I see the future of fashion hopefully being in where I think as a minimalist fashion advocate, I see a lot of parallels between what’s happening in the underground fashion scene and the lifestyle change that I’m encouraging people to look into. It’s about understanding that fashion is an art form. Through its production, fashion involves countless people. From the people picking cotton for the cotton shirt, to the women sewing sleeves in the factory to the people transporting the final product to the stores, there is no way that a shirt can cost 10 dollars without exploitation happening. Getting people to think that if your clothing is this cheap, then who was this made at the expense of? Especially with something touching your skin so intimately and so very much tied up to how you’re representing your body.
It’s about all those things that you’ve mentioned in the six-pint list that you brought up from my piece about the political value of fashion. It really shows that you have to make a lifestyle choice, unless you’re saying that you’re giving your stamp of approval to endless exploitation in the fashion industry. For me, the minimalist wardrobe is not in the sense of the current white monochrome trend, but really in terms of quantity. It’s about buying select pieces that are going to be quite more expansive but buying less of them. So overall, you might be spending the same amount of money but you’ll have fewer clothes that are made to last and not made to fall apart. So it’s about treating your wardrobe almost as you’re creating an art gallery. So you’re picking each piece with intention; you know the person who made that piece, you value the individual, you understand the process. Just as you look at the brush of the painting, you look at the garment of and its composite, you’re curating your wardrobe with a select few pieces that resonate with you and say something about you. You invest and you know they’re going to last a long time. That is what I see as our way-out of this massive commodification and capitalization of the fashion industry, which also plays into devaluing fashion overall, which is this patriarchal view of being shallow, vain and destructive as an industry as we mentioned earlier. This for me is also a feminist lens that we should look at fashion with. We really should be revaluing this art form, thinking about it critically, as we should do for all art.
Transcription by Flora Hergon for The Funambulist.