Hoda Katebi went on TV to talk about her book and fashion blog, instead she was forced to prove she was a proud American
“Let’s talk about nuclear weapons”, isn’t something you often hear in fashion interviews. But during a live television broadcast, Muslim blogger Hoda Katebi, who was promoting her book Tehran Streetstyle, was asked this question by WGN’s Larry Potash.
Oklahoma-raised Katebi was tasked with explaining whether viewers are wrong to say “we cannot trust Iran” rather than talking about her blog and upcoming book. She was told she didn’t “sound” American by news anchor Robin Baumgarten, presumably because she dared to question the country’s attitudes while wearing a headscarf. Her reaction went viral. It was measured, her answer refreshingly nuanced, she managed to turn a shock question into an intelligent criticism by asserting: “I don’t think we can trust this country, what has this country done to the majority of the Middle East?”
“I think I wasn't giving him the answers that he wanted to hear, so he just wanted to trip me up at that point,” she explains over the phone. “He actually didn't ask a single question about my book or my work”. Katebi said that although she was caught off guard, the way she was treated doesn’t really shock her. “There’s always this inherent bias that a lot of people in the west have towards Muslims. As an American-Iranian I (am expected to) condemn every part of half of my identity but then unquestionably pledge allegiance to the other half.”
We caught with her to recap the awkward on-screen debate and talk about everything from becoming a meme to why you actually can’t separate politics from fashion.
What has the reaction been like since you appeared on television? I see you’ve become a meme.
Hoda Katebi: (Laughs) Overwhelmingly positive, in a way that's been quite unexpected. People are really just waiting to see the honest truth being spoken on TV and in the news. Especially at a time where the current president is just constantly lying. It's almost unfortunate that when someone speaks out against the state it's so baffling to people that it goes viral.
Were you scared of backlash when you got the question?
Hoda Katebi: I was actually anticipating getting a few death threats after I got off the air. A lot of my work is centred on challenging white supremacy, privilege, and hierarchy. So I frequently get death threats and threats of violence. That doesn't necessarily stop me from saying what has to be said.
When the host said you don’t sound American, do you think that was because Americans aren’t used to confronting their own violence?
Hoda Katebi: Most definitely. The selective memory that Americans are taught to have really breeds a sort of patriotism that is always manifested violently. So for example, slavery, which still affects the socio-economic status of black people in this country, gets maybe a paragraph in most US history textbooks and is never really referenced again throughout Americans' education. Then you look at 9/11, which of course is a horrific incident but also did not nearly affect the same number of people that United States' war abroad does. 9/11 is a never forget, and slavery is an always forget.
I feel like they should invite you back on for round two.
Hoda Katebi: We actually had a conversation about it and they agreed, but it wouldn't be a live or unedited interview, it would be a pre-recorded and pre-edited interview, which I, of course, said no to. It's so important to be able to own your own narrative, and that only comes through having the final say yourself and not having your words edited.
Tell me about your day-to-day life before this all kicked off.
Hoda Katebi: So I started JooJoo Azad in August 2013 when I was a student at the University of Chicago. I graduated in 2016 then worked for about a year at a non-profit civil rights firm helping with a lot of legal cases of people who were discriminated against.
I now work full time on projects like a sewing refugee co-op of women here in Chicago who have been recently displaced and don't speak English. I created a space where I could bring people together, provide sewing machines, and connect them to designers who I have been working with through my blog to get them really good work. It’s not at all like a factory setting – it’s living wage, we’re able to provide childcare, translation services, but also social services and legal services. It’s a holistic approach to refugee and immigrant support.
I’ve got a clothing line that is all ethically produced that's genderless. Also, JooJoo Journal, a space for international voices that aren't given a platform on mainstream media to really articulate their thoughts.
“A better question is, why aren't people in fashion talking about politics when they’re so intimately connected?” – Hoda Katebi
Do you think it’s important that fashion bloggers also engage with politics?
Hoda Katebi: Absolutely. All art taking up space in a public setting is political, inherently. The way that we present our bodies for public consumption says so much about both ourselves. Also, (if you’re not) using your art and your platform as a way to question norms and challenge oppression and injustice, that's just complacency. Often we are able to separate the two because a lot of the fashion industry is dominated by white western corporations who are upper-class and so they don't actually have to deal with the sorts of violence happens to oppressed and poor women of colour around the world.
It's so important for people to be able to engage with the industry as a whole and not just the aesthetic value – where did your clothes come from? Are the brands that you're working with producing their clothing in a sweatshop abroad? If so you're directly responsible. That's very much linked to your work. A better question is, why aren't people in fashion talking about politics when they're so intimately connected?