Feminist Fashion of a Muslim Woman
On April 7 Hoda Katebi, an Iranian fashion blogger and activist, visited Skidmore College as the Keynote Speaker for the first annual Envisioning LiberaT.I.O.N (This is Our Network) Conference. The Conference, which took place on April 7 and 8, was an opportunity for students of color to come together in order to share narratives and redefine liberation using an intersectional framework to introduce healing for underrepresented groups at Skidmore and beyond.
Katebi was the perfect choice as the keynote speaker for the Conference. She is the founder of her own political fashion blog JooJoo Azad — meaning “Free Bird” in Farsi — which is dedicated to the “integration of ethical fashion and activism through an anti-capitalist, intersectional-feminist, lens.” Katebi’s blog fights one-dimensional and orientalist representations of Hijab-wearing Muslim women through feminist fashion.
At only twenty-three, Katebi also has self-published photography called “Tehran Streetstyle.”Her big “breakthrough” happened on a local TV news network WGN, where she was asked about Iran’s nuclear weapons (instead of her new published book). When Katebi gave a critical response to the question, the show’s hosts told her she did not sound like an American. As a Muslim woman constantly having to defend her identity, Katebi delivered great insights during the conference that paralleled its core purposes.
Full of energy and enthusiasm — even though she was slightly jet-lagged — Katebi opened the lecture by talking about how all art, specifically fashion, is inherently political. She mentioned that fashion choices are never created in a vacuum, but rather they are connected to a combination of culture, politics, and history. The argument is well-sounded, especially when discussing women’s bodies — often entangled in political tensions — are used by the state to perpetuate certain ideologies. Even though fashion is perceived currently as “vain and shallow,” it is an important and complex field.
The stereotypical view of fashion, according to Katebi, is driven by patriarchy, which underappreciates and devalues fields that are historically dominated by women. By studying fashion, one can gain insight into women’s history that are absent from legal forms and archives. The way women used to dress, or were forced to dress for that matter, offers significant insights to political and social structures and women’s relative power throughout society. On the other hand, clothing can also be misused as evidence for “liberation” and civilization, and often the making of clothing is an oppressive process for many women who are forced to work at exploitative sweatshops to make a living.
Katebi then went through a set of images about the evolution of fashion and women in Iran. The first one was a historical homoerotic image of two figures in the Qajar Dynasty, that she described as “gay”. She then explained how, throughout history, homosociality was a prominent fact in Iran. Furthermore, gender and sexuality were much more flexible. After that, she switched to a photo of a woman wearing more revealing clothing that looked very “Western” in nature. The British, with their own notions of what constitutes modern behavior, enforced heterosexuality as the ideal form of sexual behavior. In turn, this influenced how women dressed and women’s clothing had to be changed in order to fit Western modern notions of “straight women”. Katebi explained how “Women were strictly seen as objects of desire” to replace the very common homoertoism in Iran.
Historians have heavily debated the prominence of homoeroticism in the pre-modern world. Some associate the rise of heterosexuality as the norm for sexual behavior to solely Western influence. However, there are many other factors that shape the concept of heteronormativity that are not affiliated with a specific region, but rather can be seen as a set of complex interactions happening in a modern global context. Katebi’s argument does have elements of truth, but can been seen as lightly oversimplified.
During the second half of the lecture, Katebi tried to cover a lot of ground regarding the use of fashion in a negative way to assess women’s position in society. While all of the content was important to her lecture, the material was very dense. Her main point was the most clear when she showed a picture from Iran’s neighboring country, Afghanistan, where a group of women could be seen wearing mini-skirts and "westernized" clothing. The photo has been used a lot, especially in social media, to justify US foreign intervention in the country. Katebi said that this photo, and many others similar it to it, justified the “militarization of Afghanistan,” which only further decreased women’s education rates in the country, and in general made women worse off than before.
Katebi concluded her lecture by highlighting the importance of understanding and listening to different narratives that are often silenced in society. Katebi talked further about the American identity and how it often excludes Muslim women. She criticized the Shepard Fairey poster “We the People Are Greater than Fear” which showcased a Muslim women covered in an American flag for its message that Muslims are only uplifted when they are wrapped in America.
Katebi was fearless and incredibly passionate. Her unapologetic insights into fashion and its political nature provided a refreshing take on a topic that is often sidelined. It was also quite refreshing to see a keynote speaker so incredibly young, and, in a sense, relatable.
*Photo retrieved from Katebi's Blog