Hoda Katebi: Muslim Fashion Blogger, Designer and Activist

Hoda Katebi: Muslim Fashion Blogger, Designer and Activist

Hoda Katebi runs the blog JooJoo Azad, which means "Free Bird" in Farsi. It serves as a space for her to talk about the intersection of politics and fashion. She tackles subjects like the oppression inherent in fast fashion labor practices and the surface level diversity found in many Western brands' ad campaigns. She describes herself as "a Chicago-based angry daughter of Muslim-Iranian immigrants," and roots a lot of her work in emotions that the world doesn't like women, especially brown women, especially brown Muslim women, to express.

A few months ago, she was speaking on WGN-TV when a white anchor asked her what she thought of people who say the U.S. can't trust Iran because it has nuclear weapons. She responded saying we can't trust the U.S. because of the way we have been violent to countries in the Middle East. Another white TV anchor then told her she doesn't sound like an American. Despite the racist and xenophobic implications of that assertion, Katebi responded with poise, saying, "That's because I've read!" Now, she's turning the momentum from that viral fame into a book club, one of the many projects she is working on in addition to a gender neutral clothing line and a women's sewing cooperative.

We caught up with her to talk about her clothing line, thinking beyond a Western audience, and boycotting fast fashion.

You talk about your blog being born from hate. I think that's super interesting because people of color often feel this pressure to present their anger and pain as nonviolent and calm when the violence they face is so normalized that people don't even realize it's occurring. It's important to explicitly say that your emotions are a response to hate.

In my Instagram bio, I describe myself as an angry daughter of immigrants. Yeah, I'm angry and I have every right to be. I think often people of color are characterized as angry and told to calm and also are told by our own communities to appreciative. It's really important to show people that anger is a valid and justified emotion. I think it applies to me differently than, for example, a black woman who is even more stereotyped in that way.

To me, it's shocking when people aren't angry. There's so much to be angry about! Rooting my work in my anger and allowing it to fuel my work gives so much more dimension to what I'm saying and to how I'm saying things.

I saw the WGN-TV interview that went viral. From the beginning, your interviewers exhibited peak whiteness. They couldn't pronounce the name of your blog. I was like, "What the hell... you're interviewing someone. How have you not taken the time to figure out how to pronounce the name of their blog?" Obviously it got worse from there. What were your thoughts during that interview? There was a lot of offensive stuff going on but you remained incredibly poised.

I know that I have the right to be angry, but I also know that you have to know your audience. I knew that this was a largely white audience that doesn't understand anything that I'm going to be talking about. If I appeared angry, then they wouldn't pay attention to what I say, but how I say it. I've learned that anger has to be used strategically. If I had used anger in that interview, which I had every right to, I knew that what I was trying to say wouldn't have come across in the right way.

You started a book club out of that moment.

I had been thinking about different ways to engage people on a larger scale and create a sense of community in a way that writing articles all the time may not. Everyone was focusing on the line, "Because I've read." People were asking, "Well, what are you reading?" Which I think is a fair question. I didn't want to present a bunch of really dense books and tell people to read them. I wanted to be able to use the momentum to really build something and use this critical moment to teach people. I was like, "Alright, let's read together and let's have it organized in a way that's accessible. Let's challenge the world together." I think what people really appreciated from the interview was that truth and honesty were being spoken, especially from a person of color on television. Things you know but that you can't always articulate that haven't been taught to you in textbooks.

You're also working on making clothing.

We're launching a refugee and immigrant women's sewing cooperative in Chicago that works with the most marginalized women to [help them] become financially independent. A lot of women don't speak English, don't have access to transportation, have kids. We're making work and labor and financial independence accessible. We have on-site child care, transportation services, legal services, an on-call gynecologist, translation service. It's going to be hosted at American Islamic College. We're reaching out to vulnerable communities and asking, "Do you know how to sew? If you don't, do you want to take sewing classes to eventually learn and join this cooperative? And if you do, do you want work and what is prohibiting you from getting that?"

That project came from me developing my own line, which is a genderless clothing line that explores femininity and gender through Iranian architecture. I was looking at producing it at different factories in LA, and because the prices they were offering me were so cheap, it was scary. There are a lot of undocumented immigrants who are caught up in the sweatshop factory production in LA, so I didn't trust what I was being told. There's a gap of actual transparent production that looks at labor and fashion production holistically, not just at the aesthetic product, but also at the process that gets you there. Fashion should be looked at like an art piece. We appreciate a painting, but we also look at each brush stroke that goes into it as forming a piece of a whole. Why can't we do the same with our clothes?

On your website, you have a boycott list. Even among people interested in social justice, knowing which brands to boycott is difficult. People have a hard time thinking about the ethics behind the clothes they buy.

I think that's very intentional for two reasons. Firstly, it's because we live in a patriarchal society that doesn't value women's work, and women dominate the fashion industry in terms of consumption and production. When we look at car design or architecture, which are traditionally male dominated, we're like "Oh, they must be brilliant." But we don't think the same thing about fashion. But fashion is, to me, one of the most political forms of artwork, tied to history and imperialism. It can really say so much about gender and self-identity. It's fascinating. But we live in a society that doesn't value women's work, whether it's fashion, or raising kids, or emotional labor.

Secondly, most fashion production happens in vacuum areas after imperialism. The legacies of the U.K. and the U.S. across Southeast Asia leads to gross human rights violations and poor labor standards that Western companies then come in and exploit. If people knew the conditions in which clothing is produced, they would be outraged... hopefully. But we're taught to be completely detached from our clothing so that exploitation can continue.

It especially affects poor women of color who often have to care for children, work long hours, and cook food.

Which is why it's especially annoying when Western brands that use sweatshop labor now put hijabs on their models and everyone is like, "Oh my God! They support refugees and Muslims!" when in fact it's mostly Muslim brown women who are being exploited in their factories. If you really want to support us, why don't you start there rather than putting hijabs on skinny white models?

I want to talk more about how you're making genderless clothing. You've said before that genderless clothes are often assumed to be masculine. Can you expand on that a bit?

I wanted to make sure to create a genderless clothing line because the gender binary is fake. That is really basic for me. At the same time, all the genderless clothing I see is always based off a male body. Why can't genderless be men dressing in feminine clothing? I think that comes down to a deeper patriarchal understanding of bodies. For me, I wanted to create genderless clothing and also challenge the idea of what genderless could look like. I want femininity to be appreciated and uplifted, not just women's bodies. Islamic architecture is also a natural pairing. No one really knows, but in the Middle East and Iran, we were all pretty much queer as fuck before Western imperialism. This is a conversation I want to bring to light as well.

You had a post about that image of a Muslim woman wearing the American flag and how you felt that it is problematic. It's used as an image of unity and peace, but you feel like there are deeper issue with it. Can you elaborate on that?

Definitely. I think the image is incredibly problematic for several reasons. Muslim women, and Muslims in general, are always asked to prove their American-ness and to prove that they belong in this country. We're constantly seen as foreign and are always being otherized. At the same time, we don't have to be American to deserve respect.We often feel like we don't deserve respect if we are not wearing an American flag or if we don't become a U.S. citizen. This image perpetuates a lot of incredibly harmful xenophobic and anti-immigrant ideas of respect and belonging. Also the flag symbolizes such a violent history. It represent the areas where Indigenous people were murdered and where Black people were enslaved, and to this day in which the stars and stripes fly every time my people are bombed across the Middle East. That is such a violent image to be wrapping myself in.

Photo by Shephard Fairey

It's like forced assimilation.

Yeah, in a way it's forced assimilation into violent white supremacy.

Right, and maybe the solution is not forcing marginalized people to pledge allegiance to the state, it's demolishing or questioning the state instead.

The only time our image will be lifted up by people is when it's created by a white man and it contains the American flag. At the same time, the hijab is viewed as a form of radicalization under many U.S. government programs like CVE that actually views wearing hijabs as a rubric for what radicalization looks like.

Oh, wow really?

Yeah, it's a program called Countering Violent Extremism where major DHS grants are given out in the community and law enforcement that has a false rubric. I think that dichotomy is really ridiculous. On one hand trying to cover us with an American flag and that same time the hijab is being criminalized.

You build communities that center Muslim women and women of color. What does that look like for you on a day-to-day basis?

It means being incredibly intentional about how I'm using the platforms that I have been blessed to have and also about what I am doing myself, every decision I make, what clothes I choose to purchase, where I go, how I choose to spend my money. Every single decision that we make is part of a larger environment, and even the decision of what clothes we choose to wear can be incredibly political, but thinking with that mindset and being very intentional with all of that, I think is very important.

I often ask myself in my work, "How do I center brown and black audiences? Because I am so conditioned to center a whiteness and white people?" I want to ask if you ever feel that way or feel that you have to make an effort to think beyond a white gaze?

Definitely, when I first started JooJoo Azad, it was intentionally centered on white people. When we officially started, my goal was to convince materialistic, racist white women that fashion is political and that the hijab is not oppressive. My audience was very white, so I used Pinterest, and different platforms that I knew that white women would use, and my work was very much centered on educating white people. But after I went to Iran and I was working with underground fashion designers, I kind of asked them, "Now that I have taken up so much of your time, what can I do for you? "Across the board they were all like, "We know your work, it's all set on challenging this and challenging that, but there is nothing coming out of Iran that celebrates our culture." That in itself is a form of resistance — being able to celebrate and talk to your own people. Ever since that trip to Iran, there has been a shift in my work in terms of audiences. I feel like it's easy for me to write for a Muslim audience because there are things that we can work through like not accepting surface-level inclusion. Those conversations are fairly easy to have because those are people who I am having conversations with day-to-day.

The difficulty that I am having right now is trying very hard to be intentional about not centering an American audience. For example, not using terms that we take for granted here. Something that I am really trying to work on and that I'm excited that the book club seems to be doing, is really having an international focus and being intentional in doing so and not being America-centric. At the end of the day, I do live here, this is the stuff that I am seeing and the stuff that I am responding to the most because it's my own experience, but I also want to make sure that my language, my audience, and how I am framing things, is acceptable for my international audience as well.

Photography: Kevin Serna