This Muslim Fashion Blogger Was Told She Didn’t Sound American on Live TV
Fashion blogger Hoda Katebi appeared on local Chicago news station WGN 9 earlier this month to do one thing: discuss her new book, Tehran Streetstyle. Katebi, a University of Chicago graduate, released the book of photos as an extension of JooJoo Azad, the fashion blog she runs, and to “challenge both Western Orientalism and domestic Iranian mandatory dress codes.”
Things got off to neutral start with anchors Larry Potash and Robin Baumgarten first addressing how Katebi aims to merge fashion and politics, and how she’s doing so with her new book. She began by discussing her upbringing as an Iranian-American woman and Muslim in Oklahoma (“I was physically assaulted,” she said of one experience), and how that inspired her interest in fashion and what it says about culture.
The conversation continued and they discussed the history of women’s fashion in Iran, and the significance of the hijab—until it took a sharp turn. “Let’s talk about nuclear weapons,” Potash said out of nowhere. “Some of our viewers may say we cannot trust Iran.”
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“I don’t think we can trust this country,” Katebi replied, addressing how the United States has historically impacted Middle Eastern relations. “I’m a pacifist, I don’t believe in violence, but also, when we look at the legacy of imperialism and colonization in the Middle East and we see the legacy of this country and all of the violence that it has not only created but also created the capacity for. A lot of these weapons in the Middle East are completely brought in by the United States.”
Baumgarten chimed in, suggesting she did not sound like an American.
“A lot of Americans might take offense to that. You’re an American. You don’t sound like an American,” Baumgarten told her.
“That’s cause I’ve read,” Katebi said, which we can only describe in one way: mic drop. “It’s really important that we look beyond these really simple narratives that we’re told, whether it’s about Muslim women, whether it’s about the legacy of this country …”
The conversation shifted to discuss an upcoming fashion show Katebi had in the works, and then ended abruptly.
After the incident, Katebi took to her website to share her reaction the fact that Potash brought up weapons during a discussion about fashion. “So hindsight is 20/20, and I honestly should have just stopped him right there and questioned why he thought it was okay to make this ridiculous comment and pose it as a question. (I think I was too excited to answer the question than question his premises),” she wrote, explaining how she’s often cornered into discussing Iranian politics.
She then said being told she didn’t sound American was a double standard. “Are they saying that Americans must not question their government, must see the world in black and white, and chose simplicity over nuanced understandings? In that case, you all are doing it right,” she added. “But furthermore, what an incredibly loaded statement to say to a visibly Muslim woman on live TV, pushing every stereotype of 'other,' 'foreign,' and 'incompatible with America' that Muslims are so systematically characterized as—and therefore used as justification to commit violence against, both here and abroad. If a white person said the same things as I did I guarantee you their 'American-ness' would not have been questioned.”
On Wednesday, Katebi took to Twitter to first thank those who have supported her stance, and also provide an update in which we learned anchor Robin Baumgarten later apologized to her, to which she replied with a few proposals. “The apology was important, but it’s also important to be able to use this moment as a teaching tool, and prevent it from happening again. Let’s raise the bar,” she wrote.
The response to her initial tweet about the incident was met with much applause.
On Thursday, Katebi offered more details about the apology to InStyle. "This isn't about Hoda vs. WGN. This is really about the normalization of stereotypes that feed into systematic anti-Muslim racism. It really is a larger conversation that needs to be had, and I would be happy to appear on-air with both Larry and Robin and go over the conversation together as an important part of shifting our narratives and mindsets," she told InStyle. "Unfortunately, Larry has not only not made contact since the interview was conducted, and the morning before the conversation was set to happen—this morning—I was called back and told that they have changed their minds and want to go with a different story, one that I would be able to come back on the show. But it would be pre-recorded and edited by them. They told me that they did not trust me."
For Katebi, it was important to react eloquently, and not lose her cool. "People of color, especially women of color, are put under a microscope, and how we react is always policed. I knew that if I showed anything side from casual amusement, that I would have been scrutinized as angry and emotional—labels that are often times placed on women and women of color, especially black women," she added. "Ultimately, I think rage an anger is powerful, righteous, and justified."
"To young women watching this, I deeply love and appreciate the love and support, but this is not about me—this is about resistance, about questioning the stories you're being told, and not being afraid to do something about it," she said in response to any message she was for young women watching her response. "This is about being unafraid in getting up and fighting for your community, and that you're not alone. Don't allow injustice, however small or large, to go unchallenged. We're in this all together, after all!"