Hoda Katebi is an Iranian-American anti-capitalism fashion blogger and author. She tours nationally and speaks to others about contemporary political and cultural issues globally. In doing so, she uses art, mostly fashion, to express in a political way. She’s such an incredible person, I’ve volunteered for her, I learned a lot from her and others. Bringing Muslim women of color together, supporting and helping each other is what we needed.
The media portray us in a way that make us seem like we are all bad people. Chatting with Hoda really put me at ease that we are all in this together, dealing with these issues differently. I hope reading this open your minds to what the media doesn’t show.
I.A: How did you combine politics and fashion together? How did you come across that idea?
Hoda: For me fashion was always political, in fact I got through fashion through politics and through self realization of the power of the way I dress effecting to the way people see and react to you. And the inherent politics of the clothes that you wear: I wear hijab and I was born and raised in Oklahoma, so the impact of that makes the clothing speak volumes. But even beyond the physical external value of fashion, internally the politics of fashion extends to where it’s produced. So if we look at much of the factories abroad and the that allowed Western exploitation of garment workers — this is the legacy of Western Imperialism. The fashion industry itself is one of the most destructive industries in the world and yet not many people talk about what happens behind the scenes. For example, what the process is to make a piece of clothes that you could buy on sale for two dollars? So even that there’s so many layers of politics behind that.
I.A: You’re the author and photographer of your fashion book “Tehran Streetstyle” so what got you into photography? How did you learn?
Hoda: I’ve always had a camera and took pictures with it but I never considered myself as a photographer because anyone today can buy a camera and say they’re a photographer haha. For me it came from wanting to be able to have full control over the creation of my images when I was doing fashion shoots for my blog, and not being on the same page with many of the photographers I worked with. So I just decided I should learn how to do it myself!
I.A: On your blog it stated, “the first-ever in-print collection of streetstyle photography from Iran aimed to challenge both Western Orientalism and domestic Iranian mandatory dress codes.” How’s it like to be the first to do so?
Hoda: It’s a little sad, of course. It’s 2017 and this is the first that…well it was published in 2016, but that it would be the first ever focus on the fashion of Iran as a cultural, political celebration and feminist celebration, of modern day Iran at least. It is a book celebration Iran and Iranian culture and in doing so challenging orientalism and the resulting violence.
I.A: It’s good and bad. Good because you let people know about this, but bad because not many people know. Overall, it’s good you chose let people know.
Hoda: Hah, thank you.
I.A: I feel like some people, especially those who are racist or something wouldn’t be interested in reading it, but I bet those who are interested would definitely read it.
Hoda: Also, the beauty and power of fashion is that it’s sort of a universal language. So through fashion we could access through these spaces. For example, slightly racist or capitalistic consumers are here for the fashion, but they also end up learning about everything else. For me fashion is like my gateway drug for people haha.
I.A: That’s very interesting to me because I would never think of fashion in a political way, it’s fascinating how you put fashion and politics combined. Others usually combine politics with other forms of arts, like writing, painting and other.
I.A: You attended the Bosnian massacre remembrance, tell those who don’t know about the hidden part of history and why they used coffee in honor of those Muslim Bosnian men and boys who were murdered?
Hoda: Yes, so that exhibit, which was by that artist Aida Sehovic and she is a Bosnian artist who put that together, also in different cities. In Chicago they were pouring out eight thousand cups of coffee to honor the over eight thousand Bosnian men and boys who were massacred twenty two years ago. They chose coffee because they were trying to figure out a way to honor and memorialize these people. They asked all their wives of those who have been massacred, what was their fondest memories with their husbands and because in Bosnia…actually many Muslim countries coffee and tea is a very big part of the culture, so many of their wives said was having coffee with their husbands, like having conversations with them when they came home from work or wherever. So they decided to honor them by pouring out cups of coffee for each of them.
I.A: So they took something simple, like having coffee with them and use that to honor them?
I.A: It’s interesting because growing up I didn’t know about the history of Bosnia. I’ve known Bosnian Muslims who never really showed that their Muslims much. The history of what happened to Muslims there once they were found out to be Muslims still haunts them. That generation tried their best to keep their Muslim kids and others safe, by keeping it a secret of who they are, so they wouldn’t get hurt. In current generation being Bosnian-American they’re slowly accepting and embracing who they are. Along with remembering those in past, honoring them with coffee.
Hoda: Definitely, yeah.
I.A: It’s sad that we didn’t know about this part of history, leaves me wondering why hide this?
Hoda: Yes that’s the power of genocide, right?
I.A: Yes and the idea of pouring eight thousand cups of coffee on the ground outside would capture attention and people walking by would stop walking, wanting to know what’s all that for and why.
I.A: What made you start a blog? Obviously, to bring up political issues and others, but explain what got you started to blog?
Hoda: So I started my first fashion blog by senior year of high school, before that fashion wasn’t at all interesting to me. I don’t have stories like all the other fashion bloggers who always play dress up as a kid, which was not me at all, ever. It was only by senior year of high school that I actually discovered my first fashion blog and I thought it was an interesting concept. I followed a few consistently, but there’s always something problematic and boring for me: just a bunch of white women wearing very expensive clothes they had no idea where they were manufactured. There were a lot of brands that supported Israeli occupation and had really horrible labor positions, so I was frustrated with all of that. I was thinking more and more of what the alternative would look like and then really reflecting on my experiences, such as wearing hijab in Oklahoma and further particular incident of a Muslim woman in France who was subject to a hate attack. The Muslim woman was pregnant and the attackers hit her stomach and she had a miscarriage…
Hoda: And that story really struck me so deeply to the point that I went to create a space online where I could yell haha. It changes everything, so I didn’t want to preach it to the choir only, I wanted to figure out a way to make this message accessible and be the same level of people, not talked down. I used art, like fashion to bring this message out.
I.A: So you use blogging as a way to express how you truly feel about these issues and also let others know about it.
Hoda: Yeah, exactly!
I.A: You mentioned that you were in Oklahoma, I didn’t know about that.
Hoda: Haha yeah I was born and raised there for seventeen years of my life, then came to Chicago for college.
I.A: What did you study in college?
Hoda: I double majored in international relations and middle eastern studies.
I.A: How is it like to be Muslim and support those with different sexual orientations? Not many support them or are not educated enough to understand.
Hoda: Mhmm yeah unfortunately it’s not something that is deeply, widely accepted by mainstream Muslims today. I mean I think it would’ve been a better question to ask a queer Muslim about their experiences rather than just an ally how it feels like to be an ally.
I.A: Yeah that’s better.
Hoda: But yeah I think it’s really important for Muslims to remember or acknowledge the fact that the Middle East prior the European and western imperialism, actually much of the Middle East, India, Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan and others, gender fluidity was very normal. Meaning that sexual orientation was not an identity factor. The West hypercategorizes identity. The category was a western concept, but gender fluidity is normal behavior, it’s very normal in the Middle East. You could see in that before the British and French imperialism in the Middle East. For example, when we greet each other what do we do? Men kiss each other on the cheeks, they’re very close physically, especially in our shared culture which we had for a very long time. I don’t think it’s anything new, I don’t think it’s a western concept, I think it’s historically and traditionally part of the Islamic and middle eastern culture.
I.A: Growing up as the first generation in America, culturally we were taught to stay away from those who aren’t straight, thinking they’re all sexual predators, instead of getting educated and just simply accepting others.
Hoda: Also, the culture has been changed, so western imperialism has imported homophobia, not homosexuality. Part of imperialism is…I mean imperialism and patriarchy are two that are the same, patriarchy destroys homosexuality and that’s why people are homophobic, it’s a patriarchal notion of gender because men cannot stand being the object of desire, same how they think women as objects of desire, always. This kind of challenges their power, it’s like a power trip for straight cis men, so that’s why it’s such a issue for people.
I.A: I first heard about you from a friend of mine who attended one of your speeches at her university, which lead me to be one of your volunteers. Without her telling me I probably wouldn’t have known about you, so I bet you get a lot of new supporters through doing speeches. How’s it like to give speeches at colleges?
Hoda: Yeah it definitely helps, so thank you for your friend haha. I’ve always really enjoyed public speaking. Blogging is such an online, far-away, behind-a-computer job. Probably my favorite part of what I do is being able to travel to meet my readers through talks, hosting events, book signings, etc, and it’s always refreshing and inspiring for me to be able to learn from people I meet or people in the audience who talk about their work. It’s a very beautiful experience and I’m blessed and honored for everyone to be apart of it.
I.A: It’s great how you bring people together from different cultural, religious and other backgrounds to speak to them about your work, along with bringing up serious issues going on. In your speeches you mentioned about your internship, what else do you speak about?
Hoda: Ummm a lot of different things, depends on who’s inviting me and what they’re asking me for, so they usually have a topic in mind that’s related to my work. Recently in L.A. I talked about ethical fashion, but I connected it to race because the room was mostly white people and obviously there’s racial education in ethical fashion that tends to be left out of conversations in these sorts of spaces. Usually in my book tour I talk about my book and also my research, which is about politics of underground fashion in Iran and and relationship of gender, feminism, nationhood form of fashion. Also, Islamic feminism and complications of feminism, things like that. All sorts of things haha.
I.A: What tips you’d give to others who want to start a book about fashion?
Hoda: Well creating a book is hard work haha, but don’t underestimate that, it’s a beautiful process. For me I independently published because I’m an impatient book publisher and wanted full control. I needed a publisher to help find readers for me, but don’t worry about what you think might be the right or wrong path. Just do what makes most sense for you.
I.A: How do you want to end the interview? Anything you want to say or something.
Hoda: Thanks for reaching out!
I.A: Yeah, thank you for your time!
Hoda: Of course! I want to support Muslim women of color whenever I can, especially since you volunteered for me!