Katebi, who went on the show to discuss her work dealing with the intersectionality of fashion and activism, as well as her photography book Tehran Streetstyle, was instead asked questions with Islamophobic overtones.
“Let’s talk about nuclear weapons. Some of our viewers may say we cannot trust Iran. What are your thoughts?” Katebi was asked by WGN-TV anchor Robin Baumgarten.
The 23-year-old, who studied international relations and Middle Eastern politics at the University of Chicago, responded: “I don’t think we can trust this country [the United States]. I am 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 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 Unites States.”
To that, Baumgarten said, “A lot of Americans might take offense to that. You’re an American, you don’t sound like an American when you say [that] … you know what I mean?”
Katebi didn’t miss a beat and stated matter of factly: “That’s cause I’ve read.” She continued, “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 was literally built on the backs of Black slaves and after the genocide of indigenous people.”
According to a WGN-TV spokesperson, Baumgarten apologized to Katebi and “they had a constructive dialogue about micro-aggressions.” The pair will also “be working together to use this as a teachable moment to encourage education and a deeper understanding of race, religion and identity struggles.”
However, the 23-year-old wants people to know that this incident, despite a productive outcome, “isn’t out of the ordinary.”
“I think that was just very shocking, but unfortunately not surprising,” Katebi tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “That blatant sort of double standard of one momeet me being asked to basically denounce half of my identity as an Iranian, by unquestionably saying, ‘Oh yeah, I denounce this and that about Iran.’ But then fool blind patriotism towards this country in the same breath, within the span of a minute. For them, not being able to get those answers out of me I think was unsettling, just because people aren’t taught that that’s not okay. And especially from Muslims, our political voice is oftentimes criminalized when it is against the state.”
In the case of this particular segment, Katebi says it was “the beauty of knowing that it was live and unedited” that allowed her to make use of the moment and express her truest opinions — something that she hopes more Muslim women can do in the future. For many, it’s still difficult to speak out in the way that she had the opportunity to, but she looks forward to change.
Unfortunately, for the daughter of Iranian immigrants who grew up in Oklahoma, ignorance to Katebi’s identity and culture is nothing new. From a very young age, she says that she was recognized as the token Middle Eastern and subjected to “bulls*** questions” about conflict and culture in the east. As a means to defend herself and respond to people’s ignorance, she gained an interest in reading about history and politics integral to her background — things she later discovered had a relationship to fashion.
“In an anthropological setting, fashion is a way of looking at women’s histories, and women’s histories are often not documented historically,” Katebi explains, as a result of her research at the University of Chicago. “But really, you can see tension sort of mapped onto women’s bodies. Political tension and things like that, where otherwise, women’s histories would oftentimes be lost.”
In the past, fashion had been a way for Katebi to distance herself from her family’s history and “Muslim-ness,” choosing to wear American brands like Abercrombie & Fitch to blend in with people at school. But when blending in seemed impossible for the self-conscious young girl, she decided to use her knowledge about the politics behind clothes to stand out.
“From a political lens, I’m gonna get stares regardless, so I might as well use my body as a way to reclaim my agency and demand people’s stares to the way that I dress,” she says. “I might as well make them stare at me on my own terms, rather than just being a passive person who has no agency in this public transaction of looks.”
Katebi has the same mindset when it comes to her moment in the spotlight. “I don’t want to turn a movement into an individual, it’s not about me,” she says of the segment’s viral nature. “I want people to not just cheer from their computer screens, but go out into the community and do something about it. Pick up a book, if you have access and are able to read. And don’t let this happen.”
As for the future of her work, Katebi says that her mission is to help others in the Muslim community “deepen their engagement with fashion beyond just accepting what I like to call surface level representation or revolution washing.”
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