“Expect all-nighters.” How Iranian-American blogger Hoda Katebi stood up against cultural ignorance, Western Orientalism, and unethical fashion
At just 22 years old, Muslim-Iranian writer/photographer Hoda Katebi has translated culture, politics, feminism and activism into a tangible language anyone can understand: the fashion industry. Since 2013, the young blogger has gained recognition from global media for her stand on culture, the media, and Western Orientalism. Plus, she’s published a book called Tehran Streetstyle too! We caught up with her to find out how on earth she fits everything in.
Where are you now? Can you describe your surroundings?
I’m in bed! I know, I know, I usually am the first person to advise against doing work from bed, but some days you seem to change into your pyjamas and hide under the covers faster than you realize.
To my right is my bookcase, decorated with books of radical thought and Persian poetry, favourite magazines, and a stack of my own books! Above it the word عشق or love in Farsi (it’s less cheesy in Farsi, I promise) is painstakingly spelled out with string lights. My violin is close by.
In front of me in my desk—where I should be right now—lined with radical art and photos of Iran. And on my left is my clothing rack with a poster right above that says “Zionism sucks” from a protest I went to last year.
What was your early life like?
Growing up in Oklahoma was a shit show, especially when I started wearing the hijab in 6th grade and became more visibly Muslim. Getting assaulted – verbally, physically, or emotionally – was the norm. Despite everything, I still somehow mustered the courage to start a little environmental club in middle school and have been organising since!
What does your schedule look like today?
Today (MLK Day) I finally got to sleep in for the first time in over a month, so I was pretty excited about that. I got in some violin practice (I have a recital with some friends in February to benefit my radical artist collective!) in the morning and then went to a rally to demanding to free Bresha Meadows, a 14 year old black girl who is currently incarcerated after defending herself and her family. I’m an abolitionist and therefore don’t believe in prisons, given their roots in white supremacy and failure to be productive in any way. After the rally, I had a few meetings with friends and for work, and ended the day photographing the Inner City Muslim Action Network’s MLK celebration.
How do you usually start the day?
I write a to-do list every morning! It helps clear my mind with everything that I have to remember to do and is able to just put it on paper. If I’m feeling good, then I also might read a few lines of poetry. Then I’ll try to get as much done as possible (starting with emails!) before my stomach reminds me I should probably make breakfast.
What made you want to start JooJoo Azad? When was this? Had you wanted to start a blog for a while, or did you start it on a spur of the moment?
I’m not going to let the media render me what I am not. I am not going to let others silence or hide my voice. I am here, I am making noise, and I am taking up space. In fact, JooJoo Azad was born from hate. Hate that I have experienced physically, verbally, mentally, emotionally, and wholly, and that my oppressed sisters and brothers and siblings have and continue to experience daily. Specifically, I was moved after the attack of a pregnant woman in Paris in 2013, in particular to create a space where I could yell on the internet.
The imagery on your site is stunning: vibrant yet understated, almost pensive. Which came first, your photography or the website JooJoo Azad?
The website! The photography came after getting frustrated with photographers not editing/photographing the way I wanted the feel of a shot to be. So, I was like, screw it. I’m doing this myself. So I did.
What first got you interested in fashion? And then in the relationship between fashion, culture and politics?
I always argue that all public art is political. Artists are either using art to challenge harmful norms, question the status quo, imagine alternatives, document and store narratives of the oppressed, heal, and rebuild…or they’re not. It is silent. It is complacent. It is representative of the privilege of being able to remain silent, to lack commentary on social issues.
And as an art (although perverted with the mass commoditisation of fashion under capitalism), fashion is not exempt from its political significance – in fact, I find value in fashion and clothing as one of the more politically dense forms of art. Beyond the immediate, visual expression of politics that can be expressed on clothing – be it through the usage of particular symbols or colours, much like a painter’s canvas – there are multiple additional layers of the politicisation of clothing: its production, consumption, and presentation and framing of our bodies in public space, are just a few examples.
The photography in your book showcases women’s creativity and self-expression in the face of legal restriction. Could you tell us a little bit about why you chose to write and publish a book, how much work it took what it was like in Tehran shooting? What’s the response been post-publication?
The women featured in Tehran Streetstyle aren’t featured in photos on your television screens or textbooks. It tells a story that wouldn’t otherwise be told in the west – fashion is the language of the project because of its beauty and power: a language that can be communicated across people, cultures, and borders.
Almost everyone in the book is breaking Iranian mandatory dress-codes. While I chose to wear the hijab here in the USA, I stand firmly against mandatory dress codes, be it in Iran or France. Just as I stand against mandatory unveiling, I stand against mandatory veiling. Modestly means more than how it is defined by the Iranian government. My images illustrate the beauty, variance, and multiplicity of fashion and style as it is used by Iranians living under mandatory dress-codes.
Plus many of my readers have been requesting it with endless emails.
What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done?
Make Persian food.
What’s been a career highlight for you and why?
Anytime I get a heart-felt and emotional email from a reader telling me I’ve changed the way they think. It’s what keeps me going!
What does a day off look like for you?
Haha I don’t understand what that means?
If you could meet anyone in the world, and ask them any question, what would it be and why?
Christopher Columbus. “Go away”
For anyone struggling in the writing and fashion fields, it’s amazing to see that you offer internships! Why did you start your internship program, and what kind of work do interns do at JooJoo Azad?
Thank you! I’m really excited about this program! I started this program because I was getting overwhelmed with projects and work that I needed to do for JooJoo Azad (especially since I just had started a full-time day job to help an organisation out) and my inbox was filled with Muslim women asking for support/advice. I have learned so, so much running JooJoo Azad, publishing a book, and working on all of my upcoming projects. As an anti-capitalist I’m big on skill sharing, so I thought why not grab a mentee and support her? It’s also paid because unpaid internships are inaccessible and that’s not cute.
How much work really goes into being a blogger, photographer and content creator?
Expect all-nighters. Especially if you’re juggling several major projects or classes or a day job, time-management is a must or else you’ll fall apart! One thing my last intern told me she learned is that she didn’t realize how many hours are in a day when she’s kept so busy. If you love what you do, your hours will just melt away.
From your own experiences, what would be three pieces of advice you’d give to someone starting out?
You have to love what you do. If you’re doing it for the money or the fame, you’re doing it wrong.
Figure out what makes you different; what makes your work special, valuable, and needed? Then run with it.
You’d be surprised how much you can get by simply asking. People are more accessible than you think!
Words: Mimi Davies
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