As a young girl growing up in Oklahoma, one of the few people in her town to wear a headscarf, Muslim-Iranian writer and photographer Hoda Katebi never thought she would become an activist, let alone a fashion icon. We spoke to her by phone to learn how her interest in politics and fashion evolved.
“I had very little self-confidence when I first started wearing the scarf in middle school,” says Katebi, who was teased, harassed, and even assaulted as a result of it. “I wore the most horrifying clothing,” she says, looking back on the outfits of her youth, “because I didn’t care at all—I knew people would judge me instantly for wearing a headscarf.”
Growing up, she also felt the responsibility of being a first-generation Iranian at a time when political tensions between the United States and Iran were particularly fraught. Sanctions had been imposed on Iran by both the United States and the UN Security Council; American hitchhikers Joshua Fattal, Sarah Shourd, and Shane Bauer were still detained in Evin Prison; and many people in the United States (and beyond) followed the Green Revolution protests provoked by the 2009 Iranian presidential election. Katebi found herself becoming a default representative of all things pertaining to the Middle East and Islam. “There was a time when anything that was happening in the Middle East would be attributed to me,” she says, “and I found that in order to respond, I needed to educate myself.”
Because I wore a headscarf, people already had a set of assumptions about who I was and what I believed.
After graduating from high school, Katebi took International Studies/Relations and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Chicago, where she started exploring the intersection of politics and fashion. She also began to unpack the experiences of her childhood—in particular, the politics of the headscarf and the power of appearance. “Fashion is a very powerful form of communication,” Katebi says. “Because I wore a headscarf, people already had a set of assumptions about who I was and what I believed, and it was when I decided to resist Islamophobia—to become resilient, to challenge it, and to understand why people were saying and doing these things—that I began to control that image.” She exercised this control, in part, through her choice of how to dress. Patterned pants, bomber jackets, and ankle boots became staple items of her minimalist aesthetic.
Then, in the fall of 2013, a hate crime against a pregnant Muslim woman in Europe launched Katebi into action. While still in the midst of her studies, she founded Joojoo Azad, a social action website and blog that aims to confront the misconceptions in Western society about Iran and Islam. Joojoo Azad, which means “Free Bird” in Persian, also features a daily dose of fashion inspiration, a Q&A section generated by its readers, and an abundance of information about ethical wardrobes. “The blog’s purpose is to challenge what the media are saying about me, about my identity as a Muslim-Iranian, and to reclaim that,” Katebi says. Since its launch, the site has sparked conversations about feminism, consumerism, cultural appropriation, and ethical clothing brands, to name just a few topics.
One of the first stories Katebi set out to explore was fashion in Iran. She traveled back to her parents’ home country to document street style in Iran’s capital, Tehran. Iranian law requires women to cover their hair and their whole body. (Men have it easier: They shouldn’t wear shorts and need to have tidy haircuts.) Traditionally, this means headscarves, long jackets called manteaus (similar to trench coats), and full-length pants or skirts. But the reality is that skinny jeans, graphic T-shirts, open-front manteaus, and punk rock–inspired footwear are all the rage in the city streets.
These styles walk a fine line by pushing, if not breaking, the boundaries of Iran’s dress code and are considered “underground” in the sense that designers do not sell such clothing in public, and women wear items like this at their own risk. But these fresh looks show that a conservative dress code doesn’t equate to a lack of self-expression through clothing and appearance. “I use fashion as a way of telling a story,” says Katebi, “as a hook to get people thinking about Islam and other issues that matter to me, including the fashion industry.”
There was a time when anything that was happening in the Middle East would be attributed to me, and I found that in order to respond, I needed to educate myself.
Katebi’s new book, Tehran Streetstyle, tells just that story. (Check out photos from it in the slideshow above.) One of the first street style photography books from Tehran, the 64 pages of color photos act as a tour of the city’s vibrant and innovative fashion scene. Along with similar projects like Humans of Tehran and Everyday Iran, the work creates a space for conversations about identity, politics, orientalism, feminism, and Islam. “Fashion is very political, especially when it comes to women’s bodies,” Katebi says. “When I was doing research on how fashion in Iran was viewed here in the U.S., a lot of it circulated around the concept that the more ‘Western’ an Iranian woman dressed, the more ‘modern’ she was.”
Related to this is the way in which women’s bodies, including their dress, are often used as a tool to measure a society’s sense of morality—that the more conservative or religious the attire, the more backwards and in need of saving that person is. “This false dichotomy between modernity and traditionalism—it’s all rooted in clothing, in the way people see and perceive you,” Katebi says.
For Katebi, it all comes down to choice—and to having the freedom to make that choice. She’s not in support of government-imposed dress codes and rejects the idea that her religious faith inhibits her self-expression. Conversely, that she wears a headscarf does not render her an oppressed or backwards woman. “I choose to wear the headscarf,” Katebi says, “but as with anything that is religious or spiritual, the beauty is in deciding to do it, or not to do it, on your own terms.”