Making Racists Uncomfortable, One Outfit at a Time

17 October 2017

muslim fashion, muslim fashion blog, fashion activism, slow factory, political fashion, hijab

Black head-to-toe minus the loud, blockish letters that yell "DEMILITARIZE" in white across my chest, right below the folds of my black Hijab -- the outfit of choice for this Iranian Muslim living in Trump's USA, on her way to the airport. Of course, a look like this would demand an extra hour to proceed through TSA's 'random check' and extensive search, the intrusive pat downs, and forehead and hand swipes to check for explosive residue while I stand, smirking and causing discomfort.

Growing up, I was embarrassed to walk with my Pakistani friends who wore their traditional clothes in public spaces. Dressed in gorgeous sparkling embroidery laced onto endless fabric and wrapped in rich tones that seemed to radiate light, downtown Oklahoma City did not deserve such beautiful art -- or seem to notice anything else.

And so, walking loosely alongside them, I held a staring contest with the concrete, careful not to catch the uncomfortable stares of onlookers sharing judgmental whispers and demeaning looks of disgust with their partners. It was of course, ultimately a useless pursuit, as always: I wore a Hijab and despite trying my best to wear what Abercrombie & Fitch told me to, I was visually guilty by association -- guilty of not assimilating, guilty of deserving to feel like an outsider, guilty of compelling others to frown and stare.

So I just kept quiet, painfully absorbing the sideways glances I felt pierce my body regardless of whether or not I unlocked my gaze from the concrete and looked up to confirm that we were, in fact, being uncomfortably stared at. Again.

When I first started wearing the Hijab in sixth grade, I learned that you didn't have to necessarily physically see the person who is sending you looks of disgust; you just have to allow yourself to feel it. 

"Why do you try to make people uncomfortable, intentionally?"
I was asked, again, as she pointed to my shirt. I looked down and smiled --  a grotesque illustration of a pig wearing a police hat was plastered across my torso. The rhetorical question came just after a walk together through Wall Street in downtown NYC, where the sea of mostly White people in suits and abnormally tight ties continually parted in front of us as we walked, complete with broad frowns and bewildered eyes fixated on my shirt, careful not to catch my glance--or walk too close. My friend was clearly not as amused as I was.

abolition shirt, fashion, muslim fashion, political fashion, fashion revolution
Photo: @kasmos.kariblak t-shirt, photographed by Hushidar Mortezaie, Los Angeles
Above: 'BANNED' Scarf: Slow Factory / Photo: Driely Carter / MUA: Grace Ahn / Stylist: Solange Franklin, NYC 

Aside from being a great way to gauge the politics of my surrounding environment, my anti-police shirt, designed by a young Black artist from the Southside of Chicago, never fails to demand the reaction of everyone whose eyes are unwillingly drawn toward it. The provocative image demands people's gazes -- whether or not they'd like to notice it.

It was not the first time I was asked, by friends, family, and strangers across the internet -- why do you wear provocative clothes that make people stare at you? Are you intentionally wearing clothes that make people uncomfortable?

The answer is less simple than you might think.

Dressed in black, patterns, or Abercrombie & Fitch head-to-toe (don't worry I don't do the latter anymore -- that was designated for teenage angst Hoda years only) -- all will get my hijab-wearing, Middle Eastern self the same result: endless, uncomfortable staring. It's a reality I've lived with for over ten years, regardless of where I am in the USA.

Constant stares of disgust were more difficult to deal with for me when I was younger than now, but a decade of people telling you with their body language that you're a scary outsider -- or object of fantasy and fetish -- is not insignificant. Sometimes it's more than just a look: sometimes it's a middle finger while mouthing 'terrorist' or even physical violence. In concert with the exponential rise of hate crimes against Muslims and Muslim-perceived people -- especially since Trump took office -- street interactions are more intense than what others might feel is just "a simple glare."

So, for me, wearing provocative clothing as a Muslim is a way of taking up visual space, signaling that I'm over their fear-mongering games and liberals' depictions of helpless, Orientalized Muslim Hijabi women in bystander intervention how-tos, and personal failed assimilation attempts.

But more importantly, wearing provocative clothing -- complete with my Hijab -- allows me to reclaim my agency in an public transaction of non-verbal communication I would have otherwise been subjected to without consent.

And an interaction that I get to politicize further based on what message my clothing is expressing, be it "DEMILITARIZE" in all caps while being patted down by armed and nervous TSA agents or getting arrested by far too many SWAT and police officers, or a drawing of a pig in a police hat while I walk through white and upperclass neighborhoods (you know, the only people law enforcement in this country actually "serve and protect").

A post shared by HODA KATEBI | هدی کاتبی (@hodakatebi) on

So after a decade of non consensual glares, I am demanding my agency. I am commanding stares. I am being stared at because I intentionally am asking for them to do so; it is at my will, not theirs. 

Rather than being inevitably receiving something I do not want, why not request that it is given to me? It's a powerful move.

Even more so, in Muslim spaces, wearing politically-charged clothing as a Hijab-wearing Muslim woman also enables me to use a visually-expressed identity (Hijab) that is typically valued in the community to work to normalize another possibly less-accepted politic/identity (being fiercely anti-war, anti-militarization, etc). There is something about seeing intersectional and anti-Imperialist politics shared openly and unafraid in Muslim spaces that is refreshing, and I feel needed in this particular moment of political scare and silencing tactics and repressive federal, anti-Muslim policies.

And no, this is not just a swap of tables; doing onto others what has been done to me. There is no privilege, power, or billion dollar industries of white-washing and forceful assimilation behind my message. There is not a history of people wearing pig-and-police-hat shirts who have committed violence against you, your place of worship, and your homeland. I am commanding your attention through my clothing, not making you feel as if you are alien and must shed your culture to blend into mine and earn comfort in public spaces.

Actually, if a shirt that is asking your country to end their violent military expansion abroad makes you uncomfortable, then maybe it's more important for you to go figure out why that is?

My clothing intentionally make people with shitty politics uncomfortable, because they are forced to remember their privilege and recall the violent histories and violent present they are responsible for. I am able to take advantage of the fears of racists, white supremacists, and anti-Muslim bigots and use it against them. I've happily learned there are few things more terrifying to a bigot than a confident Muslim woman dressed in all black.

If teen angst Hoda just knew -- or my many Muslim and POC friends today who still are working through navigating feelings of foreignness in their own skin -- no amount of eyebrow plucking, arm shaving (or for me, failed attempts at doing so), hair straightening, or how well we've visually "assimilated," we will never be white--nor should we aspire to be. The most you will ever be is an "exception" to the rule, or "the one who made it" (in their eyes, not ours). You play the game of good Muslim - bad Muslim and no one wins.

So, own your space, your culture, your streets, your comfort. Don't ask or wait for it by trying to dress or play the part. 

Before I end, let me quickly add: be sure that this piece is *not* sponsored by Dior's $700 'We Should All Be Feminists' t-shirt. Corporate 'revolution-washing' is not my source of liberation -- nor should it be yours. I am not advising everyone to go out and buy sloganed clothing and feel as if they're changing the world.

Rather, be unafraid in reclaiming interactions that you might feel as if do not belong to you. Take up space where it is not given to you, demand what is rightfully yours, and understand that if causing 'discomfort' permits you your agency at the expense of 'whiteness' or racists, so be it.


P.S. Are you on the JooJoo Azad Facebook Live mini concert series takeovers yet? Peep it.

sharing is caring! Found this article helpful? Your friends might too! - 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Subscribe for new updates


© JOOJOO AZAD | جوجو آزاد Designed by JOOJOO AZAD | جوجو آزاد, coded by Underline Designs