If you have not yet seen the interview with Iranian-American blogger Hoda Katebi on Chicago’s WGN that’s been making rounds on social media, you need to take a few minutes to check it out. It’s incredible. I’ve never heard anybody unpack complex sociopolitical analysis so quickly and graciously in a hostile interview environment. Apparently, WGN had invited her onto the air to try to co-opt her fashion talk for islamophobic propaganda, but she wasn’t having any of it. Basically, what she did was offer a master class on the concept we talk about in the church called “speaking the truth in love.” Every political activist who has to work with hostile media needs to watch this five minute video as part of their training.
First, the female interviewer asked Katebi to comment on whether she wanted Iranian fashion to return to the form it took before the 1979 Islamic revolution. They flashed images of drab, black burka-clad Muslim women today in contrast with images of western-dressed women in the late 1970’s. Katebi tore apart the narrative that was being pushed: that western assimilation and female empowerment are the same thing. She talked about the way that education levels for Iranian women are much higher today than they were in the 1970’s. She explained that western fashion was mostly only popular among the upper class and that things weren’t idyllic for women before the revolution.
In response to this, the male interviewer bizarrely questioned Katebi about Iran’s supposed pursuit of nuclear weapons and the way that people in America don’t trust Iran. Katebi chuckled and then she turned the tables on him by bringing up the way that the US is the one who shouldn’t be trusted. She pointed out that most of the weapons that are in the Middle East today were originally sold to Middle Eastern countries by the US and that today’s extremists were literally created by past US policy.
Though she didn’t have time, she could have talked about the CIA-orchestrated coup that brought the Iranian shah into power in 1953 and created the political repression that would eventually explode into the 1979 revolution. She could have referenced the Soviet/Afghanistan war in which the US trained the mujahadeen guerrilla fighters who would later become the core of Al Qaida. She could have talked about the Iran/Iraq war of the 1980’s in which the US strategy was to maximize the damage to both sides through its sale of weapons and intelligence which ultimately built up the power of Saddam Hussein whom we flipped from ally to enemy when the political calculus shifted. She could have talked about US collusion with the Saudi royalty who bankroll ISIS.
The reason she didn’t have time to go more in depth is because the female interviewer interrupted her to say, “A lot of Americans might take offense to that. You’re an American. You don’t sound like an American when you talk like that.”
In response to that, Katebi just laughed and said, “That’s because I’ve read. And I think it’s really important that we look beyond these simple narratives that we’re told whether it’s about Muslim women or about the legacy of this country, knowing that this country literally was built on the backs of black slaves and after the genocide of indigenous people. And I think that there’s a lot we can be proud about but we can’t let that blindside us to the reality of these situations.”
Those first four words. How do you respond to such an offensive, racist attack with four words that are so freaking perfect? Watching that, I felt some shame thinking about the way that I’m allowed to get angry when people interrupt me and bait me like that because I’m a white man and having feelings means that I’m authentic. Women of color aren’t allowed to get angry, especially not Muslim women or black women. They have to be absolutely perfectly good-natured at all times or else they’re scary terrorists.
While I think it’s completely unfair that Katebi has to laugh off an artillery volley of micro-aggressions and blatant racism, her poise, power, and brilliance was absolutely breathtaking. She really is the most commanding communicator I’ve seen in a long time. If she ever runs for political office, I’m giving money to her campaign. So I hope that her platform will grow. Please do check out her blog. Also check out this piece she wrote called “Please keep your American flags off my hijab.”