Just before midnight on a recent Saturday at Schubas in Lake View, the Libyan American rapper Kayem, performing for a packed house, interrupts a set to introduce a special guest.
“You see that viral video in the news a couple weeks ago with that woman from Iran, the fashion blogger?” he shouts. Kayem does his best impression, embellished with a nasally Chicago accent, of WGN co-anchor Robin Baumgarten’s fateful—and
now much-tweeted-about—on-air admonishment of said blogger: “ ‘You don’t sound American!’ ”
The crowd whoops in collective acclamation. Everyone’s seen the video.
Kayem is loving it. “I bet y’all didn’t know that she plays violin!”
A buzzy jolt of energy ripples through the room. Concertgoers look quizzically at each other: Wait, what? She’s here?
Kayem pauses a couple of beats for dramatic effect, then bellows, “Give a loud round of applause to my homegirl, Hoda Ka-te-biiii!”
As the band sounds off with reggaeton air-horn noises, the crowd explodes, and a lithe figure walks onstage in sparkling ruby boots and black trousers, one hand gripping a violin and a bow, the other covering a smile. She wears a mauve scarf draped loosely over her head, still looking like the bookishly hip college student she was just a couple of years ago.
Kayem and Katebi engage in a little stage banter, the rapper complimenting her boots and teasing that she agreed to perform only on the condition that she could have sheet music in front of her. (She ended up not using it.) Then Katebi starts playing an insistent two-note riff as Kayem spits invective into the mic: “You can’t take our freedom or take our soul! You are not the one that’s in control!” Under a shower of lime and violet stage lights, Katebi keeps her eyes closed and twists her shoulders back and forth as she plays, looking at once transported and completely in her element.
It’s a star-is-born moment if ever there was one.
The shoe drops at the 3:30 mark in the video. Katebi, a 23-year-old Iranian American fashion blogger, author, and University of Chicago graduate, has been chatting politely with WGN’s Baumgarten and her co-anchor, Larry Potash, about the politics of Iranian fashion, the subject of Katebi’s 2016 book, Tehran Streetstyle, a photographic chronicle of cosmopolitan fashion in Iran’s teeming capital. Then, without warning, Potash takes a sharp right turn: “Let’s talk about nuclear weapons. Some of our viewers may say, ‘We cannot trust Iran.’ ”
It’s an obvious bit of baiting, but if Katebi is knocked back on her heels, she doesn’t show it. She gives a quick laugh—it’s an easy, companionable laugh, as if to say, OK, here we go—gently swivels in her chair, and then launches into an articulate disquisition on American imperialism. “I don’t think we can trust this country. What has this country done to the majority of the countries in the Middle East? … A lot of these weapons in the Middle East are completely brought in by the United States.”
It’s at this point that Baumgarten breaks in and issues the reproach heard round the internet: “A lot of Americans might take offense to that. You are an American. You don’t sound like an American when you say … you know what I mean.”
Katebi doesn’t miss a beat: “That’s because I’ve read.” She goes on to urge viewers to look beyond simple media narratives on Muslim women and foreign policy and affirms that the United States “literally was built on the backs of black slaves and after the genocide of indigenous people.”
The tense interview wraps up with a plug for Katebi’s blog and a refugee women’s sewing co-op she’s heading up. Then the anchors cut to the weather.
By mid-March, a month after the segment aired, it had been viewed online more than 10 million times, from Brazil to Saudi Arabia, and Katebi’s Instagram and Twitter followers had ballooned from a total of some 25,000 at the beginning of the year to more than 80,000. Her likeness has been splashed across the style section of the New York Times, and she’s been interviewed by the Guardian, i-D magazine, and Dazed, among other outlets. She recently quit her job as the communications coordinator at the Chicago chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations to work full-time out of her Edgewater apartment as a blogger and community organizer. She’s been alternately held up as a symbol of an unapologetic, media-wired generation of American Muslims and derided as a quarrelsome provocateur.
She’s also received hate mail and death threats. At least one contained menacing language so specific that she had the commenter traced; it turns out he lived in Germany. She decided to track him down with the help of tech-savvy friends, not the FBI, because, she says, she didn’t want to enlist the bureau’s assistance and “legitimize them.”
That same antiestablishment spirit animates her blog, JooJoo Azad—the name means “free bird” in Farsi—which she created in 2013 and describes on its homepage as a “radical online platform dedicated to the integration of ethical fashion and activism through an anti-capitalist, intersectional-feminist lens.” The blog is a mix of political diatribes about police abuse, Trump, Islamophobia, and other hot-button topics and editorial fashion spreads often featuring Katebi, with posts bearing headlines like “Please Keep Your American Flags off My Hijab,” “Making Racists Uncomfortable, One Outfit at a Time,” and “6 Tricks to Limit Your Spending.” JooJoo Azad is, to say the least, a departure from typical fashion sites that gush about store openings, idealize unrealistic body images, and slavishly follow the endless churn of new seasonal lines. As for the clothes, JooJoo Azad skews toward street-smart, androgynous looks—Katebi in, say, a men’s T-shirt, off-the-shoulder jacket, and gray menswear trousers.
For the most part, Katebi lives by her anticapitalist creed. When I meet her a few weeks after the WGN interview at her favorite Persian restaurant in Albany Park, she’s sporting the same simple black hijab, which lets some of her raven hair peek out on top, and the same black trousers I’ve seen on her in many photos, both in the media and on her blog. In fact, for a self-styled tastemaker, Katebi comes across as something of an ascetic, content with a very limited rotation of tops, pants, shoes, and accessories that meet her stringent standards for ethical manufacture. (On her blog is a list of retailers, designers, and producers to boycott; it is 33 items long.) She carries her laptop in a chic cream-and-black backpack, promoted on her blog, made from seat belts and recycled water bottles.
We order lamb kebabs and fesenjan, a chicken and pomegranate stew, and I ask her about her childhood in suburban Oklahoma City, where she and her two brothers were born and raised by Iranian academics. She explains how, in sixth grade, she decided to start wearing the hijab. When I ask her what prompted the decision, she demurs at first, but later explains that she feels she doesn’t owe the world, or interviewers, an explanation—wearing a headscarf, she says, is a matter of personal religious choice that too often gets deployed as a political cudgel. “When’s the last time someone asked a nun why she’s covering her hair?”
From the moment she donned the headscarf, she says, she ceased to be just another American schoolgirl in the eyes of her classmates and instantly became a foreigner, and a Muslim one at that. “I cried every single day that first year of wearing the hijab,” she says. One student, after calling her a terrorist all day, punched her in the face. Suddenly, in an overwhelmingly white community, Katebi became a convenient stand-in for the Muslim enemy du jour. “Whenever Israel was making headlines, then I was Palestinian, during the Iraq War I was Iraqi, and on the anniversary of September 11, they just ignored me.”
She tells me her interest in clothes was initially an outgrowth of the bullying: She believed that if she dressed stylishly, even while wearing the headscarf, she’d have an easier time fitting in. It didn’t make the unwanted attention go away, she says, but “elevating my style changed the type of stares I would get.” She also decided that her other defense would be to ensure she was always the smartest kid in the room. It’s a resolution, she says, that has fueled the voracious reading and research she does for her blog—a way of arming herself with facts, which she sees as her best armor against antagonists in the media and online.
When I ask if all the recent attention, good and bad, has fazed her, she answers by saying that being bullied her whole life has given her a thick skin and that she’s mostly focused on trying to keep her parents from worrying too much about her. “When you explain to your immigrant parents that you’re going to take pictures of yourself and put them online, it’s a hard sell,” she says. Her radical politics don’t help, either. “They feel like I’m putting a target on myself, and that worries them a lot.”
Over the course of our meal and several subsequent meetings—at coffee shops, at a concert on the South Side—Katebi displays an uncanny knack for stage-managing the conversation, quickly steering it away from family and personal feelings and redirecting it to politics and her latest projects and collaborations: the sewing cooperative, a new clothing line, a book club, protests with activist groups like Black Youth Project 100 and Assata’s Daughters, including one at which she got arrested.
The flurry of news articles about her has mostly been welcome, she says, and has offered a broader platform for her message. Still, it’s one thing to be covered in the mainstream media and entirely another to be able to start controlling the narrative. “I’m tired of that ‘voice of the voiceless’ trope in journalism,” she says as we sip cups of Iranian black tea during our meal in Albany Park. “It’s usually white women journalists who are like, ‘Tell me about your trauma, then I will go away and write a story on you, and we will all feel better.’ ”
At one point later on, over coffee in Andersonville, I come out and admit that even after talking with her at length, I still don’t feel I know the person behind her curated life. “I feel like I’m talking to your avatar,” I say.
Katebi touches her hair, and for the briefest instant the color appears to drain from her face, as if I’ve finally put a chink in the armor. But then she breaks into a coy smile. “Sorry, I haven’t seen Avatar,” she says, turning my probing question back on me with a glib reference to the James Cameron movie.
I try again, asking if her online persona is an accurate reflection of who she is in real life.
“What a cute question,” she says, taking a breath and plopping her hands on her cheeks. “I’d like to think not, but it is a genuine part of me. I think because my writing is edgy, everyone thinks I’m more badass than I really am. Every time I go on live, I get so many messages saying, ‘Oh, you are so much nicer than I thought.’ ”
The artist and educator Benji Hart, a friend of Katebi, alludes to her disarming agility with sarcasm and wit when describing the WGN interview. “It’s never over the top,” Hart says of Katebi’s onscreen demeanor. “Hoda is so subtle in her sense of humor. … You can tell by the sound of her laugh or the lift of her brow when she is being facetious and when she is being serious.”
In Hart’s estimation, Katebi’s sarcasm comes from being constantly pigeonholed, especially in the mainstream media. “People keep coming back to Iran, to her wearing a hijab, or being a Muslim woman, when Hoda herself is talking about those things but how they connect to global issues like anti-blackness and indigenous struggles. Yet it’s clear that sometimes people are unable to get past the surface and go there with her.”
In academic circles, by contrast, the substance of Katebi’s writing and activism is starting to get noticed. Elizabeth Bucar, an associate professor of philosophy and religion at Northeastern University who writes about gender in Islam and the politics of the veil, cautions that the kind of ethical fashion Katebi preaches is, because of the cost of maintaining a stylish wardrobe, a privilege of affluence, both here and in Iran. But she still has high praise for the blogger. “The way that she handled WGN—she thinks so quickly on her feet, she pushes back against assumptions,” says Bucar. “She has a really holistic view of the connections between religion, race, Orientalism, and colonialism. She’s gutsy, brave, and smart as a whip. And she’s only 23.”
There’s a video floating around deep in the bottomless well of YouTube that Katebi despises. When she discovers that I dredged it up while doing research on her, she looks surprised. “You watched the whole thing? I hate that video!”
It’s of an hourlong 2016 Chicago Humanities Festival panel discussion about the hijab that she participated in with the author and former Wall Street Journal reporter Asra Nomani, an Indian-born Muslim who espouses controversial views on Islam that often align with conservative policies, including Trump’s travel ban. In it, Nomani puts forth her central argument that the hijab is essentially a tool of male oppression and Islamist propaganda. The exchange gets heated, and hecklers can be heard when Katebi starts delving into the subject of U.S. imperialism in the Middle East. For the most part, Katebi holds her own against the older, more seasoned journalist, offering a lucid argument that wearing a headscarf can be an empowering choice for Muslim women. Eventually, though, Nomani’s cool rebuttals and the notes of hostility emanating from the audience seem to take their toll. Katebi looks stiff, she fidgets in her chair, her voice quavers, her interactions with Asra become more clipped. One commenter later noted, “The middle Irani[an] one is so shallow and pompous.”
It was Katebi’s highest-profile public appearance to date, and she felt like she’d blown it. “I remember just crying, really crying, after that event once I got home, knowing that I completely, utterly failed,” she says.
Today she describes her encounter with Nomani as a galvanizing moment. She didn’t need to change her message, she decided, she needed to change herself—or at least the self the public sees. “Everything I said at the Chicago Humanities Festival is no different from WGN,” she tells me. “It’s just the way I delivered it.”
From that point on, she resolved to show no emotion in public appearances. “I said to myself, ‘Never again.’ ” She told herself she simply wasn’t allowed to get upset anymore, to reveal anger or vulnerability.
It’s a tall order for a 23-year-old, especially one who has, by virtue of a simple wardrobe choice, declared an identity that continues to invite hatred—even here in Chicago, where she frequently gets flipped off and verbally harassed on the L.
Of course, in today’s polarized political environment, where some see a brave individual standing up to harassment, others see stubborn disregard for compromise. Nomani, for her part, told me she tried to make a personal connection with Katebi before their public debate but felt the blogger had already written her off because of her contrasting views, and she accused Katebi of using social media to whip up animus among young followers. Nomani went so far as to request police protection for the event—a measure Katebi and others deemed ludicrous, an overreaction by a famously feud-seeking pundit.
Whatever the circumstances, Nomani’s accusation points to just how turbulent the waters are for anyone wading into the kind of subject matter Katebi tackles.
On a chilly late-winter Saturday, I meet Katebi at the University of Chicago’s Logan Center, where she has been invited to join more than 40 other musicians, students, and community members to play violin—an instrument she started studying at a young age, against her parents’ wishes—in the Middle East Music Ensemble’s annual Persian Concert.
Engaging with the culture and language of Iran has become an important source of comfort and belonging, she says. The 2015 trip she took to Tehran to gather material for her book was eye-opening: “I had a very distinct image of what Iran was from American media: It was all black and white, ominous, with men walking on the opposite side of the street from women. But when I finally went, it was like, Wow, this is my home, this is where my ancestors are from.” Katebi recalls that her Farsi was atrocious despite months of practice, and her stacked-heel boots drew a lot of comments. “A guy across the street would be like, ‘Hey, Zorro!’ ” she jokes. In Iran she felt simultaneously like an outsider and deeply at home.
Her language skills are getting better. When I find Katebi on the Logan Center’s lower level before the performance, she’s chatting animatedly in Farsi with a genteel older man. After he walks off, she says, “He’s one of my favorite people, a santoor player,” referring to the Persian dulcimer.
Dressed in a smart black suit, she looks relaxed. She tells me she’s going to be playing a ballad-like musical poem from the 1920s called Morghe Sahar (Dawn Bird). Poetry is a pillar of Persian culture, she says: “It’s a form of rooting yourself.” Then she describes an experience she had on her most recent trip to Iran. An aunt, a professor of Persian poetry, led her up a mountain overlooking Tehran, and the two of them watched the sun set, surrounded by family, while she had Katebi chant a line of poetry by the great 14th-century bard Hafez until she’d memorized it.
I ask Katebi what the line was. She smiles, puts a finger to her chin, and thinks for a moment. She says it in Farsi to herself, then translates for me: “Those who are separated from their source yearn to go back.”