“Kim Kardashian West understood the assignment.” “Genius. Pure Brilliance. She swallowed them all.” “Iconic.” Top-line celebrities and fans used these words to describe what they thought of Kim Kardashian’s questionable outfit for the 2021 Met Gala. If you’re unfamiliar with her ensemble, allow me to paint you a picture: Kim wore black from head to toe, literally. Every inch of Kim’s body, including her face, was covered in a black Balenciaga T-shirt, with two long capes dragging feet behind her. In a sea of the glitz and glamour of the Met, Kim’s plain but entirely bold number stood out like no other. The deepness and darkness of her outfit contrasted with the bright and vibrant looks of the Met Gala like night and day — almost to the point that Kim’s outfit seemed bat-like and scary at first glance.
The theme of the Met was “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion,” an effort to highlight emerging American designers and “sentiment over practicality”. This left lots of ambiguity surrounding the meaning behind Kim’s outfit and how it fit into the theme of the event — what was so “American” about wearing something that seemed to represent nothing at all? Other celebrities paid tribute to historically iconic American figures: Kendall Jenner recreating Audrey Hepburn’s crystal gown look from “My Fair Lady” and Nikkie de Jager paying homage to American LGBTQ+ activist Marsha P. Johnson. Some contend that Kim’s outfit represented how she proved to be a recognizable figure despite being covered head to toe. Some thought that because Kim is so overly sexualized, her outfit was used as a point to prove that she can still be critiqued while being covered entirely. Whereas others, like me, concluded her outfit to have no significance to the theme at all.
As a Muslim woman who observes the hijab and has experienced firsthand discrimination for representing my faith, I find the response to Kim’s Met Gala ensemble to be awfully hypocritical. Kim’s outfit has sparked a large discussion, ranging from predictions for its “elaborate meaning” to praise for its “unique” and “original” nature. However, this conversation never included buzzwords like “oppressed” or “barbaric” the way buzzwords like these are presented when it comes to conversations regarding hijab. Naively, I thought Kim’s outfit would be regarded as a “miss.” Other than the fact that I felt as though it was simply ugly, I couldn’t wrap my mind around any sort of significance it could have possibly held. But could I say I was surprised when her praise began flooding my social media feed? No. After all, when Muslim women are covered, their practice is regarded as “third-worldly” and backwards. Kim’s outfit demonstrated that it is Muslim women, and Muslim women only, who face such bigotry. She was quite literally unable to see in her outfit, proving that when an A-list celebrity takes the practice to an even more extreme level, they are regarded as fashion icons. It screamed the double standard at play, and I couldn’t believe how explicit the hypocrisy made itself out to be. Why are you shocked? It’s always been this way.
But my excessive reflections in trying to figure out where to channel my frustrations made me realize that my anger wasn’t aimed at Kim’s outfit — but rather the greater conversation of anti-Muslim bigotry. Kim Kardashian just happened to be the one to reiterate the societal hypocrisy that surrounds the hijab and other religious coverings. In reality, Muslim women, especially those who wear the hijab, have borne the greatest burden of anti-Muslim discrimination. Visibly Muslim women, such as those who wear the hijab, niqab or burka are at the frontlines of knowing what it feels like to be Muslim in the west. It means confronting daily discrimination, humiliation and the feeling of constant fear of what wearing a hijab in public could possibly lead to. It means waking up every day and actively making the decision to wear the hijab while knowing much too well that it sets you apart, and in the West, this distinction tends to be negative.
But these are not just beliefs held by certain individuals — anti-Muslim violence is upheld by systems of power too. One of many examples is that in 2001, U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., wore a burka at the House of Representatives as she gave a speech in support of the United State’s invasion of Afghanistan. Throughout this speech, Maloney reiterated that “the veil is so thick that it’s difficult to breathe. The little mesh opening for the eyes makes it extremely difficult to even cross the road” in justification for why the U.S. has a responsibility to invade Afghanistan and “save the women.” A white congresswoman wore a burka as a costume. How could she have possibly known what it meant to “save” Afghan women if she didn’t have a mere understanding of their religious practices? How could she claim to be in favor of these women’s best interests, then go on to further vilify and undermine their religion in the same breath? How was she allowed to do all this in the very place that claims dedication to equality for all?
In places like France, bigotry on a governmental level is explicit. France has numerous anti-hijab and anti-burqa laws enforced. Most recently, the Senate approved a law preventing women under the age of 18 from wearing the hijab in public. And despite putting forth laws to mandate face coverings in public in wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, France still bans religious face coverings for Muslim women. These few examples only begin to scratch the surface of the belittlement and mistreatment that Muslim women face for their religious coverings. What’s constantly reiterated, however, is the Western trope that Muslim women are oppressed and in need of liberation from their oppressive societies, and this oppression is equated with the hijab.
So with all this being said, I’d like to pose a few questions: What is the difference between Kim’s Met Gala outfit and a Muslim woman’s desire to also cover-up in a similar manner? Is it the fact that Kim reaps the benefits of a white society? Is it because she is a celebrity? Is it because she has no ties to a religion and peoples that have been bashed, othered and terrorized by society? Kim’s outfit reeked of privilege — a white woman’s privilege of being able to wear what she wore knowing she would never be regarded in the same manner that Muslim women have been regarded, despite doing almost the same thing. The privilege of being able to publicly present herself completely covered up or completely naked knowing she would be applauded either way. As a Muslim woman, the public’s double standards speaks volumes. And maybe it’s this hypocrisy, and this hypocrisy alone, that made Kim’s outfit so “American.”
MiC Columnist Reem Hassan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org