The first thing you notice is her breasts. Shockingly bare, bits of nipple strategically peek through the words “Made in Bangladesh,” branding her chest like a product. She’s wearing the High Waist Jean, if you hadn’t noticed, though she seems to be in the process of taking it off.
This is American Apparel’s latest controversy-soaked advertisement, featuring topless Bengali-American merchandiser-turned-model Maks. The two-paragraph caption accompanying the ad highlights Maks’ status as a former Muslim and her subsequent gender liberation. Preying on commonly held stereotypes about Islamic misogyny, the advertisement raises serious questions about the meaning of gender justice and the intersection of feminism and Islamophobia.
According to creative director Iris Alonzo, the ad was intended to boast the corporation’s commitment to fair-trade, American-made apparel. “It is important for consumers to think about the people that we don’t see when looking at fashion photography,” she said, citing the fatalities of last year’s tragic Rena Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh as examples of these unseen victims.
Despite this intention, the focus of the caption seems to have shifted to Maks’ standing as a reformed “other.” “Maks vividly remembers attending mosque as a child alongside her conservative Muslim parents,” reads the caption. “Upon entering high school, Maks began to feel the need to forge her own identity and ultimately distanced herself from Islamic traditions.” The use of space to discuss Maks’ religious background suggests that her relation to Islam is the important thing about her. Furthermore, it implies that she could not “forge her own identity” within the supposedly inherently oppressive framework of Islam.
Alonzo elaborated on this, saying, “She is an independent young woman who is forging her own path regardless of what may be culturally expected of her. We believe all women should be able to decide how to live their lives and have the freedom to express themselves.” Of course women should have the freedom to express themselves, but this comment is saying more than that. It is a subtle form of cultural imperialism: Islamophobia hiding beneath the guise of feminism.
In an open letter to Maks, Bengali-American activist and blogger Tanzila Ahmed explains, “The implication is that Bangladesh is bad, and American is good. Burka-ed Muslim women are bad, and bare-breasted “former” Muslims with newly found American freedoms are good. Right?”
In advocating for universal women’s liberation, it is important to ask which cultural norms are oppressive and which are just different. This January, #lifeofamuslimfeminist began trending on Twitter, with tweets challenging the assumption that all Islamic practices are inherently sexist. Zahraa (@loredsaviour) tweeted, “White feminists argue women should be able to dress how they want to, yet refuse to let me wear my hijab in peace.”
American Apparel’s didactic feminist message is especially hard to swallow coming from a company that seems to operate under the assumption that sex does the advertising better than the garments themselves. Furthermore, the labeling of a human being as “made in” is a blatant form of objectification, labeling a woman as something to be consumed and then discarded.
In fact, American Apparel has a storied history of questionable racist and sexist practices. The company was criticized for its “anti-ugly policy” after a former employee leaked documents specifying strict appearance and dressing guidelines for hiring store employees. Another former manager reported her superior’s instructions on hiring black employees: “None of the trashy kind that come in, we don’t want that. We’re not trying to sell our clothes to them. Try to find some of these classy black girls, with nice hair, you know?” In 2008, a racial discrimination suit was charged against the company, and multiple sexual assault cases have been brought against the founder and CEO, Dov Charney.
The recent hype over women’s oppression in the Middle East may be more of a strategy for dehumanizing the United States’ favorite enemy than for protecting women. Furthermore, it is being used to distract from the pervasive sexism that continues to infiltrate American society. In Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn’s book Half the Sky, a Saudi women articulates, “you think we’re victims, because we cover our hair and wear modest clothing. But we think that it’s Western women who are repressed, because they have to show their bodies––even go through surgery to change their bodies––to please men.”
In speaking of the future of ethical labor practices, Charney proclaimed, “I think man has evolved and we’re moving away from slavery.” But what of the slavery of women’s bodies? In failing to recognize the difference between sexual liberation and sexual exploitation, American Apparel has only succeeded in furthering the cycle of violence against women and placing the blame on everyone’s favorite scapegoat: Islam.
“This ad for me is not titillating, not liberating, and most certainly not a commentary that makes me want to buy more goods,” says Bengali-American blogger Jordan Alam. “Instead it reminds me that my body and the bodies of my family members will always be seen as objects for consumption––whether by individual sex tourists, exploitative philanthropy groups, or corporations out for cheap labor.”