Do you mind if I call you that? I feel like we can be on a first name basis — my mom’s best friend’s daughters being your childhood playmates and all. I bet I saw you at one of those Bengali parties back in the days when I used to attend as a teenager, sullenly and reluctantly sitting on the margins. You were likely a toddler then. I’m Bangladeshi, as are you. I’m an Angeleno, as are you. It’s not improbable that our paths may have crossed. We are after all in the same community.
I saw your bare-breasted photograph with “Made in Bangladesh” splayed in the American Apparel print ad and wanted to reach out. Because it’s clear to me that some things must have been missed in translation.
Shunoh, I think it’s great that you felt fully comfortable to express yourself. I want to be clear, there’s no “slut-shaming” to this. I’m all about radical forms of feminine art. I think brown is beautiful, and when you are raised in this vapid city of Los Angeles where White standards of beauty are pushed down our throats, it takes a certain kind of strength to fight all that and declare, “I’m brown, I’m an immigrant, and I’m beautiful too.” Brown skin is underrated in this society and baring breasts when making a political statement has the potential to be that much more profound.
But it’s a fine line between self-expressive and being exotified and commodified. You think you chose to be creative – actuality you were plucked by your employer to sell an object. I believe the object you are selling is high-waisted pants, but it’s unclear from the photo. They are rolled down so suggestively. What American Apparel is selling is sex, and in this case, by having “Made in Bangladesh” across your bare breasts, you are selling fetishized sex. One where the brown woman is objectified.
American Apparel is a known American-made clothing company that prides itself on being sweatshop-free and paying “fair” wages (albeit with questionable sexual harassment allegations against CEO Dov Charney). They are selling their clothing. Thus, we can ascertain that the message in the photo implicitly rejects the notion of buying Bangladesh made “objects.” 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?
But you’re fine with that rejection, right Maks? Because in the press release you state that in high school you distanced yourself from your Islamic upbringing. That you don’t identify as Bengali or American, and you don’t fit into conventional narratives, and that’s why you are essential to Los Angeles.
The thing is I’m Bengali, American, a Muslim, a non-hijabi woman, and I’m also an Angeleno. I work constantly to break the mainstream conventional narrative I’m constantly placed in. And I don’t think that makes me any less important to the mosaic that is LA. In fact, LA is littered with women like this, like me. My Los Angeles embraces this diversity and my mosaic is beautiful. Whereas the LA in this marketing campaign is tinged with Islamophobia and xenophobia.
Did you know that the garment industry in Bangladesh is built on the backs of women? And that last April outside your birth city of Dhaka,when the garment factory Rana Plaza collapsed killing 1,129 people and injured 2,515, that most of them were women? Did you know that hundreds of orphans were left behind, motherless and penniless? Did you know that in 2012 at the Tazreen Fashion Factory fire where 117 people died, it was said the deaths could have been prevented if the exits were not blocked?
We live in a global economy where we need to apply pressure to large corporations like GAP and Wal-Mart to require international factories to hold to a certain standard of safety. We are beyond the point where buying only American-made is the simple solution. Boycotting Bangladesh made products means we’re boycotting the Deshi-made women that helped get us here — our Ammas and Khalas and Chachis. Amadher bhon, our sisters. We just want to make sure they are safe and can survive.
Don’t you see, Appu? That by having “Made In Bangladesh” splayed across your breasts, American Apparel is commodifying a recent tragedy that has killed thousands of people. They are taking the death of thousands of people in Bangladesh as a marketing opportunity to sell their clothes in America. Don’t you see how morbid that is? Don’t you see how your image has been exploited and how you’ve been manipulated?
I am #MadeInBangladesh too. When I was little, I used to hide in the clothing racks at the mall and would look at the clothing labels for the “Made in Bangladesh” tag. I would run to show my Mom when I found one — she used to get excited. She was nostalgic and lonely. She missed her motherland. Back in the 80s, the “Made in Bangladesh” label was one of the few things I remembered that connected my American home to my mother’s Bangladeshi motherland. It was in that migration hyphenation that we created home.
We’re not so different, you and I. It’s just that how we choose to wear (or not wear) our hyphenated identities is expressed Let’s leave these exotifiers in the dust and create some truly radical changes.differently. I plan on continuing to buy “Made In Bangladesh” clothes — except, I’ll boycott the global corporations like GAP and Wal-Mart that refuse to sign the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. I’ll continue to work on projects like Beats for Bangladesh: A Benefit Album in Solidarity with the Garment Workers of Rana Plaza to use radical forms of art to raise awareness and funds for the victims of this tragedy. I’ll continue to organize with South Asians for Justice – Los Angeles to tie the global struggles of the South Asian diaspora to the local.
Cholou, Maks. Let’s leave these exotifiers in the dust and create some truly radical changes. Why don’t you join me?
Tanzila “Taz” Ahmed is an activist, storyteller, and politico based in Los Angeles. Last June, with her Desi music site Mishthi Music, she co-produced Beats for Bangladesh: A Benefit Album in Solidarity with the Garment Workers of Rana Plaza. Taz was a long-time writer for Sepia Mutiny, and was recently published in the anthology Love, Inshallah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women, where she also has the monthly column “Radical Love”. Taz organizes with Bay Area Solidarity Summer and South Asians for Justice – Los Angeles. She also makes #MuslimVDay cards. You can find her rant at @tazzystar.