The Significance of the Leadership Change at Vogue Arabia
“I didn’t grow up with a Vogue of my own, one that reflected my identity, that reflected my background, my area, my authenticity. So for me to actually be present for that? It makes it very, very beautiful.”
- Deena Aljuhani Abdulaziz as told to The Cut
Last week, the newly established Vogue Arabia announced the departure of editor in chief Deena Aljuhani Abdulaziz, who produced the magazine's two first and only issues before being replaced by Manuel Arnaut. Beyond a confirmation from Ms. Abdulaziz that she was fired, and a statement she released about refusing to compromise on her values, it’s not clear what happened exactly, and it seems futile to speculate. What is clear is that Vogue Arabia, a nascent publication created to celebrate and elevate women's fashion in the Arab world, is now being headed by a non-Arab man rather than an Arab woman. This matters. I say this both as a woman with a personal connection to the Middle East, but also as someone who believes that in order to be relevant, it's more important than ever for fashion to be contextualized. And who better to contextualize fashion for Arab women than an Arab woman? After all, Vogue India is run by an Indian woman (Priya Tanna), Vogue China is run by a Chinese woman (Angelica Cheung), Vogue Turkey is run by a Turkish woman (Seda Domaniç). In general, in all the media we consume, but particularly in emerging markets, ones in which women are perhaps striving more ardently to articulate their roles in their rapidly changing societies, it matters whose voice it is that women are listening to.
I'm not saying that it's impossible for a man to understand what modern women need from a fashion magazine. Nor is it impossible for a non-Arab to cater to an Arab audience. We're all human and fashion is, in many respects, cross-cultural in nature, even more so in the digital age. But what's at issue here is who can speak most clearly to women and about women in the Arab world in a way that enables them to feel represented, empowered, and validated on their own terms in their own context. This is the real power of fashion.
"Arabs have been responsible for making couture stay in business from the late ’60s through today. And, you know, back during the Gulf War, the couture houses were on the verge of extinction because the Gulf customer wasn’t coming to Europe to shop, because of the war, yet nobody acknowledges their contribution to an art form. It bothers me to no end. I would like to shed light that we have actually been around way before other emerging areas came into the picture, and I’d like to understand why we are undervalued and looked on as people who just spend money. That bothers me. Of course it does. For good reason."
- Deena Aljuhani Abdulaziz as told to The Cut
Which is why I think Ms. Abdulaziz's firing is a loss for women in the Arab world and for fashion in general. For Vogue Arabia to succeed, for it to make women's lives in the region better and more fulfilling, it's insufficient for it to adopt the business-as-usual commercial approach: get women to buy more things. Instead, it must help guide women in the region to a richer relationship with their clothes and themselves by contextualizing fashion for the Arab woman. It must help them answer questions like: What does Middle Eastern fashion look like? What can women in the region expect their clothes to do for them? What role do clothes play in the lives of women in Arab societies? How can a woman hold a desire to be fashion forward with the realities that come with living in a more conservative society? It must also show women that an interest in fashion is valid, that career ambitions in fashion are not futile, that there is a path forward for them if they take fashion seriously. And what better way to concretely demonstrate that than for an Arab woman to head the region's most significant fashion publication?
Everyone deserves a chance to prove themselves, so Mr. Arnaut will certainly get that from me. But I am left with the question: if it feels like our modern relationship with fashion consistently fails at getting beyond the surface level, then why aren't we trying something different? An Arab woman in charge of telling the narrative about the power of fashion and the potential of women in the Arab world felt fresh and revolutionary, particularly in the context of the region's struggles with gender equality and the concept of female power. A non-Arab man telling that story, well, that feels like something I've definitely heard before.