Daughter of Uzbek Tyrant Has Fashion Disaster

Why the outrage over Gulnara Karimova's participation in Fashion Week is misguided

Gulnara Karimova -ap-body.jpg
Gulnara Karimova, center, seen at fashion week in Moscow / AP Images

The discordant moralism of indulging wealthy tyrant's daughters continues to roil the culture industry. Recall if you will the freakout over Sting performing in Kazakhstan earlier this year. It was slightly misplaced outrage, to say the least. Now, the long-scheduled appearance of Gulnara Karimova, Uzbekistan's tyrant's daughter, at New York's Fashion Week, is spawning similar outrage. A sample, from the New York Post:

Daughter of murderous dictator to unveil spring line at Fashion Week

So long, torture victims. Hello, fashion victims!

The pampered daughter of the murderous dictator of Uzbekistan -- a reviled tyrant who once boiled a political foe alive and has killed, tortured and enslaved thousands of his countrymen -- will unveil her new line of spring creations during Fashion Week at Lincoln Center.

You can probably guess how it ends. Human Rights Watch has gotten in on the action. "There's nothing fashionable about lending a high-profile platform to the senior official of one of the world's most repressive governments," Steve Swerdlow, HRW's Uzbekistan researcher is quoted as saying.

Well, that's true, but let's be real for a moment: GooGooSha, as she's known, showed designs at Fashion Week last year -- right before the annual conscription of children into Uzbekistan's cotton fields, no less! There was hardly the preening outrage over her appearance then. And while Mercedes-Benz certainly deserves jeers for not mentioning her descent from Uzbekistan's dictator in their bio, Karimova's appearance is no last-minute surprise.

So, when fashionistas suddenly band together to exclude GooGooSha from her runway show next week, it's not out of line to ask: why now? What makes this week, right when all the preparations, travel, and arrangements have already been made and it's far too late to undo any damage or expenses in setting up the show, so special? Each of the people opposing GooGooSha's fashion show, including promoters IMG, had the opportunity to oppose it last year. It is only when the press shines a light on what a monster she is that people place their hands over their mouths and express their dismay.

There is a serious debate to be had about the nature of the West's relationship with Uzbekistan, which has been somewhat fraught, and rightly so, since around 2000. While the human rights industry gets angry at the relative silence from official circles in D.C. about Uzbekistan's human rights record, it's not as simple as a senator or even organizer saying "I disapprove of your human rights record."

There is history and context to publicly shaming these governments, even blowback (as when the U.S. lost access to the Uzbek government in 2005, undermining the very human rights activism it hoped to advance). The is an ebb and flow to U.S.-Uzbek relations, starting very warmly in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union, but cooling during the earliest stages of Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001. They warmed quickly, helped along by generous U.S. loans for the Kharshi Khanabad airbase south of Tashkent, then cooled again during the "colored revolutions" the U.S. helped to spawn in Georgia and Kyrgyzstan. In 2005, the Andijan massacre caused a sharp break, and ever since there has been a slow, steady warming again. This is complicated stuff, and as much as we can and do express concern for the rights of normal Uzbeks, the sad, cynical fact of the matter is, the U.S. has bigger concerns to worry about.

It's no secret Uzbekistan abuses its citizens. So why do we only seem to get outraged with Uzbek human rights abusers when they publicly associate with our fellow Westerners? The latest flap over GooGooSha's fashion adventures is surprising only to people who've never bothered to learn about it. It should be a non-story, the subject of mild tut-tutting from foreign correspondents at the silly gushing that passes for fashion "journalism." But it's not. Whether Mercedes-Benz caves to human rights pressure will determine whether or not Gulnara Karimova is sent home to her lavish embassy-palace in Madrid, where she serves as ambassador.

Update: After refusing to stay out of her runway show, IMG has decided to cancel it. So that's that.