Zara designer faces backlash for ‘racist comments’

Updated 16 Jun 2021
Social media users have called for shoppers to boycott Zara after its head designer made racist comments to a Palestinian model. Photo courtesy Zara
Social media users have called for shoppers to boycott Zara after its head designer made racist comments to a Palestinian model. Photo courtesy Zara

By Muniza Zahid

Spanish retail giant Zara faced intense backlash on Monday after news that its head designer Vanessa Perilman sent racist messages over Instagram to Palestinian model Qaher Harhash.

Harhash, who has been openly condemning the recent events of violence on the people of Palestine on social media, said he received Perilman’s anti-Muslim remarks on Instagram direct messages; he posted screenshots of the conversation which were widely shared and condemned.

“Maybe if your people were educated then they wouldn’t blow up the hospitals and schools Israel helped pay for in Gaza,” said Perilman and added:

“Israelis don’t teach children to hate or throw stones at soldiers as your people do.”

Social media users took Twitter by storm calling out the Zara designer for her blunt Islamophobia, and urged people on the social media platform to boycott Zara for their silence on the matter.

“…we wont (sic) stay silent about your head designer attacking Palestinian model for supporting #FreePalestine….Take action or #BoycottZara.”

While Zara did not officially respond to their employee’s actions, a Twitter user posted a screenshot of their reply to her complaint regarding the matter:

“From what we know through our research, her immediate and spontaneous apology was accepted and so the misunderstanding was clarified and closed on Wednesday.”

The Twitter user labelled the response “dismal” but Zara called the exchange a ‘misunderstanding.’

Harhash, who resides in Berlin, has always been vocal about his Palestinian nationality and the discrimination he faced while trying to become a model, which was his dream job. He did eventually get a chance with Israeli company Roberto Models Agency, but he told In The Now how he faced discriminatory behaviour during his time there. His career, however, skyrocketed when he started working with Iconic Management, a German modelling agency, and he became the first male Palestinian model.

Harhash’s successful career has made him a symbol of pride for the people of his country. Harhash also actively posts pro-Palestinian stories on Instagram, which is perhaps why he received Perilman’s blatant racist remarks.

The model himself also posted Perilman’s attempts at an apology after her comments did not sit well with social media, and wrote that he will only accept the apology if she “fully acknowledge[s] the pain and suffering [she] caused someone.” Harhash also expressed his disappointment over how Zara handled the situation, and stated that they “just wanted to post Vanessa’s apology and then everything would go back to “normal”.”

The recent bout of violence by Israelis and the response to it on social media has reduced the complicated politics to a binary of anti-Semitism versus pro-Palestine, equating it to religion, and arguments over anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. Many believe Perilman’s words were not only racist, but implied that she was accusing Harhash of being anti-Semitic as well, comparing the current events in Palestine and Israel to the Holocaust. She wrote, “…in the end, as the Jews survived the Holocaust we will survive the bullshit circus media that you are positing.”

The model, like other pro-Palestine public figures including Bella Hadid, has clarified that his stance on supporting Palestinians has nothing to do with anti-Semitism. In a tweet posted before Perilman’s racist remarks, he wrote, “The same people that are responsible for most anti-Semitic attacks in Europe, are “standing’ with Israel. If that isn’t proof being anti-Israel isn’t anti-Semitic, I don’t know what is.”

Zara is not the first company to be called out by social media users because of their silence on Israel’s actions in Palestine. Earlier in May, French fashion company Louis Vuitton faced backlash over their “Monogram Keffieh (sic) stole”, which according to the description of the now removed product on the Louis Vuitton website, was a Keffiyeh “enriched with House signatures.” Diet Prada, an Instagram account known as a ‘fashion watchdog’, pointed out how Louis Vuitton took a “neutral” stance on the events occurring in Palestine, yet sold a “traditional Arab headdress that’s become a symbol of Palestinian nationalism.”

Many on Instagram called out Louis Vuitton’s tone deaf actions as “profiting off oppressed people” in the comments section. Many also criticised the company’s ‘neutral’ stance, stating that “neutral means siding with the oppressor.” It is also intriguing to note that the Palestinian Keffiyeh is traditionally black and white in colour, but Louis Vuitton’s appropriated version was blue and white. As author and law professor Khaled A. Beydoun noted, “the blue and white colors are either tone deaf or an insidious form of passive political commentary,” pointing to the alarmingly similar colours of the Israeli flag.

Responses from big names such as Zara and Louis Vuitton have been limited to saving face from backlash, including Perilman deleting her social media accounts and Louis Vuitton removing their controversial scarf.

The writer is a staff intern and student at the Institute of Business Administration in Karachi.