Hoop Earrings and West African Wax Prints in the Public Square : An Independence Celebration

L. “DG selection process 2020: Presentation to the General Council — Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Nigeria” by World Trade Organization is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0, R. Screenshot on photo on Instagram feed of Rep. Ocasio-Cortez

While cleaning up my email this afternoon, I found the link for a replay of the recent interview that World Trade Organization Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala did with the Economist.

As a journalist, I report on wonky issues in health care, and not at all on trade. I had not known about Okonjo-Iweala before logging into this excellent interview. In it, the WTO chief and the top Economist editor touched on many topics, including the effects of the pandemic.

Okonjo-Iweala also noted how persisting market failures can lead to unemployment in many nations, resulting in a rise in populism and protectionism. And Okonjo-Iweala weighed in on the power struggles between the United States and China and the need for them to recognize they must join in global efforts to address issues such as climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic.

“They have to have strategic cooperation, so it’s not every single thing that is this zero sum game,” Okonjo-Iweala said. “And I think both China and the US realize they need each other and the world needs them to be able to solve this problem.”

As would be expected for the leader of the WTO, Okonjo-Iweala has an impressive resume. She earned a Ph.D. in regional economics and development from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1981. At the World Bank, she oversaw an $81 billion operational portfolio in Africa, South Asia, Europe and Central Asia, according to the WTO official bio of Okonjo-Iweala. When she served as minister of finance for Nigeria, she “spearheaded negotiations with the Paris Club of Creditors that led to the wiping out of $30 billion of Nigeria’s debt, including the outright cancellation of $18 billion,” the bio says.

#AnkaraArmy

Tweet from Okonjo-Iweala

Okonjo-Iweala is the first woman and the first African to lead the WTO. CNN Business reported that Nigerians celebrated her appointment by “donning her signature look: a full outfit and head tie in African wax cloth known as Ankara, a single strand necklace, and clear glasses.”

“Her supporters have also taken up the moniker, #AnkaraArmy to rally behind the WTO chief,” wrote Anita Patrick for CNN.

The hashtag #BeLikeNgoziChallenge popped up on Twitter and Instagram.

In an article in Nigeria’s The Guardian, writer Eleanya Ndukwe Jr. observed that Okonjo-Iweala’s “ symbolic public appearance signature — a style she steadily cultivated during her undergraduate days at Harvard University — adds a much-needed intensity to the liberating place of women in positions of power with their own unique dress styles. In a global workforce system beginning to reckon its decades-long part in systemic patriarchy, this is timely.”

The article also quotes Okonjo-Iweala saying that her dress style gives her “a standard look–which I am proud of — which depicts my country and also stops people from wondering what I am going to look like.”

“Next time someone tells Bronx girls to take off their hoops”

I had watched the Economist interview with Okonjo-Iweala for only a minute. I then kept it on as an audiofeed in the background while continuing to go through my email.

I probably would not have given much thought to Okonjo-Iweala’s clothes had I not been listening to that interview when I came across this Washington Post story, “A doctor was deemed ‘unprofessional’ for wearing hoops. Now other women of color are speaking out.”

The story spoke of the pressure many women feel to conform with other people’s notions about professional dress. The #BigHoopEnergy hashtag emerged to counter that idea, the Post story notes.

The story included a link to this Glamour article by fashion writer Frances Solá-Santiago, “What Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Hoop Earrings Mean to Latina Women Like Me.” For her 2019 swearing-in, Ocasio-Cortez paired her white pantsuit with hoops and red lipstick.

Solá-Santiago wrote: “I saw myself in her that day: Throughout my professional career, I’ve stepped into spaces of privilege where I felt I wasn’t meant to belong — but instead of pushing aside my heritage to fit in, I insisted on wearing it boldly. Like Ocasio-Cortez, I feel it’s good to remind people (and all of Congress) when there’s a Latina in the House.”

In a tweet on Jan. 4, 2019, Ocasio-Cortez gave the credit for her fashion choices to Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

In Congress, Ocasio-Cortez has pushed the Democratic party to at least take up bolder speaking points on issues such as climate change. She’s a rare newcomer to the House to wield some influence.

It doesn’t diminish Ocasio-Cortez to note that she has had an effect on American politics while rocking her hoops. It takes nothing away from Okonjo-Iweala to enjoy learning about her dedication to Ankara prints as well as her views on China-U.S. relations.

Instead for me, the coincidence of reading about both of these women’s fashion choices today was an unexpected celebration of independence on this July Fourth, and one I wanted to share with friends.

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Kerry Dooley Young

Kerry Dooley Young

Journalist writing for free and for fun on Medium. Digs kindness, art, food, cities, politics, history and business. Has eaten in more than 60 nations.