Why Are Shoes So Offensive In Arab Culture?

The recent incident with Bella Hadid had us thinking about shoes and the interesting history of shoeing, one of the greatest insult in the Arab world

Shoes have been offensive for longer than many people would assume. Photo: Roman Emperor Constantius II, Bella Hadid's boot and Bella Hadid

by Staff Reporter

Culture 24 June 2019

By now, we’re pretty sure you’ve all heard.

Bella Hadid has been accused of racism.

The Palestinian-American supermodel is one of the world’s most famous faces.  It’s almost impossible not to see her on the cover of a magazine or on a massive billboard.

Part of the Instagirls supermodel generation, her face, her life and her newsfeed is everywhere.

Bella, along with her equally famous sister Gigi Hadid, are two of the most desired supermodels in the world, and since their rise to fame, have been massive role models and idols for Arabs everywhere.

Especially because they have always been openly proud of their Arab roots. Which makes this incident all the more bizarre.

WATCH: Why Are Shoes So Offensive In Arab Culture?

Over a week ago, Bella upset many of her Arab fans and was accused of racism when she posted a photo on her Instagram story.

Bella had walked in the Milan Men’s Fashion Week Spring/Summer 2020 Versace runway show that weekend and was waiting for a flight in an airport lounge and did what many people of the Insta generation do when they are bored.

She took a fashion inspired shot of her shoe, a squared toe boot, in a raised angle. A ray of sunlight shines through from the top while three planes are parked on the runway in the background.

The logos of the Emirates Airlines and Saudi Arabian Airlines are visible on the tails of two of the parked airplanes.

The photo caused an uproar online.

Right: The photo Bella posted up on her Instagram stories. Left: Close up of airline logos visible on the wings of the plane.

Many Arabs felt that by Bella pointing the back of her boot towards the planes, she was purposely insulting the Arab countries the airlines represent.

The hashtag #BellaHadidIsRacist was being used by the offended who demanded luxury fashion brands such as Calvin Klein, Verscae and Dior stop using the Palestinian-American in their campaigns.

Bella deleted the photo and issued an apology both in English and Arabic, stating among many things:

“I love and care so much about the Muslim and Arab side of my family…”

“The photo of my shoe had nothing to do with politics…

“I never noticed the planes in the background and that is the truth…”

“I would never mean to disrespect these airlines…”

Many weren’t satisfied with her apology.

But why did this candid photo offend so many Arabs?

A photo, which may have been taken to pass the time? To show off? To self promote? To mean nothing?

Well, obviously it does mean something to some people.

But why?

Let’s have another look.

The ray of light shining down reminded us of Dutch painter Harmen Steenwyck’s painting Still Life: An Allegory of the Vanities of Human Life painted in 1640.

Other than the light shining down, the painting is unintentionally similar to Bella’s photo in its theme. Vanity.

Different objects in the painting symbolize human knowledge (books), the pleasures of the senses (musical instruments), wealth (the Japanese sown and shell) and the frailty of human life (the smoking lamp and the chronometer), all of which are dominated by the symbol of death (the skull).

Bella’s photo inadvertently references similar themes of vanity, from her jet setting lifestyle, designer boots and the assumption of glamour when it comes to her job and personal life.

Like we said, she’s one of the world’s most in demand supermodels, is dating The Weeknd one of the most celebrated artists of his generation and one scroll of her newsfeed will give anyone insta-envy.

And as for death… isn’t having an online mob demanding your cancelation a type of death in the age of social media?

Harmen Steenwyck’s painting Still Life: An Allegory of the Vanities of Human Life painted in 1640.

That ray of light in Bella’s photo isn’t only shining down on her stylish boot. It also sheds light on the age-old insult of shoes and the act of shoeing.

Shoeing is the act of pelting someone with one’s footwear.

The earliest recording of shoeing was in 359 when Roman Emperor Constantius II, was hit by a shoe when he was giving a speech.

It was meant as a signal of war.

Shoeing saw a reemergence on the 14 December, 2008 after Iraqi journalist Muntadhar al-Zaidi threw both his shoes at then president of the United States George W. Bush.

And earlier in 2003, the world saw the Iraqi people swarm and pull down Saddam Hussein’s statue in Firdos Square striking it with their shoes.

WATCH: Iraqi journalist Muntadhar al-Zaidi at George W. Bush

It’s simple really.

Shoes in the Arab world are an offensive symbol. Being compared to a shoe or having a shoe thrown at you is a great insult. It implies that a person is lower than the dirt on the sole of said shoe.

The idea of a shoe causing offence isn’t particular to the Arab world.

From Scarlett O’Hara’s infamous line in Gone with the Wind to rouge Rhett Butler when he mocks her confession of love to Ashley, she vehemently announces,

‘How dare you? You aren’t fit enough to wipe his boots!’

To the 1966 mega hit by Nancy Sinatra, These Boots Are Made for Walking, the West also has a history of shoes symbolizing offense and insult.

And even today in the West, shoes carry weaponing potential. Watch any reality show reunion or physical confrontations and you might just see a shoe flying toward someone’s face.

We are particularly referencing, rapper Cardi B’s during a reunion special for Love & Hip Hop the rapper threw a red stiletto at her co-star and nemesis Asia.

WATCH: Cardi B throws her show during Love & Hip Hop reunion

And a year later in 2018, at New York Fashion Week at Harper’s Bazaar Icons party, Cardi B got into a physical altercation with rapper Nicki Minaj. According to eye witnesses during Cardi B, once again, threw a red shoe at Nicki before she was escorted out by security.

However shoes and jobs associated with shoes are not as offensive as they used to be in the west.

Thanks to shows like Sex and the City, and the shoe obsessed Carrie Bradshaw played by Sarah Jessica Parker, shoes have become a mark of empowerment.

In the world of fashion, which has seeped into main stream thinking, shoes are seen as symbols of status and power, shoemakers and designers are artists and those who can afford these works of art are privileged collectors.

This fashion, shoe obsessed, world is the one Bella comes from.

So, is it unfair of people to assume that Bella should know how offensive, kicking her heels up in the air would be?

Bella was raised in California, her mother is Dutch model Yolanda Hadid and her father is Real Estate developer Mohamed Hadid.

Her father was born in Nazareth during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, before fleeing to Syria with his family when he was 18-months-old.  As we mentioned, Bella along with Ggig, have both been openly proud of their Arab and Palestinian roots.

In December 2017, after Trump officially recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, Bella publically condemned the decision on social media writing:


Gigi and Bella Hadid protesting in New York city against the Muslim immigration ban. Instagram/@Gigihadid

So was the photo simply an oversight? An innocent mistake?

Or has Bella’s lack of exposure to Arab culture and etiquette resulted in naïve blunder?

In any case, after this incident we’re pretty sure Bella will be more careful where she points her boots just in case they walk all over her.

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