At first glance, human rights activists and the News Corp-owned New York Post do not seem to be natural allies. But they have teamed up to turn Gulnara Karimova, an aspiring fashion designer who is the daughter of Uzbek strongman Islam Karimov, into a radioactive commodity in the couture community.
A torrent of protests and bad press created a public relations nightmare for the organizers of Fashion Week in New York, where Karimova had been scheduled to hold a high-profile show of her Guli fashion line on September 15. IMG, Fashion Week’s producer, ultimately decided to pull the plug on Karimova’s runway extravaganza, the Post first reported on September 9.
“The fashion industry has made the right move. This should serve as a wake-up call for the Uzbek government,” said Steve Swerdlow, the Uzbekistan researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW), an international watchdog organization that has been among Tashkent’s severest critics.
Rights activists helped trip up Karimova by focusing the fashion world’s attention on the fact that Uzbekistan has one of the most repressive regimes on earth, one that routinely impresses legions of schoolchildren to harvest cotton in defiance of international labor treaties. Items from the Guli line rely heavily on Uzbek cotton.
The New York Post, meanwhile, administered an unrestrained printed beatdown on Karimova, portraying her as “the pampered daughter of the murderous dictator of Uzbekistan.” The Post also drew attention to the fact that Karimov’s regime in Tashkent appears to have unsavory ties to German auto manufacturer Mercedes-Benz, the main sponsor of New York’s Fashion Week. According to the Post, IMG representatives quietly tried to defuse the brewing PR debacle by getting Karimova to voluntarily withdraw from Fashion Week. When Karimova reportedly refused, the producers were forced boot the dictator’s daughter off the program.
“The message is clear,” said HRW’s Swerdlow. “Abusers will not be allowed to launder their image at the expense of human rights.” He said the Uzbek government could take several immediate steps to improve its rights image, including allowing International Labor Organization experts to monitor Uzbekistan’s cotton harvest. IMG’s move to bar Karimova should set a precedent, Swedlow added. “Ms. Karimova should not be welcome at high-profile events,” he said.
On September 9, a small group of Uzbek protesters stood opposite New York’s Lincoln Center, the site of all the Fashion Week hoopla, holding hand-made signs with photos of kids picking cotton alongside portraits of President Karimov and his daughter. The men also handed out fliers and tried to engage photographers and passers-by.
“We’re here protesting the fashion show of Gulnara Karimova, who gets her cloth from cotton picked by hand by small children,” said Yusuf Sabirov, a human rights activist who fled Uzbekistan after the Andijan massacre of 2005.
Sabirov and other protesters had arrived in New York two days earlier from their home base in Phoenix, AZ, which has become ground zero of Uzbek dissidents in the United States. "The reason we're here is to let people know who really she [Karimova] is,” said one protester. “Some people think it's her dad - but it's her, she's even worse. The money that Gulnara Karimova is spending here is from child labor.”
"The schools close, they chase the kids out to the fields, from age 6 to the 11th grade. [College] students who refuse to go get expelled," said Bakhtiyorjon Tuychiev, another protester who discussed the government use of child labor in the cotton harvest. "Because of the [pesticides] women are getting sick. The infant mortality rate there is much higher than normal."
While the New York fashion world may just be waking up to the realities of Karimova’s connection to systematic rights abuses, she has long had the reputation back home of being "the single most hated person in Uzbekistan," according to a US diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks.
In addition to being a bit player in the world of haute couture, Karimova has dabbled in show business. She has sung under the stage-name of GooGoosha, once performing a duet of “Besame Mucho” with Spanish crooner Julio Iglesias. Karimova also enjoys diplomatic cover, as she serves as Uzbekistan’s ambassador to Spain.
This story contains reporting by Katya Kumkova.