Doha Fashion Fridays

by Marta Canini

Migrant workers who spend their Fridays in the waterfront promenade of Doha, Qatar do not compromise in style. After a long working week of wearing identical overalls and tunics, they spend their only day off wearing striped shirts, ripped jeans, and fantasy blazers. Their outfits are celebrated through the camera lens of Aparna Jayakumar, 33, an Indian professional portrait photographer who runs the blog @DohaFashionFridays together with its co-founder Khalid Albaih, 39, a Sudanese political cartoonist.

After nineteen months of construction work in Qatar, Nabin Karki, 20, from Nepal, is counting down the days to his freedom. For now, he spends his Fridays in the Corniche wearing a fancy white shirt, a checkered scarf, skinny jeans, and black leather boots.

Karki’s picture is one of the many posted on the blog which was put together by Jayakumar and Albaih, where we can see migrant workers in their expressive outfits.

Away from the glittering lights of Doha, in a far less fancy district called Industrial Area, on the South-East side of the city, two million migrant workers find their home. Migrants make up roughly around 90% of Qatar’s total population of 2,727,308. Most of them come from South Asian countries and work for construction companies downtown. They are on every corner of the city, yet they go largely unnoticed during the working week. Fashion Fridays give them a chance to forget about their bland uniforms and show off their stylish personalities.

What we do not see in these pictures (because of censorship), are the Qatari police officers preventing migrant workers from entering certain residential districts of the city. In 2010, the Qatari government ratified a law that bans migrants from family zones. Five years later, the Central Municipal Council (CMC), Qatar’s only elected body, released on its official website detailed maps highlighting family-only districts.

In addition, migrant workers are also banned from certain shopping malls on special family-days, which usually happen on Fridays. So, gathering in the Corniche seems to be the best option on their only day off. Many have interpreted the opening of a new migrant-friendly shopping mall in Asian Town, close to the Industrial Area, as just another attempt to further segregate them.

Jayakumar wanted to start a project around migrant workers ever since she moved to Doha from Mumbai in 2014. In the beginning, she did not quite know how, “It had to be done in a way that was very sensitive and under the radar. You cannot go out and say ‘workers have a hard life,’ that kind of publicity is not allowed here,’” she explained over the phone.

“Doha’s migrant workers are definitely living in challenging conditions,” Aparna said. She has never seen their dormitories in the outskirts of Doha in person because, as a woman, it is better not to go there. “It’s like a city of men, you know,” she added, “I have never gone there but I have seen pictures, and it can get really challenging.”

Albaih had the idea since 2014, when, while walking in the Corniche with a friend of his, he stopped and said, “Hey man, that guy is wearing a 2pac t-shirt!” pointing at a migrant worker in the street. His friend looked at the migrant, laughed and walked by as if he did not consider him a human being. “It was very degrading,” Albaih said. “He didn’t see him. He saw him, but he didn’t see him.”

This upsetting episode started the fire in Khalid, who started thinking about a way to narrate the situation without victimizing the workers, and little by little, developed the concept of @DohaFashionFridays. “In Qatar, if you are a builder, that’s who you are and all you’re ever going to be,” Khalid added, “That’s not a bad thing, but people do not care about what else you are. I wanted to highlight what else these people are.”

Khalid Albaih used his skills as a talented political cartoonist to design the logo. Here, a dark-skinned Superman wears the blue jumpsuit of Doha’s construction workers. “The only way that Superman could fit in society is to be weak, [...] even though he is still Superman,” Khalid explained. “Under the blue jumpsuits there are super men and women who are trying to fit in.”

@DohaFashionFridays is a social project aiming to break barriers in Qatar, “The goal of this project is to show that we need to look at workers compassionately and see them as human beings,” Aparna concluded, adding, “Our goal is to celebrate their personality and individuality through photographs, and ultimately, make people more sensitive towards them.”

Adriana DeNoble