By: Boshra Al-Meraikhi, Priyanka Godbole and Racha El Ourradi
Shorooq Shaheen, like many Millennials, carefully curates her Instagram feed to showcase her personal tastes. From highlighting her favorite clothing brands to posting pictures of her travels, her account serves as a platform for her personality. Unlike the majority of young Qatari women, however, by showcasing snippets of her lifestyle Shaheen has managed to generate an avid following and become what many refer to as “Instagram famous.”
Shaheen studied broadcast journalism during her undergraduate years, and believes that her higher education played a major role in crafting her social media presence.
“We studied about social media, and how we can use it in a way of benefitting society,” Shaheen said. “Personally, if I appeared on social media without showing my face, people would not be able to connect with me.”
Qatari lifestyle blogger Dana Ahmed, 20, has developed a prominent social media presence through her various accounts. An interior design student at Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar, Ahmed strives to stay away from the public eye. Contrary to Shaheen, she refuses to show her face online or in interviews for her own set of reasons.
Shaheen’s and Ahmed’s contrasting online presences shed light on a larger lifestyle debate within the relatively conservative Qatari society: how women should present themselves online. While the majority of Qatari women do don traditional Arab dress on social media, the controversy stems primarily from a preference among women to either show or conceal their faces in posts.
“Growing up in this culture, I believe that everyone was brought up being very camera-shy, and not wanting to show their faces all the time or having their picture taken,” Ahmed said.
Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar, 38, is an author and professor at Qatar Foundation who discusses this controversy in a paper titled Faceless Facebook: Female Qatari Users Choosing Wisely. Rajakumar penned the paper seven years ago as part of a book chapter, and believes that Qataris have started to exercise more control over their online identities since then.
Rajakumar recalls an incident in 2014, when a documentary was released featuring several young Qatari women who went to Brazil to rebuild a school. The women in the film were heavily criticized on social media for not dressing in headscarves and traditional abaya during their trip.
“A campaign called Qatar Together came out in support of the team that went to the Amazon, and a lot of women made their profile pictures their faces to stand with them,” Rajakumar said. “More moderate people are speaking out in a public space to make it more comfortable for others who might want to do the same.”
Rajakumar herself has a strong social media presence with 36,000 Twitter followers. She has found through her work that the majority of social niches, particularly on Instagram, are more female friendly than male–at least in Qatari society.
According to Shaheen, the challenges Qatari women face on social media parallel the challenges they face living in a male-dominated society.
“We are in a society where it is unacceptable for a woman to show her face. The woman’s position is very limited,” she said.
Ghadeer Jassim Abdulrahman, a 20-year-old Qatari journalism student at Northwestern University in Qatar reviews restaurants and products via her blog, Twitter and Snapchat, yet refrains from showing her face because of a social stigma placed on her by her family.
“I really wanted to become a social media influencer, but due to the fact that my family is conservative they wouldn’t allow me to,” Abdulrahman said. “I would love to be who I am online, but my family is conservative.”
Abdulrahman believes that showing her face is not a religious matter, but rather a cultural preference.
“Even the niqab isn’t considered as a religious thing because it depends on your choice,” she said. Islam is a smooth religion. You’re not forced to do anything you don’t want with it.”
Societal and cultural debates aside, it is clear that Qatari women are persisting to stand up for what they are passionate about online and through social media channels.
“One needs courage because you will receive criticism from every other field–whether you are successful or not,” Shaheen said. “You need to be strong, and ignore negative, destructive criticism.”
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