Dubai-based Shukriya is a producer and model who advocates for body positivity and queer and POC representation in the media. She often hosts panels and contributes to discussions in the UAE on the topic, using her platform to inform, educate, and empower.
Here is an excerpt from her interview we did for a global adidas project with the wonderful Iman Kiwi Mohamed - a creative strategist based in Dubai with a love of all things youth culture and subculture [be warned, though, if you get her started on K-Pop though, she might never stop ;)]. They talk about the dangers of being an activist in Dubai, the role of activism today, and how brands can be useful in this space.
Let’s start with how you see yourself, Shukriya. Would you call yourself an activist or something else?
Back in the day, I would’ve said I was an activist, but not so much anymore because I came to realise how detrimental it can be to one’s health to be an activist – especially here in Dubai. You’re quite censored on what you can and can’t say online, and a lot of people can take even the simplest things you post online as an attack or defamation. So, I prefer being called an ‘advocate’ instead.
This is an interesting distinction. Can you talk more about what you see as the difference between an ‘activist’ and an ‘advocate’?
I feel like activists are on it all the time. It’s their whole lives, basically. It’s them stepping on people’s toes and making sure their voices are heard. Activists are very amazing people, but it just takes over your life. You need to be okay with it becoming your life. I think advocacy is talking about things in a more educational way versus “We need a change right this second.”
And what are the issues you’re most passionate about advocating for?
I’ve been focusing more of my energy right now on diversifying fashion here in Dubai in regard to plus-size women and Black women; women who don’t look the cookie-cutter type. I feel like that’s something I can speak about because that is my life. This includes Black struggles, too.
Can you explain more about the difference between activism in Dubai versus the West? That’s something we’d really like to get our heads around.
The thing is, you won’t find ‘activists’ as you do in the West here in Dubai. People are very fearful of posting things online here because you can’t speak negatively about anyone or anything without it being pretty much illegal. I think the rules were implemented on the basis of ‘everyone getting along’, but it's kind of messing things up right now because people do want to have these conversations.
This is really interesting. How does that affect the ways that social change happens in Dubai? What’s important for us to know?
It’s important to know that in Dubai, many of these conversations happen between people in private instances, barely online, and rarely over text. They’re almost always in real life because people are just scared. Sometimes I check my phone to make sure no one’s listening in on me, or if I’m on a call with someone, I’m scared too. And I’m from here! My whole life has been here! And I’m still scared of getting caught for those things. Communities don’t mind talking about things. People don't mind talking about things. We’re just scared of getting into trouble. Freedom of speech is a bit of a stretch here.
Who are the people inspiring you or influencing you in your activism, or in your work as a creative, in Dubai?
I can’t, from the top of my head, name any activists or anyone who would claim to be an activist here specifically. There are people who do it in their day-to-day without it being public. For example, my mentor Amirah Tajdin, who is also a director, doesn’t necessarily use her platform in a way that says she’s an activist, but her body of work speaks for it. The films she directs and everything she works on is so diverse that it’s already a stance in its own way. She chooses who she wants to use in her projects, and straight off the bat, it’s diverse and active.
She sounds amazing! We’ve heard a lot about ‘information overload’ and the pressure to be always speaking on everything in the activism realm. What would you like to change about how activists and advocates interact, then?
I would like people to stop guilt-tripping each other over not doing things the ‘right’ way. If you guilt people into joining or speaking on a movement, are they even doing it for the right reasons? No. Now they feel guilty and like they are being watched. They’re reposting these colourful infographics. Do they know what’s going on? Do they know the history?
What do you think global brands need to know about operating in Dubai?
We are known for being a very futuristic place with lots of oil, money, and luxury. We are very ahead in those terms, but then in regard to meshing with the public, we're a bit slow with that. We also need to consider that this country is very young, and considering how much has happened in such a short amount of time, it’s pretty exceptional. Everyone here now is obsessed with social media and looking good and not being cancelled, and everything is now a PR thing. Dubai is now like, “Oh shit, we now need to catch up with the rest of the world, and we need to basically match what everyone else is doing, so we can keep up with the times and not look like this raunchy, luxurious, trashy place that a lot of people think that it is.” This place has a lot of history, and amazing people live here, but they’re only seeing the surface level of what is there right now, I think.
We’ve heard a lot about brands’ performative approach when it comes to working with activists. Do you feel that brands can fit better in the activist space?
I feel like it’s a good thing when it’s done properly, honestly and with the correct intentions. You can tell when brands are being genuine with their message and when brands are doing it for clout. To those brands – sorry, you’re very obvious with what you’re doing, and it does not fly. If you’re doing one shoot with one post with a plus-size model, but all the rest are average to sample size, I can tell you’re not doing this thing for real. It’s so fake.
How about in the UAE, specifically? What do you want to see from brands here?
If it’s UAE-specific about activism, then they need to listen to the people that live here. They need to actually talk to people like me or the Tajdins, the guys from Sole DXB. Talk to the people who are actually educated or know what's actually happening. People are willing to talk if you give them the platform. I don’t wanna do video or content for someone if I know it's gonna be pushed down to the end of the feed and never seen or heard from again. You’re wasting my time and your time and nothing is coming out of it.
Any parting last words you'd like to say, Shukriya?
I wanna firmly say that this isn't a competition. We all fit into this space. There’s space for everyone.