Meet Shima: Iranian artist based in Qatar

Updated: Jan 29, 2021

Salam! I can’t believe it’s almost been a year since I started the #SwanaWomxn project. Just in case this is your first time checking it out -- or your first time on Full Potential’s blog/website, welcome! My name’s Alin. You can read my first post to get an introduction to the project.

I feel like I've been hiding today’s #swanawomxn from you all for months now. Shima and I first spoke in October, after I randomly came across her Instagram profile. Well, let’s be real. There’s nothing random about Instagram’s algorithm and the “suggested accounts” it’s constantly showing you. But Shima’s profile caught my eye. While Shima and I were talking, I couldn’t stop thinking about the parallels in our experiences. Even though she's Iranian and grew up in Qatar, and I’m Armenian and grew up in the U.S., we both grew up traveling to visit our homelands almost annually. A large part of our identities were shaped by those trips, by huge families and ethnic culture, and by the frustrations that come with living in the diaspora.

Without further ado, here’s my conversation Shima:

Part 1. Personal Background

“I always say my childhood consists of two parts: a part of me being in Iran and another part of me not being in Iran. A huge part of my identity was kind of shaped while traveling to Iran, even though we wouldn’t stay for that long.”

[Alin] Tell me a little bit about your background, where you were born, where you grew up, and all that good stuff.

[Shima] Well, I was born in Qatar, in Doha. My parents are from a small village in Fars, Iran, and they moved here [to Qatar] a year after they had me, like 23 years ago. They were brand new to this place, and I’ve basically lived here my whole life. We would just travel to Iran every year while I was growing up. So I always say my childhood consists of two parts: a part of me being in Iran and another part of me not being in Iran. A huge part of my identity was kind of shaped while traveling to Iran, even though we wouldn’t stay for that long. And yeah, I went to an Iranian school here [in Qatar], and then got accepted in VCU-Q (Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar). I would say I was always a very artistic person; I was always very interested in anything that was very hands-on, and studying at VCU was kind of the start of me taking a more serious path in my work.

[Alin] That’s really interesting. I grew up in Iran and like to think that I have a pretty good understanding of immigration patterns in the region, but I’ve never really heard of families moving to Qatar. I want to say it’s kind of random? I’m really curious to know, why did your family choose to move to Qatar, if you know?

[Shima] Well, there are actually a lot of Iranians here. The people who usually move here are the Southerners, people from Bandar-e-Abbas or the south of Fars. I’m not sure why that is, but my mom always said that back in the day, when she was very young, men would either go to Qatar or Dubai to make money, and to send money back to their families. So it was always a thing. If people wanted to go abroad, the Gulf countries were an ideal choice.

[Alin] You said you went to an Iranian school in Qatar, which is interesting to me. There were actually Iranian schools in Qatar? Was it in Farsi, or...? Just tell me about your experience in Qatar.

[Shima] Well as I told you, my family is from a small village in Fars, and there were a lot of people from their village who moved here before Qatar became what it is today. They stayed, got their passports, and now they’re like the richest people in Qatar. They identify as Qatari, even though they have Iranian backgrounds because there’s kind of “beef” between Iranians and Arabs, and they don’t really want to admit they’re Iranian. I’m from the same village, I just don’t have a Qatari passport, and growing up around those people was very, very challenging. Because there was me, this super young shy girl who goes to Iranian school, but also has Qatari relatives who constantly shame her for not knowing how to speak Arabic, or not being “Arab enough.” As far as I remember, I was always going through an identity crisis. I would mostly identify as Iranian, but then I would see all these people, and I would be like, this looks cool - this is the kind of music they listen to, these are the kinds of clothes they wear - maybe I’ll be that way! But then no, I love Iranian culture. I love the things I do with my friends and I was just like, confused. That whole conflict shaped me into the person I am today.

[Alin] What language do you speak at home?

[Shima] There’s not really a name for it. Where are you from?

[Alin] I’m from Tehran.

[Shima] There’s a very small town in Fars. It's called Larenstan, and they kind of have their own dialect, too. It’s very similar to the dialect that Jahrami and Irashi people speak. I wouldn’t know how to describe it.

[Alin] Did you ever ask your parents why you were in Iranian school to begin with?

[Shima] Well, there was for sure the financial difficulty of me going to English-curriculum schools, but they were also kind of scared of me, kind of - how do I say this…losing my culture? They didn’t want me to be “too Arab” or too “Khareji” (a Farsi word that translates to foreign/foreigner), so they always had that fear mainly when it comes to religious beliefs. They wanted me to be the way they wanted.

[Alin] Yeah, I understand that. I was an Armenian in Iran, and my parents sent me to Armenian school until the end of middle school for the same exact reason. Armenians take their culture very seriously - they want their kids to speak Armenian, to identify as Armenian. I went to private school with pretty much all Iranian kids, and they would always look at me as not one of them because I was different somehow. Even though I was born and raised there. So I guess I also considered myself to be different, too.

[Shima] Yeah. In my school I would say it was a whole different challenge. There were so many people from different cities in Iran, and that was also difficult. There were so many people from the south, people from Tehran, people from Balochistan - people from everywhere. It was very diverse. And my family is Sunni, and as you know, the majority of Iranians are Shi’a. So that was a whole challenge for me as well. When I entered school, the majority of people would go to… what’s that place? During muharram… *Speaks in Farsi* I don’t know, forget it.

[Alin] Oh, I think I know what you’re talking about! Hosseinieh.

[Shima] Yeah! But like, even though there were many Sunnis in our school, my friends were mostly Shi’a, and I was the different one. When I was younger, it was harder for me to accept that I was different.

Part 2. Studying art in Qatar

[Alin] So, you said you got accepted into VCU, which is, I’m assuming, in the U.S.?

[Shima] Yeah, the main campus is in the U.S., but they have an art campus in Qatar.

[Alin] That’s cool. So walk me through your transition from high school to college and what you study - all of that.

[Shima] Right. Well, as I told you, I’ve always been a very artistic person. As a kid, I would always love to draw, so I always knew what I wanted. When I finished high school, it was the best option for me. I mean, it was an American school. It was great - I definitely wanted to go there! It was difficult for me to get in because my English language skills weren’t that great. I had a good portfolio, but I had to work very hard to improve my English. People are very scared of applying to American universities, because they think, okay, "we're Iranian" so… when I got accepted, it was a huge accomplishment for me. I was very happy.

[Alin] Is it common for people to be afraid to apply to American universities [in Qatar] because they think they won’t get accepted because they’re Iranian?

[Shima] I would say yeah. In the whole university, there are maybe less than five Iranians. There are so many Iranians here [in Qatar], but they just don’t go to American universities.

[Alin] So why an American university? Is there an appeal to it other than it being prestigious or...?

[Shima] Well, there aren’t that many options here. It’s the only art school in Qatar. I had the option of going for other majors in Qatar University, or I don’t know, Texas A&M or Cornell, but I wanted to study design.

[Alin] So American universities have extensions in Qatar? Is that common? You said Cornell?

[Shima] Yeah, there’s Cornell University, there’s Texas A&M, there’s Carnegie Mellon, there’s Northwestern.

[Alin] So once you study at an American university, is there a pathway to move or work in America?

[Shima] Yeah, there are people who do that. It’s an option, but it’s very difficult. I wasn’t able to travel to the U.S. for the exchange program and the semester exchange. I couldn’t go to either one of those.

[Alin] Why?

[Shima] Because of my Iranian passport. The lady that was in charge of it [the exchange program] said there was no way I could get a visa. I couldn’t even try. Things were pretty bad back then. I don’t know what they are like now.

[Alin] So you were born in Qatar and aren’t a citizen?

[Shima] Yeah, they’re very particular about that.

[Alin] Are you able to apply for your citizenship?

[Shima] No. Qataris have many privileges and people, and getting citizenship is almost impossible, except for some rare circumstances. Qatari people are some of the richest people in the region, even the uneducated ones. They even make a living through sponsorship. I definitely get why the government doesn't want to give it out to people. But it also comes down to like, why do they not want to give it to people? They certainly have the money, but I don’t know - is it racism? Because it’s a very diverse country. A lot of people were born here and raised here, and I don’t understand why the government doesn’t allow people who've been here for a long time to consider this place their home to apply for citizenship.

Part 3. Career prospects for female Qatari artists

[Alin] So let’s talk about your art. Are you an illustrator, are you a graphic designer? Tell me in one word what you could be.

[Shima] I was always find that a difficult question to answer. There’s a fine line between design and art, and it’s always a challenge for me to kind of label myself. I would say I’m an illustrator and lettering artist, maybe? I’m definitely more of an artist but with my future work I'm aspiring to break that line between art and design

[Alin] When you are designing or illustrating, does your cultural background come through in your art, obviously other than Farsi script?

[Shima] Well, I think in my old work especially, you can definitely see trace of Iranian culture to it. But the more I grew as an artist, I feel like that Iranian feel went away and was mostly embedded in the depth and conceptual elements of my work rather than the visuals themselves. And not necessarily because I resonated with the culture less, but because of the complex identity that I constantly go through. That complex identity slowly started to show up in my work, which I sometimes find pretty fascinating. Besides the Persian language, you might not be able to see the Iranian feel in my work. There’s sort of an uncertainty in it, and I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not, but I’m trying to embrace it right now.

[Alin] I’m assuming there are also limitations in what you can express in your art.

[Shima] Absolutely. I can talk about that forever. I have so much to talk about, to express through my work, but I can’t. I’m very interested in different religious and philosophical ideas that are not necessarily supported by the country, and even though there’s freedom of speech in our university, it’s still very difficult to talk about those subjects without getting attached or threatened.

[Alin] One of the reasons I love doing this is because I want to learn more about opportunities for women after graduating. Because I know in Iran, it was not looking great. Girls would get an education, but then still struggle with getting a job, becoming independent, and I wanted to explore that in other countries. So tell me a little bit about what you envision yourself doing in your career as an artist and whether you have any plans for that, and kind of how that climate is for women in Qatar, in Doha.

[Shima] Qatar is a developing country, especially in terms of art and design, I would say when it comes to career opportunities for women in this field, it's quite good actually. But it’s probably because art and design is considered to be a feminine field. I often have mixed feelings about the opportunities I can get as a woman in this country since some of them are rooted in sexism. But it's hard to complain about something in a country you don't belong to!

[Alin] So you’re not worried about that?

[Shima] Not really, no. For men it’s definitely more difficult.What I am worried about though is the fact that art and design are very new here and my work might not be appreciated because of people's limited perspective towards what are and design can be.

[Alin] So what are some of your career goals, or plans?

[Shima] I’m planning on getting my masters. In terms of my career, I’m aspiring to be an international designer/artist. I just want to have my work out there because I feel very restricted here. Not necessarily because of the rules - that definitely plays a role - but I want a more diverse audience and that definitely comes with it’s own challenges since I use Farsi in my work. But I’m ready to take that challenge. I’m thinking about moving to the Netherlands to study typography, but it’s difficult for me to leave this country. Even though I have a love/hate relationship with it, it’s still home. I have my family here. This is one of the reasons why I want to be an international designer; I don’t want to stay in one place. But I also don’t want to decide on moving to another country. I want to be a nomad artist.

Part 4. Being a woman in Doha, Qatar.

[Alin] Tell me a bit about what’s an average day for a Qatari woman or a woman who lives in Qatar. Are there challenges that we are familiar with, or is it relatively better - do they enjoy a little bit more freedom? How is it?

[Shima] Well, it’s kind of difficult to answer that because even though it’s a sort-of free country, there are definitely challenges. I think the fact that it’s a very diverse country made it a lot easier for women to express themselves. But at the same time, there’s a difficulty of the country being very small and the communities being very close to each other. Within those communities, it’s definitely difficult for people to express their real selves. That’s different depending on the community and their cultural backgrounds. But in Qatar as a whole, there’s definitely a lot to say about women’s rights, travelling, jobs. There’s so much to it, but it’s so difficult to talk about them here. As expats, the first thing we learn is censorship and normalizing it. That’s not only implied by the government, but by the locals themselves - they kind of have censorship of their own.

[Alin] So not really government-enforced, but more people-enforced (culturally/socially)?

[Shima] It’s definitely there, but people-enforced for sure. For example, as a woman of any nationality, Qatari, not Qatari - if you raise a concern on Twitter, for example, a lot of people will come after you and say, “You have no right to complain, this is a perfect country, you should be grateful and if you're not, you should go back to your country.”