Why Qatar’s migrant workers dress up on ‘fashion Fridays’

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Doha, Qatar – Every Friday, migrant workers in their thousands flock to the Doha Corniche, the main waterfront promenade in the Qatari capital, dressed in their finest clothes, from morning to night.

A large number of country’s expatriate workforce, who mostly come from South Asia, have only one day’s rest from their hard, long working week.

From Saturday to Thursday, they wear uniforms – overalls for construction workers, blue or green tunics and trousers for janitors, black waistcoats and white shirts for office staff.

Fridays bring a chance to show off traditional and contemporary fashion and inject a little colour into the monotony. 

In their uniforms, the workers are indistinguishable from one another. Fridays allow workers to demonstrate their individuality.

Thousands of construction workers toil six days a week [Ayilah Chaudhary /Al Jazeera]

“No, I don’t like my uniform – I like what I’m wearing now,” said Aakash, a Nepalese construction worker who wears blue overalls on site during the week.

“Back home, everyone has a sense of style.” 

On this Friday, he is wearing a camouflage shirt, bootleg jeans and plimsole-style sneakers.

Aakash says people back home in Nepal have a unique sense of style [Ayilah Chaudhary/Al Jazeera]

“We come to [Doha Corniche] every Friday after prayers,” said Shahid Sultan, a light-eyed Pakistani dressed in a checked shirt and blue jacket, who works as an electrician at Hamad International Airport.

He supports his family back home with his income, but in the future hopes to become a fashion model in Karachi.

“Clothes are too expensive here and I don’t think we’re allowed inside Villagio [Mall] today, so we just come here instead,” he said.

Shahid Sultan is an electrician but hopes to return to Pakistan and work as a model [Ayilah Chaudhary]

There are almost two million migrant workers in Qatar, comprising more than 80 percent of the total population.

The Central Municipal Council prohibits single men, primarily South Asian workers, from entering public areas designated as “family zones” on Fridays, such as parks, open-air markets and shopping malls. 

The segregation is purportedly a security measure, but rights group have rallied against it.

The expatriate workforce comprises almost 90 percent of the Qatari population [Ayilah Chaudhary /Al Jazeera]

Aparna Jayakumar, a portrait photographer who co-founded Doha Fashion Fridays, a blog, spends her Friday afternoons on the promenade documenting stylish workers.

The social media page is similar to Brandon Stanton’s Humans of New York platform.

“It’s beyond fashion, because the point of this project is to give visibility to people who go unnoticed otherwise in real life,” she said. “Fashion is part of this blog, for sure, because I’m only selecting people to interview who are dressed in an interesting way.”

Radha Hamal has left two daughters behind as she works in Qatar [Ayilah Chaudhary /Al Jazeera]

Jayakumar keeps an eye out for workers with “style and swag”. 

She also talks to the workers about their lives in Doha and what inspired their outfit.

“How you dress is such an expression of who you are,” she said. “But for six days a week, they’re not allowed to express themselves, so they go the extra mile on the day they can.”

One particularly moving entry shows the tattooed forearm of Neera Limbu, 27, a housekeeper from Nepal.

“Love you Ronik”, says the tattoo, a message to her son she left behind. Like thousands of other women in the Gulf, Neera’s mother takes care of her son as she works in Doha and sends money home.

According to the blog entry, she enjoys dressing up “Nepali style” on her day off in Doha.

Donald Earley, an assistant professor at VCU-Q’s fashion design programme, said individuality is expressed when people choose their own clothes. 

“When you buy a garment, and it’s a beautifully crafted garment, you have this imagination when you’re looking at it,” he said. “You see yourself in the clothing, and you think, ‘this is going to make me feel good.’ That’s what clothes are really about, to send a message about how you’re feeling.” 

While low-income workers have far less to spend on their wardrobe than other residents in the wealthy peninsula, Earley said they value fashion more.

“Poorer people want to be more fashionable than anybody, because it’s out of reach. And at the same time, a shirt or sweater is all they have.”

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