Meet Sonya Shaykhoun – A lawyer by profession and an artist by passion! Sonia is an American, born and raised in New York City and a corporate and commercial lawyer. She relocated to Doha in Feb 2011 after having lived in Bahrain for 7 years. She is in the process of producing a documentary about Arabian women and their status in the Gulf countries.
Umm Suhail: Ahlain Sonya and welcome to my tête-à-tête! I’ve heard so much about your documentary, which I understand is still “work-in-progress”. Please tell me more about it and why this particular subject?
Sonya Shaykhoun: My documentary is entitled “High Heels in Arabia.” I have been attending workshops in different aspects of film at the Doha Film Institute since July 2011. I have written several scripts, all fiction. However, I started dreaming about this documentary in 2011. I remember the exact moment that I came up with this idea – I was walking across the Al Jazeera campus and I saw two young women coming towards me from Qatar TV. Both of them were wearing black abayas. But one of the women was wearing a “liffa” and she was wearing this “killer high heels” – and she actually could have hurt herself because the pavement is broken there and it was not safe to walk even if your face is uncovered and you’re wearing trainers or flats. So I became fascinated with this dichotomy of covering up but also wearing these fancy high heels shoes, what one of the women in my film has studied also – it’s the modesty/adornment dichotomy. Arab women are extremely glamorous and put a premium on beauty, make-up, accessories and shoes! As a shoe fanatic myself, I honed in on this particular item –
In December 2014, I was in New York. I had the pleasure of visiting the Brooklyn Museum, which was holding an exhibition on the “High Heel” – my mother turned to me and said, “That’s a sign that you should do that documentary you’ve been talking about.” Nine months later, I had the good fortune to attend a documentary workshop with the Doha Film Institute. They judged our treatments at the end and mine was not chosen, which has turned out to be a blessing because I can now make my film on my timeline, according to my guidelines and my ideas. It is a very positive film and I am exploring the progress of women in the GCC from the time of their grandmothers to now and looking towards the future in respect of women’s status and how they see their futures.
Umm Suhail: What inspired you to do this?
Sonya Shaykhoun: I am half Egyptian and half Irish. I have been living in the GCC since 2004 (I lived in Bahrain for 7 years before I came to Doha). I got married and quickly divorced in 2006/07. I am fully independent. I often think about my Egyptian grandmother, Wagida, who was forced into marriage at the age of 14 (they forged her birth certificate) and she married a man who was much older than her. She dropped out of school and became a housewife and mother (she had at least 12 children who survived and several more who died in infancy). Wagida was effectively illiterate. When I compare myself to her, which I do sometimes, I am amazed and I wonder what Wagida would think of me — and I see a lot of women like my grandmother around and I wonder what they think of the ambitious young women in their families and I am curious about how they became so ambitious and aspire to such great heights, despite the relative conservatism of Qatar.
Umm Suhail: How has life in Qatar transformed you?
Qatar is literally a land of opportunity for aspiring artists. When I lived in Bahrain, there were limited outlets for anyone who wanted to learn filmmaking or explore acting. When I arrived in Doha in 2011, there were so many workshops that I was able to take and I have had the opportunity to develop as a filmmaker and an artist (I take a lot of community classes at VCU Qatar, also). It is exciting to be in Qatar now and in the last five years – a lot of my friends and fellow filmmakers are a lot younger than me and so I have been afforded the opportunity to interact with some very talented, creative and ambitious young artists who have inspired me to keep creating, to keep pushing boundaries and to keep improving myself by learning new skills or just learning more about the environment around me. Qatar’s emphasis on learning and education is everywhere and, while I come from a home that emphasized education, it is refreshing and motivating to be surrounded by a population that is focused on education and self-improvement. Qatar is literally like a country in a fairy tale that emerged like a mirage and is testimony to the idea that if you can imagine it, you can do it.
Umm Suhail: How do your friends perceive you?
Sonya Shaykhoun: I suppose people take it for granted that I am a lawyer and an artist now – I am sure that I am not the only lawyer with artistic leanings and I know several lawyers who are also filmmakers, writers, etc.
Umm Suhail: What would you like to leave as your legacy?
Sonya Shaykhoun: Part of what I want to do in this lifetime is to build a bridge between the Arab world and the Western World – I have one foot in either – and although I myself am still learning about the Arab world, I am constantly surprised and enriched by what I learn.
Umm Suhail: What is your message to my readers?
Sonya Shaykhoun: I suppose it is that just because you studied one thing (like I studied law), it does not mean you have to be defined by your studies or the profession that you choose – keep growing, keep learning, keep pushing the boundaries. Dream big!
Watch this space for my next tête-à-tête!!!