High Heels in Arabia
A documentary film about the status of women in the GCC
“Heels and red lipstick will put the fear of God into people.” Dita Von Teese
In early 2011, I moved to Qatar to take up a job as a lawyer with Al Jazeera Media Network. I had never been to Qatar before even though I had been living in Bahrain, an island which is a mere 16 minutes away from Qatar by plane and I was surprised by the marked difference in conservatism (Bahrain being, by far, more open than Qatar, which is still not as conservative as Saudi Arabia and women can drive in Qatar, unlike in Saudi.) Having already lived in Bahrain since 2004 (I am originally from Manhattan), I was accustomed to quasi-American freedoms afforded to me in Bahrain (i.e., the ability to go to one of the many free-standing “bottle-shops” without a license to buy wine, the ability to drive, relative freedom in terms of the way I dressed and how I socialised, and the frequent interactions with Bahrainis.) Before I moved to Bahrain, my mother called one of our old family friends who used to work in Saudi and he confirmed that Bahraini women are as sophisticated as “Park Avenue Ladies,” which, indeed proved correct. Bahraini women have a Western sense of style and openness that is quite distinctive in the GCC. But in Qatar, there was (and still is) one stark difference; there are a lot more women in Qatar who wear the hijab (headscarf) and niqab (face-veil). One common denominator, however, is the omnipresent killer high heel.
Bahrain felt like an American or British suburb in a parallel universe so, while I noted the East/West contrasts, it was not until I came to Qatar, which is almost but not quite as conservative as Saudi Arabia (the determining factors are that women can drive and that you can buy alcohol at hotels and, if you are licensed, the Qatar Distribution Company) that I started to notice the fascinating and mysterious dichotomy of the Arab women, many of whom cover from head-to-toe, often in black abayas (the black overcoat that many women wear over their clothes, which are often jeans or leggings and a t-shirt) and often break-neck high heels that cost upwards of US$1,000 at least.
One image that has stayed with me for years is an image of two women whom I saw trying to navigate the broken pavement of the Al Jazeera / Qatar TV compound in high heels. What’s the big deal about two women walking down the street, you might wonder? Well, what struck me is that one of the female pedestrians was covered from head-to-toe but also wore an extra veil over her face, even obscuring her eyes, called both the lashwa or the liffa, and simultaneously strutting stridently down the street in what looked like 6-inch high heels. But for the black garb, she could have been any one of the attitudinal models I watched my fashion-photographer brother snap through the years. The question of “Why?” has niggled at me ever since.
Fast-forward to December of 2014. I was in New York City for a few months in between jobs. Never having been to the Brooklyn Museum, I noticed that there was an exhibition on high heels on there called “Killer Heels.” So my mother and I took my two nephews down there and my mother said to me, “Don’t you think this is a sign that you should make your high heels documentary now?” I had been talking about it for years and, although I had taken umpteen classes at the Doha Film Institute in Qatar (erstwhile Qatari partner in the now obsolete Doha-Tribeca Film Festival), I had not taken the bull by the horns, so to speak, and done it. Until now.
I started slowly. I took pictures of high heels in high-end boutiques in Doha. I started reading about high heels. Then, fortuitously, I took a workshop on the documentary film. The workshop was set up in such a way that there were 20 people, all of whom had to present their pitch to a panel of judges and the winners would produce their documentary film in a few weeks. My pitch, “High Heels in Arabia,” was not chosen and for that, I am truly grateful. Had I had to produce the documentary, which I ultimately put in production in October 2015, in a few weeks, for sure that film would stink. Thank God for small blessings.
Armed with the Canon 5d mark III and accoutrements that my mother had gifted me a few years back, I set about approaching women whom I thought would make interesting subjects for my film, “High Heels in Arabia.” I did not want to showcase celebrities or icons, although of course they have to be referenced, rather I wanted to show the “everywoman” — the woman who is a heroine in her space, whether it be in her country, her university, in social media or otherwise — but the woman who is in her way smashing the parameters of the status quo and doing something different, something noteworthy and who challenge the preconceived notions that people outside of the Middle East have about women in the Middle East. One of the Qatari subjects suggested I start an Instagram account called “High Heels in Arabia”, where I photograph high heels from around the GCC, which can rival the most outrageous, fantastic and luxurious high heels on the block.
“High Heels in Arabia” is a documentary film that explores the status and increasing power of women in the GCC as they follow in the high heeled footsteps of the likes of HH Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser, the mother of the current Emir of Qatar and other iconic Arab women. Indeed, the “High Heels” part of “High Heels in Arabia” is in part a metaphor for female power and status.
It has been quite a journey and quite a gateway into world that is often veiled from the rest of the world. I am more than half-way through production (I am my own director, producer and crew) and I have filmed 7 women. Each woman has answered my questions in their own unique way and I am grateful for the trust that each woman has put in me to allow me into her own universe. None of the answers have pinpointed the reason behind the break-neck high-heels as fashion, although that is certainly the case, but something a lot more complex…but you will have to wait for the film to see what I conclude.
I have several more profiles to capture on film throughout the GCC (which comprises Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia) and I cannot wait to see what else I discover about women and their high heels in Middle East.
For inquiries, write to me at here.