The ancient city of Thatta is home to Areeba Siddique, a young contemporary artist who gained a lot of recognition for her Muslim themed art and illustrations. Being from a traditional Pakistani family, religion and cultural values were always a part of Ms. Siddique’s identity. But growing up she felt confused seeing that other people did not have the same limitations as her. If she wore shalwar, qameez and dupatta why didn’t everyone? She then tried to find a way to resolve this inner conflict and used the internet as a means of self-discovery and expression. “I decided to put all of my emotions into my art,” she said.
Initially she didn’t speak much about Islam or what it meant to be a young woman in Pakistan, mostly because that’s not the kind of content usually trending on social media. But when she did, despite her inhibitions, it gained momentum fast. It turned out there were many like her who felt the same way and now she has an excess of 30 thousand followers.
She started out with journaling. She explained by saying, “I never learned art so it was my revenge to pick up all the trashy stuff and make an art piece out of it. It worked well.”
These journals were what lead to her becoming ‘internet famous’. Their Islamic themes such as ‘ayat a day’ pulled in audiences.
“My audience is really wide.” Ms. Siddique said. “There are Muslims everywhere so when I make an illustration about anything religious it’s relatable to not only us; it’s also Indians, Pakistani’s that live abroad, Bangladeshis.” She added.
She then moved towards digital illustration and created a character she calls Ree. She created an edgy hijab and sunglasses wearing alter-ego who was strong enough to speak out about struggles with life and religion where she felt like she couldn’t.
She spoke of how even Muslim converts would sometimes contact her to tell her how relatable her content was. Personally she said her work made her feel really empowered. She used to feel really worried about fitting in the global trends. She said she wanted to make representing one’s own culture and religion cool in the west dominated internet environment. She encouraged Muslim women to post their artwork and make their presence known.
“This is what I was working for and it makes me feel really good.”
In March this year, her artwork brought her global coverage when she was featured in an article on Teen Vogue, wherein she spoke of her experiences as a young Muslim artist. She laughingly said that the most important thing that her fame has brought her is freelance work. Her illustrations are also regularly featured on Rookie Magazine. Currently on a gap year, she wanted to find a way to groom herself and her skills without having to depend on anyone else. She said that the internet was her only gateway to do it. “This is what I do. I make art for survival,” she said.
Speaking of family, she said that even though religion was extremely important in her household it was never forced onto anybody. Her family remains content with her because they know that her heart and her work stay true to her values. “They’re happy. Last November I took my mother and my two sisters to Lahore because I received orders there and she was pretty amazed because we went on an airplane and lived in a hotel. So she really believed me then.”
Speaking about having to deal with stereotyping or backlash she said that the only time she had to face negativity was when she was featured on Mangobaaz. She said that people in the comment sections were, instead of focusing on her artwork, judging her as a Muslim. “They saw my dupatta and said things like; she’s not even a real hijabi. They were not even paying any attention to my artwork.”
Though a lot of Pakistanis did appreciate her work many of them were either living abroad or had just returned. She said hoped that she would get to hear from more local artists or art enthusiasts. She was grateful for all the appreciation she has gotten. “I have found really good friends through the internet and my work. I have connections with other people and it’s really weird because I’m so young.”
When asked what her plans were for the future she said, “I really want to do visual design at Indus Valley. I also got this scholarship offer from NCA but I couldn’t go because of my ‘no-mehram’ stuff. So I dropped that. I’m positive that I’m going to find a way into an art school. I’m positive about that. I have no idea how I’m going to do that but I just feel like it might happen.”