It’s a Wednesday afternoon when I sit down at my computer, looking over the questions I had prepared a few days before for this interview. In my Zoom waiting room, the name Afraa Alam pops up and I jump to respond, excited to see my friend and the maker of the satin mask I had received just the night before.
I am greeted by Afraa, sporting her bright pink hair and a thrifted floral shirt; as always featuring a burst of colour and excitement. I immediately begin to gush about the mask. I rave about its prettiness and softness as well as how happy I was to receive a personalized note.
The interview you are about to read below captures Afraa’s kindness, humility and creativity.
*Edited for length
“Can you tell us a bit about your initiative?”
“The Satin Masks for Sustainability is an initiative I started recently where I make and sell satin masks and the money is donated to the Awaj Foundation which is a Bangladeshi organization that helps to support the rights of garment workers.”
“What inspired you to begin?”
“Sewing is definitely not my number one thing, I’m more into painting or art, but I did get into sewing with my mom over the past summer. [...] I made a mask for myself cause I have acne prone skin and I wanted a mask that was reusable and satin is really good and gentle on your face, so I made one for myself and I got such a great response from people on social media, and they were like ‘Oh are you gonna sell it?’ and I was like ‘maybe.’ So then eventually, I came around and was like ‘Yes, I’m selling masks.’
**Cue to me once again praising the mask and the initiative in general**
“Does the charity you’re donating to have any personal significance?”
“Yes, so I’m a second generation immigrant from Bangladesh. My parents are from Bangladesh, so I essentially had very deep connections with the fact that this foundation is a Bangladeshi foundation and fashion is something I’m super interested in, so I really couldn’t ignore the connection between my hobby and my heritage anymore and I thought that it would be really great to support something that I’m very passionate about which is fashion and protecting garment workers rights. I’ve been to Bangladesh and have passed by these factories and you can see that there are signs saying ‘We have child workers’ or ‘We don’t have child workers’, so it’s not something that’s so far away from myself and I think in the fashion industry it’s pretty common for people to kinda bury the fact that all our clothes are made by, it could be underpaid garment workers, underage garment workers, I feel like I went on a tangent there…”
**we laugh as I reassure her that details are good**
“...essentially, my hobby and heritage combined together, I think that supporting the Awaj Foundation, it’s perfect for this mission.”
“You kind of explained why you chose satin, for your sensitive skin, but did you feel it was important to make the masks fashionable?”
“Yes, definitely. I feel like the masks that we have, the blue ones are kinda ugly, and they don’t go with every outfit and as someone who is interested in fashion, I like the fact that [my masks] come in different colours and I made one that matches my hair.”
**cue more excited gasping from me**
“Do you think masks provide another outlet for expression and if so why is that important?”
“Definitely, I think it’s really cool that people are treating it as a fashion accessory. Because, sure it can be kind of a bummer to some people, like ‘I don’t wanna wear this, it’s such an inconvenience,’ but it’s interesting how artists and designers and people who sew have taken this as more of an opportunity. I personally, also think of it that way. I think it’s a fun, new fashion accessory. I’ve seen brands, there’s one brand, have you seen the strawberry dress?”
“Yes I love it! We have to talk about that.”
“Okay, I’ve been following that brand for quite a while and basically they started to produce masks that use the fabric from their dresses that they sell, which I think is absolutely amazing”
“That’s so cool, I didn’t know that, I’m gonna have to go find it.”
“What role does art or fashion play in your life?”
“I express myself through fashion. I used to be pretty quiet and more reserved when I was younger, so I found that expressing myself through colour and art and just what I would wear. I’ve never been afraid of wearing colours or dressing a certain way. Fashion has really helped me to grow into myself and my personality. Art on the other hand has given me so many opportunities to share what I believe in and things I support. My whole life, like my job, everything is always centred around creativity and sharing that with other people.”
“What roles do you believe art and fashion play in our society?”
“Nowadays, especially in quarantine, I feel like people have really tried to understand the value of art and creativity. It’s an outlet for relaxation, it’s an outlet for your emotions. During this time, so many people are feeling a lot more anxious these days or more I guess even bored, just not in the right headspace, and they’ve turned to art, they’ve turned to media, they’ve turned to film, you know movies and shows. All of these art-centric, creative, passionate outlets, people are realizing how valuable they are in society. When things are turning to absolute chaos, we turn to art which I think is great.”
“Were you inspired by any of the current social justice movements going on?”
“Definitely, I know it’s maybe not the one that’s in the spotlight currently, but I felt a lot more inclined with the Black Lives Matter Movement continuously happening, there’s you a lot of things happening in the Middle East like the explosion [in Beirut]. There are so many different things that are coming into light, especially for the Western hemisphere, we’re not just focusing on ourselves anymore. I think that’s really important and I feel like, I don’t want to say that people were being more selfish these days, but due to quarantine and the pandemic, I think a lot of people are turning inwards on themselves at the same time and I think it’s important to act on what you preach. I definitely share all the posts on social media, I try to sign all the petitions, but that can only do so much, so I felt that this was a really good initiative to do, as a way to raise money for something I have always believed in, you know helping the garment workers and reducing fast fashion.”
Fast Fashion: inexpensive clothing produced rapidly by mass-market retailers in response to the latest trends - Oxford Dictionary
“What role do you believe teens and other young people can play, particularly during this pandemic? Obviously you've done something important that’s making a change, so what do you think other teens can do or what role do they play?”
“We definitely have so much power in ourselves, cause I feel like our generation is so much more creative than past ones. I feel like we’re much more of opportunists than before, we really see the value in art and social media [...]. I know for sure that this initiative wouldn’t be as widespread as it is and was without people sharing it on their stories and on their feeds are everything, so I really value that power of social media. I feel like we should, everyone is like ‘I’m so bored, I’m so bored’ but at the same time it’s like what can you do, you have all this renewed amount of time, you should be able to use it to indulge in your own passions. It doesn’t have to just be art, it could be you know computer science, if you’re into coding you could teach people, so many people are picking up new skills, and you could use this time to help them.”
Personally, what do you believe you have learned from the pandemic and the social justice issues in the past few months?
“With this project or with quarantine?’
“I feel like, again, I think this is kind of counter reactive to what I just said but I feel the need to say it. I feel like everybody’s like ‘You have all this time, you should start a business, you should start a blog, you should start this, you should do this. If you aren’t starting now, you’re just lazy.’ I feel like that idea is pretty toxic in itself, because sure you may have this renewed amount of time, some of us could be working, some of us could be taking care of elders or whatever. That doesn’t mean that you have to put pressure on yourself to do something. To do something big, or something that you’ve always wanted to do right now, because you’re still anxious, you can still feel burnout. Definitely from this project or at the beginning of quarantine, I felt a lot of burnout, creatively and just virtually. Burnout is common and that is totally okay during this time cause we’re going through a whole pandemic.”
“Before moving on, is there anything you’d like to add, maybe about the initiative, convincing people to buy, how much you’ve raised, opinions on masks, how people are reacting to them? Anything”
“In general I think I hope that this project helps people realize that A. the garment industry is absolutely corrupt and we need to really step up our involvement in clothing. Cause everybody buys clothing, regardless of if you’re interested in fashion or not, all of our garments are all handmade. They’re all made by someone and we need to be more aware of that connection between ourselves and people overseas who are making them, and we need to realize that it’s not imported labour that’s the issue, it’s the fact that these giant companies, these owners of these factories are the ones exploiting these people for their labour. Also for people to realize that masks are kind of cute, like you can totally rock them and you could totally have and incorporate that into your outfit. Look at it more as an opportunity rather than an inconvenience.”
“How long will this initiative be running and where can people contact you if they would like to purchase one of your masks?”
“You can contact me on Instagram, so @afraa.alam, you can DM me, you can always email me (email@example.com) as well if you don’t have social media. I think this initiative will be running for a little more. I just finished phase 1, I’ve made about 26 masks and we raised about $400, it was amazing.”
“I know! Thank you to everyone who bought masks, that means a lot. I think I’ll keep doing this initiative into September.”
How do you think your masks or masks in general will impact the return to school?
“As more people continue to go out, the more fashion related, culture related, pop culture related things will kind of come back up into our sphere of ideas, but essentially I feel like people will treat masks as more of a fashion accessory, rather than something that ‘Oh I have to put onto my face’ Cause why not? Why not have fun with it.”
Afraa’s initiative should be inspirational to us all. As a teen, she uses her talents to create solutions to problems she feels passionate about. Following this interview we had an hour long conversation about television, school and life in general. Her story is a testament to the fact that ordinary teenagers can create lots of change.
Afraa also runs her own business year round, DoodleDoughnuts.co, where she specializes in hand painted clothing and shoes. Her YouTube channel will soon have a video where she describes in detail her mask making process.
YouTube: DoodleDoughnuts Crafts
Learn more about the Awaj Foundation here: http://awajfoundation.org/