Kuwait’s Alanoud Alsharekh, Feminist Groundbreaker

6 December, 2020

Kuwait's feminist star, Dr. Alanoud Alsharekh (Photo courtesy Alanoud Alsharekh)


Nada Ghosn

 

I strong­ly believe that peo­ple need to get angry for change to happen…As long as that anger does­n’t become a destruc­tive force. —Alanoud Alsharekh

 

Her web­site declares “Arab women are the true mea­sure of change in the region.” She’s not a house­hold name but if you’re out­spo­ken on wom­en’s rights which are after all human rights, hers is a name you should know.

Edu­cat­ed in the US and the UK, Dr. Alanoud Alsharekh received her PhD in com­par­a­tive fem­i­nism and Mid­dle East­ern stud­ies at the School of Ori­en­tal and African Stud­ies (SOAS), Uni­ver­si­ty of Lon­don. She is a researcher, aca­d­e­m­ic and activist focused on youth, gen­der, and Arab fem­i­nist the­o­ry. She’s an Asso­ciate Fel­low in the Mid­dle East and North Africa Pro­gramme at Chatham House and a research asso­ciate at the Arab Gulf States Insti­tute in Wash­ing­ton. An out­spo­ken advo­cate for women and minor­i­ty rights in Kuwait, Alsharekh uti­lizes her voice as a mem­ber of Kuwait­’s civ­il soci­ety and an aca­d­e­m­ic to help facil­i­tate pub­lic dis­cus­sion about piv­otal issues fac­ing Arab soci­ety.  She has pub­lished numer­ous books and arti­cles focus­ing on polit­i­cal iden­ti­ty, cul­tur­al pol­i­tics, gen­der and kin­ship poli­cies in the Ara­bi­an Gulf.

Among her many accom­plish­ments, Alsharekh is the direc­tor at Ibtkar Strate­gic Con­sul­tan­cy, a mar­ket­ing and lead­er­ship ini­tia­tive that empha­sizes access to the Mid­dle East and empow­er­ment for women. She serves as an advi­sor to a num­ber of local and inter­na­tion­al gov­ern­men­tal bod­ies and NGOs. She has also lec­tured wide­ly and held numer­ous teach­ing posi­tions through­out her career, both in Kuwait and abroad. She is involved with a num­ber of oth­er non-prof­it orga­ni­za­tions and civic civ­il soci­ety groups, includ­ing AIWF, Eithar and the Abol­ish 153 ini­tia­tive under Ibtkar. She’s also the act­ing direc­tor of Friends who Care Cam­paign that seeks to help at risk young women under the age of 21 with­in Kuwait­’s social care system.

alanoud alsharekh protesting1300pix.jpg

In 2016 Alsharekh was award­ed a knight­hood by the French Gov­ern­ment (Nation­al Order of Mer­it) for her work pro­mot­ing wom­en’s rights in the region. She also received the Arab Prize for best pub­li­ca­tion in a for­eign jour­nal (2013–2014) by the Doha Insti­tute in 2014, and won the Voic­es of Suc­cess Kuwait award in 2012. Because of her influ­ence and abil­i­ty to ini­ti­ate change, she was cho­sen as one of the 100 most influ­en­tial and inspir­ing women in the world by the BBC for 2019/2020. 

Alanoud Alsharekh was kind enough to speak with me by phone from Kuwait City, where she lives with her Lebanese hus­band and her child. I was curi­ous to dis­cov­er this impres­sive­ly active and pro­duc­tive woman, from a coun­try we rarely hear about, but whose women have the rep­u­ta­tion in the Arab world of being very strong and edu­cat­ed. She insist­ed that fem­i­nism in Kuwait remains under-doc­u­ment­ed. “I think in gen­er­al, we ought to speak of fem­i­nism in the Arab Gulf states as khal­i­ji fem­i­nism. I don’t think we can look at it inde­pen­dent­ly just in Kuwait,” she says.

Kuwait became inde­pen­dent in the ear­ly six­ties. It was the first coun­try in the Arab region to have elec­tions and a par­lia­ment. Despite the fact that Kuwait was a pro­gres­sive state where women were edu­cat­ed, they were not includ­ed in pow­er shar­ing. The demand to inte­grate women in the polit­i­cal process, how­ev­er, appeared soon after inde­pen­dence, Alsharekh said.

With a pop­u­la­tion under five mil­lion, Kuwait has a very active civ­il soci­ety. NGOs began form­ing with the nascent inde­pen­dent state, and some were inher­it­ed from the time of the British pro­tec­torate. One of the old­est is the Wom­en’s Cul­tur­al and Social Soci­ety, estab­lished in 1963. Alsharekh explains: “I think the pro­gres­sion of fem­i­nism in the Arab world, whether in North Africa, the Lev­ant or the Ara­bi­an Gulf is inter­twined with two things: post-inde­pen­dence strug­gles, and edu­ca­tion for women.”

In Kuwait, mul­lah schools (organ­ic vil­lage schools) were present in the 1910s and 1920s. They became more for­mal­ized in the 1930s dur­ing the British occu­pa­tion, which was minor in Kuwait com­pared to oth­er coun­tries in the region. In the 1950s, with the influ­ence of pan-Arab nation­al­ism, Kuwait­is had to send their chil­dren to school by law. 

Post-inde­pen­dence strug­gles in the Arab world, Alsharekh reminds us, includ­ed the demand of edu­ca­tion for women. As a con­se­quence, wom­en’s aspi­ra­tion to work and gain finan­cial inde­pen­dence led to polit­i­cal and eco­nom­i­cal claims for inte­gra­tion. Bahrain and Kuwait were pio­neers in this field in the Gulf region, although there weren’t any uni­ver­si­ties. The first group of women went to the uni­ver­si­ty of Cairo in order to get post-sec­ondary edu­ca­tion in the fifties.

“But when they came back, these women decid­ed that wear­ing an abaya [black dress and scarf] was hypocrisy. They weren’t crim­i­nal­ized, or penal­ized and the gov­ern­ment did­n’t stop their schol­ar­ships either,” Alsharekh explains. “I believe that fem­i­nist pro­gres­sion is an organ­ic act. These first attempts were very ‘Arab’, and I don’t like when peo­ple say that fem­i­nists were influ­enced by the West! The desire to be treat­ed like a human being is universal.” 

In the 1990s, the Iraqi inva­sion of Kuwait pro­vid­ed a strong boost to fem­i­nist pro­gres­sion. Dur­ing the occu­pa­tion, a lot of women became mar­tyrs and heroes. “We were allowed to give our lives but not to par­tic­i­pate in the polit­i­cal process. Kuwait was the only Islam­ic democ­ra­cy where women weren’t allowed to vote,” she says. “Because Kuwait was sup­port­ed by inter­na­tion­al allies, there was inter­na­tion­al inter­est in why women weren’t also vot­ing. So, after the lib­er­a­tion, many more demands emerged.”

When Iraq’s inva­sion of Kuwait start­ed, Alsharekh’s par­ents sent her to a Lebanese school in Eng­land called Choueifat. From there she went on to Lon­don King’s Col­lege where she obtained a Bach­e­lor’s in Eng­lish lit­er­a­ture, before mov­ing to SOAS to get a Mas­ter’s degree in Applied Lin­guis­tics and Eng­lish-Ara­bic Trans­la­tion. “In between, I got mar­ried and preg­nant, so, when I fin­ished my Mas­ter’s, I came back to teach at Kuwait Uni­ver­si­ty. Around the same time, in 1999, a bill had been intro­duced to Par­lia­ment. It was sup­posed to get women their polit­i­cal right to vote. But we lost. There were men who clapped! They were so hap­py about these results,” she relates.

I am not going to step back and watch my daugh­ter get­ting mar­gin­al­ized, like I was or my moth­er was!

At the time, Alsharekh decid­ed to return to SOAS to do her PhD on com­par­a­tive lit­er­a­ture and the emer­gence of fem­i­nist aware­ness. “Is it a mat­ter of cul­ture, reli­gion, or gen­der? It is most def­i­nite­ly the lat­ter! Women are mar­gin­al­ized and not giv­en equal oppor­tu­ni­ties all over the world, for dif­fer­ent jus­ti­fi­ca­tions,” she thought. She chose the lit­er­ary approach, as it includes both cul­tur­al and polit­i­cal aspects of human life. She want­ed to track how aware­ness in a place like Eng­land inter­sect­ed with activism along a his­tor­i­cal time­line, as suf­frage devel­oped and law changed.

“I want­ed to under­stand how all this was reflect­ed in wom­en’s writ­ings. And how, when I com­pared it to dif­fer­ent parts of the Arab world, it would dis­play dif­fer­ent stages of aware­ness.” She focused there­fore on three Arab writ­ers: Laila Al Oth­man from Kuwait, Naw­al El-Saadawi from Egypt, and Hanan Al-Shaykh from Lebanon. “It’s inter­est­ing to see that all these women are con­tem­po­rary, more or less. Because fem­i­nism is a glob­al move­ment, wher­ev­er you live in the world, you can be influ­enced by what’s happening.” 

After com­plet­ing her PhD, she was recruit­ed by Upp­sala Uni­ver­si­ty in Swe­den. She taught fem­i­nist lit­er­a­ture in the Arab world, and also had a class about sym­bols in the mod­ern lit­er­a­ture of the Ara­bi­an Gulf. “The Swedish don’t try to tell you what your cul­ture is. Maybe because they don’t have a colo­nial his­to­ry with our coun­tries. It hap­pened that I met Mid­dle East­ern researchers who tried to tell me what my cul­ture is,” notes Alsharekh. “At that time my class­es were pre­pared for West­ern audi­ences, and I thought that was the best way to break stereo­types about Arab women.”

Fol­low­ing this, she went back to Kuwait to teach at the Arab Open Uni­ver­si­ty where she was appoint­ed head of the Eng­lish Lan­guage Depart­ment, then the head of the Socio-lin­guis­tic Depart­ment for all six coun­tries where the Uni­ver­si­ty had cam­pus­es. On April 25, 2005, she was host­ed by Zeina Badaw­i’s BBC spe­cial pro­gram about women in the Arab world. “Wom­en’s vote is inevitable,” she declared… And they got the vote passed in Par­lia­ment a month later.

She want­ed to doc­u­ment and archive this moment in his­to­ry, tak­ing and col­lect­ing pho­tos of the protests, and decid­ed to stop teach­ing. Fol­low­ing this, her gov­ern­ment asked Alsharekh to rep­re­sent Kuwait in the Fran­coph­o­ne group that at the time was invit­ed to France by the French Min­istry of For­eign Affairs. 

What struck me about those French polit­i­cal women at that time is that they did­n’t have to wear a pow­er suit! They still could be women, and play a pow­er­ful role. This is how I saw them and I got inspired. 

When she came back, she focused on research and got two grants. One of them was to list all the laws that dis­crim­i­nat­ed against women. “I strong­ly believe that peo­ple need to get angry for change to hap­pen… As long as that anger does­n’t become a destruc­tive force.  We can be soft but angry.” As a play on the typ­i­cal expres­sion “soft­er sex,” Angry words, Soft­ly Spo­ken! — in Ara­bic Al Ghadab Ennaem —was the title of her first book, an anthol­o­gy pub­lished in 2006.

Alanoud Alsharekh's first book,  Angry Words Softly Spoken

Fol­low­ing this, Al Sharekh was recruit­ed by the Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Bureau in Kuwait to work on human rights with out­side enti­ties. She also became a Ful­bright schol­ar, and went to teach in Cal­i­for­nia. Dur­ing her class about women, Islam and con­tem­po­rary issues, some stu­dents had a sur­pris­ing reac­tion to her approach: “‘She does­n’t look Mus­lim, she does­n’t talk Mus­lim, I don’t know what she’s sell­ing, but I am not buy­ing it!’ ”

That same year, Georges W. Bush did a Mid­dle East tour. When he came to Kuwait, he asked to meet with 10 women lead­ers. “I was one of them. Those women were suc­cess­ful and strong; they were activists and for­mer min­is­ters. At the end of our meet­ing, he looked at us and said: ‘They told me you all are oppressed, you don’t look at all oppressed to me!’ ”

After that, Alsharekh went to work for the Inter­na­tion­al Insti­tute on Strate­gic Stud­ies, a think tank for secu­ri­ty and strat­e­gy issues. While she was in the US, the Arab Spring start­ed. The Arab Woman Rev­o­lu­tion “Thawrat Al Mara’a Al ‘Ara­biya” was hap­pen­ing on Twit­ter and Face­book. “At the time, I was giv­ing con­fer­ences at SOAS, and when peo­ple spoke about the Gulf, they spoke only about petrodol­lars or ter­ror­ism,” she remembers.

An anthology edited by Alanoud Alsharekh, published by  Saqi .

With her work at SOAS, she looked at chang­ing the roles of women in the Gulf. She pub­lished her sec­ond book, The Gulf Fam­i­ly: Kin­ship Poli­cies and Moder­ni­ty (2007), con­sist­ing of aca­d­e­m­ic research about fam­i­lies in the Gulf: the rul­ing fam­i­lies, the mer­chant fam­i­lies who con­trolled the pri­vate sec­tor, and the tribes who real­ly influ­enced elec­tions. “When you think of fam­i­ly, it’s not just in the nuclear sense like in the West. The course of the fam­i­ly is inter­twined in our iden­ti­ty, pol­i­tics and eco­nom­ics,” she explains.

Third in a series from  Saqi  books.

In 2008 Alsharekh pub­lished a third book in this series, out from SOAS and Saqi with co-edi­tor Robert Spring­borg, enti­tled Pop­u­lar and Polit­i­cal Cul­tures of the Ara­bi­an Gulf, that explored “the new dynamism of the Gulf, reflect­ed not just in high-rise build­ings and boom­ing stock mar­kets, but also man­i­fest­ed in the realms of art, ideas and expres­sion, and their rela­tion­ships with polit­i­cal authority.”

By 2016 she had left the gov­ern­ment and become an Asso­ciate Fel­low at Chatham House. But more impor­tant­ly, she start­ed her own con­sul­tan­cy called Ibtkar—in Ara­bic “innovation”—focusing on diver­si­ty, inclu­sion, and empow­er­ing youth and women. “For instance, because we have upcom­ing elec­tions this month, I’ve been try­ing to help a lot of women can­di­dates to trans­late their cam­paigns online. It’s usu­al­ly dif­fi­cult for them to get vot­ers, and now it’s even more dif­fi­cult with Covid-19.” All of those pro­grams are giv­en with­out any fees. Once they get spon­sor­ships to do them, they open them up to the public.

From 2006, Alsharekh was try­ing to raise aware­ness on the issue of hon­or killing in Kuwait. “I was hor­ri­fied to dis­cov­er that Kuwait has an hon­or killing law, and that is Arti­cle 153 of our penal code.” To com­bat hon­or killing, she launched the Abol­ish 153 cam­paign. Moth­ers, daugh­ters, sis­ters or wives can be killed in an act of zeena’ and it’s not con­sid­ered a crime. The max­i­mum pun­ish­ment is three years in jail or a fine. The cam­paign also focus­es on the idea of dis­ci­pli­nary vio­lence “Al ‘Unf Al Ta’dibi”, which is very com­mon, not only in the Gulf, but also in Cen­tral Asia and oth­er places. 

I think call­ing it a ‘hon­or crime’ is ori­en­tal­ist. In the West it’s called ‘a mur­der.’ Not nam­ing the prob­lem is also the prob­lem. Of course, in Kuwait laws are derived from Napoleon­ic code. This used to be a crime of pas­sion, but Kuwait­is removed the wives, and made it just the right of the hus­band. And they added to the wife: moth­er, daugh­ter and sister.

In addi­tion, Alsharekh points to the absence of shel­ters for women vic­tims of vio­lence. A shel­ter exists, she says, but it’s not yet func­tion­al. Abol­ish 153 helps these women, putting them in touch with lawyers and doc­tors. More gen­er­al­ly, the cam­paign works on rais­ing aware­ness in the Gulf and trains vic­tim advo­cates on how to fos­ter strong grass­roots move­ments. “This strug­gle costs us and our fam­i­lies a lot. The risk is very high for fem­i­nists, even though we’re not inter­est­ed in con­tro­ver­sy but col­lab­o­ra­tion,” she says. “How­ev­er, after years of work, every­body talks about Abol­ish 153! We slow­ly forced this con­ver­sa­tion into the mainstream.”

Recent­ly, five mem­bers of Par­lia­ment signed a bill to abol­ish law 153. Par­lia­ment still has­n’t vot­ed on it, but it’s in cham­bers. “In recent months we were fight­ing for them to pass a domes­tic vio­lence law, because as you know, with Covid-19, abuse has gone through the roof! It took years to come to a vote, and final­ly this August it was passed! You know, when they tried to pass the chil­dren pro­tec­tion law, it took 10 years to be approved. It was viewed as an intru­sion in the domes­tic space. The idea of guardian­ship is the biggest issue we’re cur­rent­ly deal­ing with in Kuwait. For exam­ple, a woman can’t sign a paper at the hos­pi­tal, and if you want to get mar­ried and your father says no, you go to court,” she says. 

“I don’t want to be a mem­ber of Par­lia­ment or a politi­cian, because I’m not will­ing to com­pro­mise. I think of myself as a cheer­leader whose cause is to resolve the issue of vio­lence in Kuwait. I’m free doing this, lob­by­ing, run­ning an NGO and con­sul­tan­cy. We want to push the law as much as we can. That’s why we col­lab­o­rate with such asso­ci­a­tions in Turkey, Lebanon or Jor­dan, but also MPs and women activists in the region, as well as such asso­ci­a­tions in Turkey, Lebanon or Jor­dan. Because we don’t live in exile. We live in our coun­tries, and we want to make a dif­fer­ence in our coun­tries. Like Simone de Beau­voir said, any of our rights would be tak­en back and regressed if we don’t fight.”

Dr. Alanoud Alsharekh’s new book will come out in a few months: Trib­al­ism and Polit­i­cal Pow­er in the Gulf exam­ines how trib­al­ism has evolved in the Gulf super-ren­tier states, and espe­cial­ly how it inter­sects with, and defines at times, polit­i­cal expression.

 

Arab feminismIraqkhaliji feminismKuwait

Nada Ghosn is a Paris-based writer who has lived in the Emirates, Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and Morocco, where she has worked for the press and diverse cultural institutions. These days she works as a freelance translator and journalist, having translated several essays, art books, novels, film scripts, plays, and collections of short stories and poetry from Arabic into French. She regularly covers culture and society for such publications as an-Nahar, Grazia and Diptyk, and participates in art projects, conferences and performances.

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