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.

Journalist and translator Nada Ghosn

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.