As a Middle Eastern Woman, What I Would Change in My Country—Three Views
By Dr. Taghreed Alqudsi-Ghobra
To Westerners, Middle Eastern women are what the media has always chosen to reflect: Dressed in black veils, subordinate to the men of their families and oppressed by their societies and state alike. It is rare that the diversity in the Middle East is shown, let alone when it pertains to women.
As with everything else in the Middle East, the situation is full of conflicting images. Though Kuwait is situated in the most conservative part of the Muslim world, Kuwaiti women drive, are allowed to travel alone, and enjoy a central role in their own families. Yet this does not seem to be new or controversial to the conservative Kuwaiti society.
Before the discovery of petroleum, many men were away for much of the year fishing, pearl diving, or trading. Women were left behind to take care of the family and business at home. After the discovery of oil, their skills were enhanced by the introduction of modern, state supported education.
Presently, 41 percent of Kuwait University degree holders are female. As a result, Kuwaiti women hold positions in government, business, academia and the professions.
Most Kuwaiti women have been exposed to the outside world through foreign travel. Just as Huda Sharawi and others in Egypt pulled off their veils at the beginning of this century, signifying a new era for Egyptian women, a group of Kuwaiti women from prominent families burned their ‘abayas (the black robes worn outside of the home) in the 1950s to signify a new and modern Kuwaiti woman.
When the Iraqi army occupied Kuwait, Kuwaiti women reacted immediately. The first women’s demonstration protesting the occupation and calling for the return of the legitimate government of Kuwait was organized two days after the occupation began. Several others took place. At the last such demonstration, Iraqi troops fired into the marching crowd to disperse it. There were several casualties.
One of the several small political newspapers that appeared in the country after the Iraqi occupation, Al Kuwaitia (the Kuwaiti woman), was written and distributed by women and published by “the movement for the women and children of Kuwait.”
Kuwaiti women participated in the underground struggle against the Iraqi occupation just as did their male counterparts. Those who were caught faced prison, torture, rape and death. Among the women who paid with their lives for resisting the occupation are Asrar Al-Qabandi, Sara Al-Otaibi, Sanaa Al-Foudari and Sameera Maarafi. The high percentage of Kuwaiti women among those executed or imprisoned during the occupation is a matter of shocking record.
New challenges face the small country of Kuwait and its people after the liberation. For one thing, the new liberated Kuwait has a population that has been politicized to a point of no return. It is essential for women at this stage not to fall into the trap of indiscriminately accepting the political ideologies of the different groups, and end up being used by all of them. Kuwaiti women’s groups need to draw their own basic agendas, with their own priorities and demands, and follow through accordingly.
In the realm of literature about women’s movements, information about the women of Kuwait and the Gulf is scanty. It is essential that the role of women in the building and the rebuilding of the country and its institutions over the years be documented.
One of the basic challenges to a women’s movement is the ability to utilize the information and experience gained to aid women, both within the family and in the workplace. Issues to be tackled relate to marriage and divorce laws, day care and work laws and regulations.
In the Middle East, where the family is still considered a strong and central institution, Kuwaiti women have much to offer and much to learn in creating foundations for new thinking and behavior that will support their role in the family and in society. Kuwaiti women, along with other Arab, Middle Eastern and Muslim women, still face battles in improving a reality imposed by traditional societies and an image imposed by Western media biases and stereotypes.
Dr. Taghreed Alqudsi-Ghabra is assistant professor of library and information science at Kuwait University.