By Komal Mir, Kyleigh Magee, Nicolette Alexandra Brito-Cruz, Rachel D. Perez, and Hasnaa Mokhtar
Abstract: To explore feminism(s) in Kuwait and give a perspective of how social justice movements look in the Arab Gulf region, a group of students from Douglass Residential College, Rutgers University, participated in a year-long service learning project. This included a two-week trip to Kuwait in January 2023 to observe, learn from, and analyze the work of Kuwaiti organizations and grassroots movements labeled as “feminist.” In preparation, the students studied Kuwaiti history from a decolonial and feminist lens. On the research trip, the students networked with feminist organizations in Kuwait and journaled about their experiences abroad. As a result of this study abroad experience, the students reported acquiring transformative experiences and an extremely overwhelming feeling of a desire to decolonize their westernized perspectives.
“There is a frequent recourse to tropes of fantasy and literature, science fiction, and other similar motifs when Western journalists and sometimes even academics seek to explain the Arabian Peninsula to their audiences. Some of these themes draw on Orientalist discursive traditions that reify a divide between West and East, modern and traditional, liberal and illiberal, progressive and savage.”
Kanna, Le Renard, & Vora – Beyond Exception
Complicated encounters in Kuwait
On January 11, 2023, a group of 16 students from Douglass Residential College, Rutgers University visited the Women’s Cultural and Social Society (WCSS) in Kuwait City. Among the people welcoming the group was board member and founder of the Girls for Girls (G4G) chapter in Kuwait. After settling in our seats at the spacious meeting room, we started introducing ourselves to the crowd.
“Hi, my name is Jane Doe. My pronouns are they/them. I’m a double major in Journalism and Media Studies, and Italian.” When it was time for the Harvard alumni founder of G4G to go, she blasted in anger. “I find it disrespectful to the sciences to introduce your pronouns before your major. We are a conservative society here in Kuwait and the Middle East.”
As she continued to voice her disgust, other members of the WCSS board tried to shush her telling her to show respect to the students as their guests and mentioned that they are welcoming to all people. Meanwhile, Jane Doe and others felt unsafe and wanted to leave. To soften the tension in the room, board members started explaining the history of WCSS. But we decided to interrupt the speaker and excuse ourselves outside the room.
Fortunately, the following day we met with the Social Work Society (SWS) that defends the rights of migrant workers in Kuwait. A volunteer with the society introduced themselves as a member of the LGBTQI+ community in Kuwait and talked about the oppression they face and how the LGBTQI+ community in Kuwait is small or nonexistent.
Stereotypical and orientalist discourses surrounding the Arab Gulf region would have thrived on such uncomfortable and contradictory encounters to paint the country as backward and unsafe. However, the intention of this trip, and an academic semester of coursework that preceded it reading about and studying different issues in Kuwait through a decolonial lens, have prepared us to engage deeply and critically with this. While a different context and geographical location, what we experienced didn’t seem alien to similar plights of race, gender, class, sexuality, and identity struggles that we grapple with in the United States. Anti-LGBTQ hate crimes rose in 2022 in America, jumping more than 19 percent over 2021, according to the FBI’s annual crime report. For us, these experiences in Kuwait conveyed the way feminism is understood, embodied, and practiced by different socioeconomic groups in contrasting parts of the world.
On the surface, G4G supports and empowers young women. And yet, we had an opposite experience where the leader used religion, culture, and science as an excuse for her anti-feminist ideas and rhetoric. On the other hand, SWS felt inclusive and welcoming; a place where privilege was being used to raise awareness about human rights. These instances show how perspectives can differ so much in the same area and across the world. As well as the idea that getting an education in an open-minded and inclusive environment does not necessarily guarantee that a person will accept the differences.
The world is complex; hence, our analysis and conception of difference should be too. To better demonstrate this complexity, and based on our “study abroad” experience, we ask the following questions: How do different groups of people in Kuwait define feminism? What are the different feminist projects in Kuwait? In this paper, we attempt to answer these questions by giving a brief account of the different feminist projects we encountered in Kuwait addressing gender-based violence, statelessness, and domestic workers rights.
Abolish Article 153 & the Women’s Cultural and Social Society (WCSS)
Abolish 153 is an activist and awareness campaign created to advocate for the repeal of Article 153 of the Kuwaiti penal code, which states that if a man kills his wife, sister, mother, or daughter upon catching them in a sexual act, he will be charged “as committing a misdemeanor punishable by a maximum of 3 years jail time and/or a fine of 3000 rupees.” The law is described by the co-founders as “colonial baggage.” In addition to advocating for the abolition of lenient legal punishments for homicide, Abolish 153 is also an organization that aims to aid and uplift both victims and survivors of domestic violence and people who suffer as a result of existing legislation in Kuwait, similar to Article 153 of the Kuwaiti penal code. The group has created sweeping change throughout Kuwait; in 2017, after years of campaigning, five Parliament Members in Kuwait’s National Assembly signed an urgent request to abolish Article 153. Furthermore, the feminist group has advocated for women in many other ways aside from lobbying, such as through activist work and releasing the Thoubha app aimed at helping survivors in Kuwait. Similarly, the WCSS operates with the goal of uplifting women. However, the work of WCSS focuses on political, academic, and professional pursuits rather than lobbying or activism with regard to supporting the rights of all women struggling at the intersection of gender, citizenship, sexuality, class, and other identity markers.
Much like the first-wave feminist movement in the US, these organizations are elitist, intersectionality-blind, and politically focused and motivated. Upper-class Kuwaiti feminists adopt the logic of saving other women who are poorer, less educated, and not as progressive. When looking at the work these two groups of women do, it is clear they not only have different, yet valid, ideas of what a feminist project is. Abolish 153’s feminist work is focused on providing safety and support. To them, feminist progress is living in a world where men are adequately punished for femicide or a world that protects women who are survivors of domestic abuse. The Cultural Society’s work focuses on building a community and attaining achievement amongst women. Feminist progress to them includes a world in which women succeed politically, academically, and professionally. Poet and scholar Mona Kareem speaks to these feminists, saying, “I write against the Woman who thinks brazenly that we are one. She, who's behind perches upon the comfortable chair of citizenship, class, and race…This Woman resembles her state and class, not other women.”
Scholars of gender equity have emphasized that analyzing and addressing present structural and interpersonal violence in the region is linked to our positionalities, which shape our politics and influence our findings and intervention approaches. Hence, when such organizations prioritize a specific type of “woman”, such as a Kuwaiti citizen, then feminism further marginalizes other women who do not adhere to the citizenship status. This is not to say that these organizations have not made incredible feminist progress in Kuwait. However, these two groups seem to ignore two of the most essential concepts in modern feminism: accessibility and intersectionality. Both groups were created by and cater to women of high social status in Kuwait, leaving out minority groups such as stateless women, migrant workers, and queer people. For example, Abolish 153 focused on aiding survivors of domestic abuse. However, these survivors were primarily Kuwaiti citizens, and their activism did not attempt to aid survivors of domestic abuse who were not Kuwaiti citizens. The Cultural Society similarly seemed focused on helping privileged Kuwaiti women “break the glass ceiling” in terms of professional advancement. The Cultural Society had a fee for women seeking membership. Although leaders of the Cultural Society stressed that there were exceptions and that the fee was waived in some instances, language around the fee was questionable, saying that it “ensured that people show up and commit to meetings.” Furthermore, the Cultural Society was not a safe space for queer people. As we personally experienced, the transphobic outburst by the Girls4Girls leader, stressed that this organization was one that does not make space for transgender women or other gender minorities that too suffer, often professionally or academically, under the patriarchy. Therefore, we shift our focus next to the struggles of migrant workers and stateless women.
State violence against Bedoon (stateless) people
We had the pleasure of meeting with Hakeem Al-Fadhli, an activist and member of the Kuwait Human Rights Society and Frontline Defender’s organization, as well as the General Coordinator of the National Project to resolve the case of Kuwaiti’s Bedoon (stateless). The term Bedoon literally means “without nationality” in Arabic. It is used to classify “illegal residents'' in Kuwait even though they have no real connections to any country other than Kuwait. The Bedoon children do not have the right to attend public schools and instead receive private education. This causes financial burden on the parents, ultimately leading to the marginalization of Bedoon girls as most families only send their sons to schools.
Looking at the history, in 1959, the Kuwaiti government implemented nationality laws asking all residents to register for citizenship. However, the first Bedoon, while eligible, lacked knowledge about this new law and/or the ability to read and write. Hence, they missed the opportunity to get their citizenship rights. Al-Fadhli has dedicated his life to advocate international embassies about the Bedoon community so they can experience a side of Kuwait that is often labeled as dangerous. Sadly, there is a lack of support and recognition from any government groups, as explained by Hakeem. The low income during Covid-19 pandemic worsened the conditions, causing a rise in depression and anxiety.
Healthcare is another problem the Bedoon face. The Kuwaiti citizens have the right to free healthcare, but it is not the same for Bedoon. During our time with Hakeem, he pointed out one of the best hospitals not only in Kuwait but in the Gulf Region. Although the hospital was across the street from where the Bedoon community resides, they are not allowed to receive care from that hospital unless in “extremely urgent cases,” Hakeem emphasized.
This portrays the social status and the lack of empathy and support against the Bidoon. Additionally, the Kuwaiti government has attempted multiple times to suppress Bedoon protests by persecuting and imprisoning them. Al-Fadhli himself has been arrested and imprisoned countless times. Nonetheless, he emphasized the use of social media to educate people about the community and the issues. Now, this may seem outrageous, but marginalized people in Western countries sometimes face similar state sanctions.
While the plight of the Bedoon community is severe, women face compounded violence at the intersection of their lack of citizenship and their gender, which exposes them to “heightened risks of abuse and exploitation”. Manshoor, an independent website that documents the voices of Arab youth, published on 3 July 2020 a piece in Arabic titled “The forgotten by feminism: What do Bedoon women face?” The author Duha Salim wondered if most feminist figures in Kuwaiti society, who live in “a bubble of privileges”, knew the suffering Bedoon women live through. Salim stated that these feminists believe that the struggle of Bedoon women is far from the feminist priorities, and that they are completely detached from their reality. Salim acknowledged the individual efforts of Kuwaiti women who seek to highlight the suffering of Bedoon women, but wrote that these scattered voices quickly fade away due to lack of organized and supported efforts.
Violence against domestic workers (servants)
In recent years, the issue of domestic workers’ rights has gained significant attention, with organizations in Kuwait such as the Social Work Society (SWS) and Sandigan Kuwait at the forefront of migrant workers’ rights advocacy. These organizations have played a crucial role in raising awareness, providing support, and fostering social change in Kuwait to advocate. Domestic workers are servants working within a residence and perform household services such as cleaning, cooking, and caring for the children. Abuse – physical, sexual, emotional, and economic – against domestic workers occurs around the world including in Kuwait. Women domestic workers in the Gulf region are considered the most vulnerable and least protected population from abuse inflicted on them by their employers.
The Social Work Society, founded by Bibi Nasser Al Sabah, a member of the Kuwaiti Royal Family, focuses on advocating for the rights of domestic workers using a judicial approach. They recognize the importance of legal protections for migrant domestic workers and create more awareness around their unique struggles in Kuwait. Both the SWS and Sandigan Kuwait stand against these neocolonial power structures and recognize the invaluable contributions of these workers to Kuwait's society and economy, which are often undervalued and overlooked. These organizations work to dismantle exploitative employer-employee relationships, create awareness among workers, and strive for a more equitable society by providing legal counseling and educating migrant workers about their rights.
Additionally, privilege plays a significant role in understanding the advocacy work of these organizations. In Kuwaiti society, high-status feminist groups such as Abolish 153 often prioritize the concerns of women from the middle or upper social classes. To bridge this privilege gap, the SWS and Sandigan Kuwait focus on and acknowledge the unique challenges faced by the domestic workers because of their lower social status, limited resources, and vulnerability to exploitation. By concentrating on this underserved group, they aim to change narratives that perpetuate privilege, and advocate for a more inclusive and intersectional approach to social justice.
Encountering difference in the self and others
While “study abroad” programs are intended for cross-cultural understanding and global education, most students in the US encounter differences in others through a colonial mindset and the white savior complex. Despite our world becoming increasingly interconnected, global systems of inequality, power, privilege, and difference are always present. We grappled with themes of neocolonialism, decolonization, eurocentrism, and imperialism prior, during, and after our visit to Kuwait through our feminist ideologies. That entailed deep critical thinking of not only our experiences in a foreign country, but also unsettling, challenging, and validating our thoughts, feelings, reactions, and prejudices altogether including our understanding of feminism.
Complexity and self-accountability get lost when critique, power, and self-righteousness cloud our judgment, thus misleading us to construct fixed and simplistic narratives about the “other” and their struggles. A phenomenon the Nigerian feminist and author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie coined as The Danger of the Single Story. “It is impossible to talk about the single story without talking about power…Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person”. We understood the weight of our commitment toward communities being visited, researched, and depicted through a different lens. That is why determining what counts as anticolonial feminist theory “within and beyond the scholarship of feminists of color is a complicated matter.” What we learned though is that we ought to cultivate intellectual humility to admit to partial and complicated worldviews that might make us uncomfortable, because, as Dr. Mokhtar notes in the introductions to all of her classes, “knowledge that doesn’t break your heart open to transformation isn’t worth learning.” To reflect on how this experience challenged and re-shaped our understanding of ourselves and the world, we relay some personalized reflections to conclude.
Rachel D. Perez: As a student interested in decolonial feminism theory, this trip changed my perspective not just as a scholar but as a researcher. Scholars are not offered opportunities where they get to see with their eyes, not through propaganda published by governments, the media or else. I can assure you this research trip made me more aware of my responsibilities as a scholar to challenge academia and as a citizen to require more transparency within the international community.
Nicolette Alexandra Brito-Cruz: Going to Kuwait after having spent a semester learning about the effects of colonization and the importance of decolonizing oneself has shown me that history goes beyond textbooks. As decolonial feminists, it is crucial to question who writes mainstream history, seek diverse perspectives, and, most importantly, not have a savior complex when learning about others’ struggles.
Kyleigh Magee: This research trip to Kuwait highlighted the importance of international solidarity within global feminism. Decolonial and intersectional feminism has always been important to me. While I have always focused on decolonization in my academics and personal activism, this trip showcased the real-life effects of how colonization creates similar problems for women globally. Although issues affecting women and gender minorities take different forms in different contexts, the root causes of these issues, colonialism, remains the same. As a result, international solidarity and a decolonial approach to feminism is key to understanding how and why issues affecting women look the way in which they do and is also crucial in making change in one’s own community.
Komal Mir: The experience helped decolonize my perspective and challenge western exceptionalism by showing how similar social issues are in Kuwait and the U.S. but in different contexts. It allowed us to better compare the issues at hand, as well as the complexity of feminism in different parts of the world. It is easy to look at other countries and their problems and feel pity for them or try to “help” them, but it takes more to look around and realize that we are no different and that our “help” is a consequence of the savior complex. As a researcher, finding credible information is hard and important. With this experience, I learned how to read between the lines to be able to differentiate between biased and unbiased sources of information. While it is not so easy and simple, this differentiation, to some length, can allow decolonization of knowledge and feminism.
Komal Mir is a Clinical Research Coordinator at NJ Heart/NJ MedCare. She holds a B.A. in Molecular Biology and Biochemistry from Rutgers University, where she also completed her senior honors thesis that focused on a potential cancer therapeutic drug. Her research interests include stem cell therapy, oncology, decolonial feminism, and gender-based violence. She is also a peer tutor and peer health educator and wants to pursue a joint M.D.-Ph.D. program in the future.
Kyleigh Magee is a fourth year student at Rutgers University studying English. Her research interests surround the intersection of information access, postcolonial literature and history, and cultural heritage. She is currently completing her senior honors thesis, where she is writing a collection of poetry about parental relationships in Indo-Caribbean communities.
Nicolette Alexandra Brito-Cruz is a first-generation, fourth-year undergraduate student at Rutgers University pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism & Media Studies and Italian, with a minor in Women and Gender Studies. During their academic career, they have maintained a 3.8 GPA and became a Benjamin A. Gilman, Fund for Education Abroad, Point Foundation, and Hispanic Scholarship Fund Scholar. Their studies have taken them to Rome and Florence Italy, where they were able to publish articles in various outlets about social justice issues and the experiences of people of color abroad. Brito-Cruz is also the founder of the Juliet Rose Review, a literary and art review that features the creative endeavors of people of color and other marginalized groups. Seeing that they have had the privilege to travel to numerous countries and be exposed to different cultures and media, they acknowledge the importance of diversity and the effect that the lack of it has on individuals. This is what fuels Brito-Cruz to make a difference, not only through their words, but also through art, especially through their photography. They hope to use their skills to decolonize the media by becoming a foreign correspondent and giving a platform to historically oppressed people.
Rachel D. Perez is a B.A candidate in Philosophy and Spanish at Rutgers University. Rachel is currently working on her Honors thesis as part of her minor in Women and Gender Studies. She focuses on the ontological violence towards black bodies in the Caribbean leading to a promotion of exploitation of sex workers in the sex tourism industry. She holds a certificate in Translation and Interpreting with which she has engaged in the Spanish speaking community as a interpreter/translator in court cases during her free time. Rachel wants to pursue a Juris Doctorate degree in the future and work with survivors of gender-based violence.
Hasnaa Mokhtar is the Director of Global Education at Douglass Residential College, Rutgers University. Prior to this position, Hasnaa was the Postdoctoral Associate at Rutgers University’s Center for Women’s Global Leadership. She holds a Ph.D. from Clark University, and her dissertation is focused on narrative power and the invisible trauma of gendered violence in Muslim-majority countries. She is a scholar, a researcher, and an activist, with expertise in the Arabian Gulf, focusing on narratives of Muslim survivors of gender-based violence. www.hasnaamokhtar.com