Gulf Women in Photos

Women from the Gulf are not very common in media and an ordinary image of a Gulf woman is her dressed in nikab and abaya, not doing anything in particular.

My Kuwaiti friend who is so dedicated in showing the world different sides of the Gulf shared these photos with me. The explanations for the photos is from him and I have sometimes found more information about a certain person myself. He himself doesn’t have copyright has but downloaded them from different websites and shared them via his own social media. Therefore the copyright is unknown.

Enjoy the view of different beautiful women in different aspects of life.

Ibtisam Lufti, Saudi Arabian singer. Ibtisam belonged to the first generation of Saudi singers and achieved great success and popularity despite her handicap of being blind. Her main career took place in the 1970s and -80s and when announcing that she was leaving the scene it caused a public outrcry. Ibtisam is portrayed in the book “Women of Saudi Arabia” by Ali Fagandash. Year of the photo unknown.

Oman late 70s

Oman, late 1970s.

Aisha Al Marta, Kuwaiti singer, performing for women at a Kuwaiti wedding. Aisha is the third women from the left in the backrow. She was a Kuwaiti singer, born in 1934. Also Aisha was blind, she lost her sight at age 7. She joined a music group at age 14, secretely so as not to have any problems with her family. Later on she worked at Radio Kuwait and became an extremely popular folklore singer, performing traditional songs from the Gulf, famous for her patriotic songs. When she died in 1978 appearantly a national day of mourning was called for, and still “Aisha Al Marta” cultural events in her honor are being held in Kuwait. A Youtube video with Aisha you can see here. Year of the photo unknown.

Saudi Arabia Al Hijaz

Woman from Al Hijaz region, Saudi Arabia. Year unknown.

Women from Jaizan province, Saudi Arabia. Notice the difference in clothing between the women in this photo and the woman in the previous one.

The Country of Kuwait Before the Americans Moved In

There was a Kuwait even before the American troops went in 1991 to kick out the Iraqi occupiers. Kuwait is a source to a rich culture and heritage: it contained different tribes with different traditions, music and tales, beduoins living off the sea where they were fishing for food and pearls that they traded in one of their many travels around the Gulf region. But much of it has gotten lost to the outside world. What many foreigners see in Kuwait is the many fastfood restaurants and the malls that popped up en masse after the Americans came in and stayed on.

A Kuwaiti friend of mine is dedicated to show the Kuwaiti culture and it’s from him that I have received these photos. He doesn’t have the copyright he has himself received them through social websites, so I decided to share them on. The descriptions of the photos are from my friend.

A Kuwaiti trader with dependents to another 1930s

Kuwaiti traider with dependents, 1930s

Bedouin weaving Kuwait

Bedouin weaving, year unknown

kuwait year unknown

Year unknown

Kuwait 2 1961

Kuwait 1961

Kuwait 1961

Kuwait 1961

unknown 5

Year unkown

unknown 7

Year unknown

Photo copyrights: unknown

First Female Prosecutors Sworn-In in Kuwait

In Kuwait women were given the right to vote and participate in elections as late as 2005, so when the news broke a few years back that the country would allow female prosecutors for the first time, this was to many a step forward. Kuwait is not as oppressive to women as some of their neighbouring countries – there’s no mandatory dress code for women, women are not banned from driving and there are fewer restrictions on work places for women than in Saudi Arabia. But it’s still behind many of the other Middle Eastern countries.

The other day the first batch of women prosecutors were sworn in, more precisely 22 of them, creating more headlines. It hadn’t been an easy path – Islamist MPs who opposed the women had delayed the process by several months, claiming that under Islamic Sharia law women cannot be judges, which they as prosecutors now have the possibility to be. In the end the new justice minister Yacoub Al-Sane (also a man) signed a decision to appoint the prosecutors, putting an end to the delay. After the women had been sworn in, MP Humoud Al-Hamdan held a press conference where he critiziced the decision and said that he and other Islamist MPs were to submit a draft law to ban the appointment of women judges, as this is against Islamic law.

Many others celebrated the event though and the group photo of smiling young women was shared widely online among Gulf people and women’s rights supporters, generating positive feedback but also comments from men such as “I can’t wait to be prosecuted in Kuwait!” and “They don’t look Kuwaiti, they must be Lebanese” (the ultimate insult for a Gulf girl).

I asked one of my male Kuwaiti friends what he thought of the women prosecutors and he gladly shared his views – on the condition that he could remain anonymous. My friend is not an activist, but he says he like to keep an eye on politics. His answer surprised me as I myself was very positive about the women prosecutors.

“I am not so excited” he says. “In 2005, I was super excited for women to get the ‘right’ of voting. But having a look into history will show something hidden. Before 2005, There was a lot of failed attempts for female activists for the right of voting. What was changed in 2005? It is external pressure. The government in Kuwait wanted to release this pressure by directing the members to vote for the right of the woman. Therefore, women were used to polish the authorities’ image to the West, and gaining this right was not because of local female activists.

The trick is using women to polish the image of the governments from the Western perspective, without allowing a real impact within the inside of the society. In all cases, what did women added in Kuwait after 10 years of gaining the right? We still see discrimination against women, less rights in the society etc.

The government today has a bad image because of funding the extremist groups all over the world, and it need to polish the image again. Therefore, women are the best tool to be used. I don’t feel that the society is pushing for more women rights. To see real impact, the change should come from the society, the average people. In fact I could say that using women this way is another way of abusing women in a completely patriarchal society. And we will never see any real impact to change the basic systematic violation of women rights.”

Let’s hope the appointment of these 22 women will be a step in the direction of real implementation of women’s rights and that this trickles down to the average people that my friend is talking about. So that the feedback for the next batch of prosecutors will generate more positive comments than sexist ones. At least they have male supporters. That’s something to cherish.

Photo credit: www.facebook.com/sultan.alqassemi

Spring in Kuwait

Different glimpses of the small gulf country that few people on the outside know much about. These photos are from when I lived in Kuwait 2007-2008, more presicely in the spring of 2008. Oh, and did I tell you how much I enjoyed the country?

 

 

 

 

Photo copyright: Sweden and the Middle East Views

 

So You Desperately Need a Maid?

I still receive comments on my previous post Campaign for Domestic Worker’s Rights in Kuwait, which I’m happy for as it obviously still sparks discussion.  And I decided want to discuss this issue a bit further. Let’s not talk about the human rights of the staff but about the very conditions of having a maid in your home.

Many times I have heard people saying that there are two sides of the coin when discussing the situation for domestic staff in the Gulf, talking about unreliable house staffs that are not doing their job or violating rules. I’ve heard of staff abusing the kids they’re babysitting, staff seducing the husband, seducing the drivers, seducing each other, stealing money and running off. I’ve been asked if I would like to have a person living with me who I couldn’t trust either with work tasks or with my kids.

So here’s my take on things.

No, I wouldn’t want someone to hit my kids or steal my things. I wouldn’t want to live with someone I didn’t trust or felt uncomfortable with. I would be angry too if that happened to me. So guess what? I wouldn’t bring someone to live in my house in the first place.

Because it’s risky to leave your kids to a stranger, who is not supervised during the days and who probably doesn’t have a special training to care for kids. Add to that being discriminated in the society you live in, having men asking you for sex on the street only because you’re Asian and they assume you’re a prostitute, and a forced separation from your family back home, maybe even your own children. Then you don’t have much love to give to someone elses kids. And if that person also will feel hurt or offended by you – do you think they will feel a natural will to care and love your kids? If you’re worried, why do you even put yourself and your kids in that situation?

And this question of mine brings us to the next page, which is “I have to have a maid”. This is the origin of all the maid-talk among women in beauty salons and coffee shops in the Gulf, the constant complaining and bickering. They have to have a maid but trust none of them. What keeps puzzling me when I hear these conversations is, do these women have 14 kids like Octomom in America? Probably not. Are they working poor, holding down two full time jobs in order to be able to pay their rent, why they never have the time to clean the house? Probably not. So why do they so desperately need a maid?

I could here give an account for my girlfriends throughout the years that ended up single parents and were managing each day on their own; school, the extra job, picking up/bringing to school/bringing to the doctor the kids, changing diapers, carrying grocery bags, washing, cleaning and cooking. But I won’t, because I know that you who need to have a maid know these single moms, too. I just have to ask: if the majority of the world’s population can manage it without a maid, why can’t you?

Photo credit: Vimeo.com

Campaign for Domestic Worker’s Rights in Kuwait

Human Rights Watch has launched Campaign for Domestic Worker’s Rights. The campaign is illustrated with photos of Arab women dressed in the costumes that many of the workers have to wear when on duty – which often is 15 hours per day, 7 days a week. Hopefully this will make people think.

I have repeatedly become surprised over how people’s brains stop working when exposed to something abnormal being normal – Arabs, Europeans, Americans alike – which is what the trafficking situation of poor people from Asia and Africa to the Middle East is today. I won’t dig into the subject of why you can’t clean your own house or raise your own kids, but on how today’s knowledge about human rights for some people seem to have vanished.

When living in Kuwait I had a friend from Eastern Europe who had married an Arab man residing in the country. She was a great girlfriend; caring, funny and smart, and I missed her a lot when moving. Going back to visit a few years later, she and her husband had got their first child and employed a live-in-maid, and suddenly I saw a new side of her. The woman they had employed, let’s call her Maria, was not allowed to call my friend and her husband by their first names, instead ”sir” and “maam”.

“If you let them call you by your name they will disrespect you, you can’t give them too much freedom,” my friend explained.

All house chores had been given to Maria who worked from 6 am to 10 pm without a break. She was not allowed go out on her own or make her own decisions about what to do during the day, had to follow my friend wherever she went, walking a few steps behind with all the bags and the trolley that she pushed the toddler in, when my friend was out with her girlfriends on one of their many shopping tours to the mall.

My friend thought she was nice to Maria. She could eat how much she wanted and slept in a bed in the child’s playroom – “Not on the floor like with the Kuwaiti families”. My friend didn’t seem to reflect on how Maria might feel when my friend called her stupid or criticized her for not doing anything right (I noticed this among many, the constantly criticizing of the domestic staff, as if they get a kick out of putting them down).

Now I happened to like Maria as a person and we spent some time talking. It turned out she had a university degree in her Asian home country and previously had a qualified job that she had lost, why her last way out if keeping her own child in a private school was to go abroad as a domestic worker. The experience had been a shock and she found herself not able to return as she had signed a two year contract and had her passport taken away. I suggested I ask my other friends about jobs in her field of experience and we secretly exchanged numbers. My research didn’t lead to anything but we kept in touch after I left. She often called and texted, feeling so alone and exposed.

Then a few weeks later my friend’s husband emailed me. My friend had taken Maria’s mobile to check on her and had read my messages. She and her husband were furious I had kept in touch with Maria and urged her to get a better job. This is an excerpt from the e-mail:

I would really like to thank you for treating your friends who were soo good, honest, loveable to you and accepted you in their home not as a guest but as a very close person. We are very surprised of the way you cheated us and tried to contact our nanny from our back and tried to help her to leave us and finding a job because you persuaded her that she’s over qualified to be a nanny…  If you think that you are supporting women right by encourage her to do what she did and leave us then let me tell you that you destroyed our lovely family and destroyed her life as well.

He ended the e-mail by telling story I had heard before, on how Maria had felt so empowered by me that she had brought home a man and had sex with him in a room next to where the child had been sleeping. The story is one version of many used to justify what happens if you give your maids “too many rights”; Asians are not only unintelligent, they are also sexually primitive if you fail to control them. Do you know your history? African–Americans were once considered the same way by whites.

My friend blocked me on all social websites we had been in touch through and we never spoke again. I don’t know what happened to Maria – the control must have increased and I assumed it was safer for her not to be in touch with me as I anyways was far away from Kuwait and had no means of helping her.

Human Rights Watch’s campaign is much needed in a time when again human rights doesn’t apply to people of color, and I wish it leads to some sort of change. If I could speak to my friend I would explain to her why I had urged Maria to leave and that I hadn’t mean to hurt my friend – but I wouldn’t say I’m sorry. And if I were in the same situation I would do what I did again, even if it meant losing a close friend. I know some people would say I’m fanatic. I say I’m normal.

Photocredit: Human Rights Watch

Maryam the First Kuwaiti Woman on Antarctica

Maryam Aljooan

I saw Maryam Aljooan in Kuwait Science Club, holding a presentation for an enthusiastic group of young Kuwaitis, for the first time back in 2008. The club was located out in the desert, far away from residency areas and shopping malls. A bleak building from the outside, colorful posters describing the earth and models of the planetary system decorated the inside. Small, claustrophobic stairs led to the roof where a telescope offered opportunities to watch the stars at night. The place was a refuge for young, smart people who wanted to do something else but shopping or eating. In weekends the members went on star watching trips to the desert and gathered to watch space related movies.

Maryam was the supervisor. Her main interests were space, earth and environment; she had studied engineering in US, one year in Russia at St Petersburg Polytechnical University; and was dedicated to share her knowledge.

“In Kuwait I met many young people that say ‘it’s not possible here’ about anything. There’s a lack of believe in themselves” she says.

Kuwait is a wealthy country where oil, expats and American-style malls have put the country on the map for many. But Maryam’s own childhood was characterized by the Gulf War, when the quiet little country suddenly was invaded and subject to horrible abuse by Iraqi troops. She retells how the society changed afterwards into a hopeless place. Many had lost family members; with the Iraqi army targeting the young boys, almost every family lost at least one of their sons.

“Before the invasion we had a little farm in our school, we did music and learned about arts. After the war everything was put aside.”

According to Maryam, materialism replaced curiosity and involvement in the community. The influence of American culture brought fast food chains and malls popped up with food courts and imported designer clothes, adding to the growing consumer culture. In a few years obesity had become a general health problem (today Kuwait ranks number 1 in obesity internationally). Many young people had lost hope and saw no importance in accomplishing. Everyone’s goal seemed to be to finish school and getting married. In her own family, there was no history of education: own father had only finished high school and her mother had dropped out when she was 12.

“My grandmother didn’t really care about my mom’s education; she wanted my mom to help out with her younger sisters and brothers at home.”

Her grandmother had herself no schooling at all and had been married off in her early teens.

It might not have been likely that Maryam would continue at university; she also went to a public school, not one of the high-ranking American or British private schools. She retells how her family, although being kind and even accepting her marrying a European man, never encouraged her, and she didn’t tell them her dreams about being an astronaut – she nurtured the dream since receiving a small telescope and books about space when being a small girl. In school she was shy and didn’t know how to do things on her own, and until the last year of high school she didn’t know that there was something called university or scholarships to apply for. When her class went on a tour to the university she was surprised: “Oh, there’s something more”, she remembers thinking to herself.

Now she started to wonder if it possible for her to pursue her studies in the space field. A scholarship made it possible for her to move to US to study her bachelors degree, and a NASA conference in 2003 made her decide what she wanted to work with.

“Space, earth and environment are all connected,” she explains to me with enthusiasm on Skype from Belgium, where she lives with her husband Alex, whom she met on a space conference in Japan. “I want to contribute to science and do something for climate change.”

For long she wanted to be the first female Arab astronaut in space and kept an acclaimed blog about it. But her involvement in the Kuwaiti community took a lot of time; she became the supervisor of the Department of Astronomy and Space Sciences at Kuwait Science Club and dedicated her free time to help the young members, at the same time she was travelling a lot and starting up her own NGO Lazurd (Arabic word for Azure, a hue of blue representing earth). She also put her efforts in to being the first Kuwaiti woman to go to Antarctica, and succeeded. Photos of Maryam with penguins; Maryam triumphantly holding up the Kuwaiti flag on an ice berg; Maryam in a small boat on her way over the chilling sea, fills up her Facebook page The Antartic Expedition of Maryam Aljoaan”.

I ask her why she is so dedicated to the young people in Kuwait now that she has a career of her own and is living outside of the country.

“I was in this situation myself that I see many of the young people in today. If I wouldn’t do anything for the young people in Kuwait I would feel like I would disappear. I know I can set my own example for the kids.”

If she would be able to help another woman to be the first Arab woman in space, she would now appreciate this as much as being the first one herself. I ask her what her parents think about her, the shy girl from a public school who became a celebrity in Kuwait; the supervisor of Kuwait Science Club; and the first Kuwaiti woman on Antarctica.

“My mom is proud” she says. “And as for my dad, well he don’t talk much, but when I was in Russia he made a point out of calling me when he was in the Diwaniya” (gathering at someone’s house). “‘I’m speaking to my daughter, she’s in Russia! She’s studying space engineering!’ he would tell his friends. That’s how I know he’s proud of me too.”

Photo credit: Maryam Aljooan

Riham – on Changing the Society

When Riham started the Kuwait Eating Disorder Awareness Campaign in 2012, it was the first of its kind.

“The general idea about eating disorders here is that it’s about girls wanting to be thin”, she says. “But it’s more than weight, it’s an addiction. A Kuwaiti girl saying she’s struggling with an eating disorder is hard.”

It was when Riham was 12 and watched an American movie where a young girl has an eating disorder, when the idea struck her: “I think that’s what I have”. It was in the early 90s and she was in the US where her father was a diplomat. Although Riham seemed to have a word for the rules she put up for herself around eating – she was only allowed to eat a certain number of foods, the food couldn’t touch either on the plate – she kept it to herself.

The family moved back to Kuwait and things got worse. Riham started overeating and quickly gained a lot of weight. She didn’t speak Arabic very well and her self-esteem dropped with her new extra kilos and the struggle with the new surroundings. Eating disorder was recognized internationally but in Kuwait the issue was not recognized, just like other mental health problems was often a taboo, even though many of the country’s inhabitants were suffering from psychological problems after the Gulf War. Still, Riham’s father paid attention to her problems: “On the contrary to what people think about fathers in the Middle East, my father saw exactly what was going on.”

Riham’s father made her see a psychiatrist when she was 21, but the doctor didn’t understand that her binging and vomiting was nothing that she could just stop doing, and although remaining in therapy her eating disorder remained unchanged for several years. To her great sorrow she lost her father at the age of 25, before she had been able to progress: “He never saw me getting better.”

A few years later she found information about Timberline Knolls Treatment Center in US online, and gave the support line a call just to see what they would say. The person on the other side of the line made Riham open up, and she felt trust. She decided that she wanted to have the treatment at the treatment residential center, to finally try and come to terms with her disorder. Riham’s family agreed on paying for the quite expensive treatment in Illinois. Two weeks later she was on a flight to the US.

In the center she lived with 35 other women that suffered from the same problems as she did. In short time she learned to overcome and master her disease that she had been battling since the age of 10. Her family took part in the regular therapy sessions by phone, even if that meant them having to get up in the middle of the night to participate. Riham improved quickly: “It was residential treatment that I needed. It completely changed my life.”

Three months later she signed out from the center and returned home, where she was to take another important step in her new life.

Not only were there no groups or therapies for people suffering from eating disorders in Kuwait before Riham’s campaign started – in all of the Middle East there is no residential treatment center for eating disorders, why many young girls and boys are left on their own. It was in such an environment Riham came of age, and this was what she wanted to change.

Upon her return from Illinois she started a training to be an eating disorder specialist. She describes herself as healthy and in recovery, with a lot of support from her “conservative, typical Kuwaiti family” – a family that is very happy to see a grown-up Riham helping other young women overcome what haunted her for years.

“My ultimate goal is to open a residential center in Kuwait or the Middle East. When you talk about it you kill the secrecy around the eating disorder.”

Her first step, the campaign, received a lot of attention when launched. Riham became a member of Middle East Eating Disorder Association, was soon in the board of directors, and chosen to be the Kuwaiti representative. She started a support group that now hold meetings every Sunday and have a number of young women attending. As her new mission started to take up most of her time, Riham quit her previous job to work full time towards changing the society by raising the awareness, not only regarding eating disorders, and maybe not only in her own country, but in all of the Middle East:

“There is a stigma around mental health issues here that I want to change. A person with these problems is not the crazy person walking around in the street; it’s someone like you and me.”

Photo: Copyright Sweden and the Middle East Blog