On the eve of International Women's Day on 8 March, Fikir Club at the American University of Kuwait (AUK), a place where like-minded students gather to encourage and promote community-involvement, projected three Kuwaiti lady protagonists in the field of women empowerment.
Kuwaiti artist, activist and writer Shurooq Amin, Kuwaiti author and columnist Dalaa Al Moufti, and academician and specialist on Arab feminist theory, Dr. Anoud Al Sharekh, spoke on the obstacles they faced as women on their way to success – from being a successful writer and artist, to championing participation of females in Kuwaiti parliament – and how they overcame challenges.
Feminist theory on the origin of men and women: why women are as they are.
Speaking on the origin of women and men, and the incongruities in this theory, Dr. Al Sharekh said, "One creation story in the Jewish faith states that man and woman were created equal from the same earth. The first woman created was named Lilith and she refused to be subservient to Adam as she believed both of them to be equal. It was after Lilith left Adam to pursue her own interests that Eve was created, this time from Adam’s rib, to keep him company."
The question is not as much about this creation-myth, as it is about the notion that man was the origin and woman was an afterthought. "There is this whole school of feminist thought that deals with this. The French have built up an entire school of thought based on Simone de Beauvoir's book, The Second Sex. So, the male is the first sex, and then women come as the mirror to that; male is the standard, the perfect human, women come as the complementary sex to accompany him."
Dr. Al Sharekh, a researcher on youth and gender demographics, GCC Security, and Bi-cultural trends, and a specialist on Arab feminist theory, is a well-known international activist for women and minority rights. She ardently questions the reasoning behind ‘men being the mirror’: "Now, this becomes an acute problem; if the man is the mirror when you (women) see yourself, then you are comparing yourself always to this mirror that you will never become, because of your gender. What if your mirror is deeply flawed? What if the origin, the man, has a lot of issues? What if he is an oppressed or, a depressed or, a deprived man? What does that make a woman who is his mirror? I think Adam and Eve have come a long way today, but in Kuwait, if we are holding men as first and if women are second, then Kuwaiti men have a long way to go before we can be their imperfect mirror."
Gender discrimination: how Amin faced it.
Gender discrimination was a subject at which, both, Amin and Moufti, spoke at length on the same vein. "Females, whether it is a girl or a woman, face everyday discrimination, including sexual harassment." Despite her many tremendous achievements, Amin has not been given due credits for her efforts as an artist. Rather, she feels, "As a woman artist, I still have to deal with gender discrimination every day. At a time when I was going through a divorce, as a forty-year old woman and a mother of four children, I experienced discrimination and gender-based bullying first-hand, not just from family and society, but also from institutions when I attempted to get a loan for my children. I was looked upon as an insane woman. So, I started looking at the lives of women around me, I started becoming interested in the dynamics of how things work, and I started documenting the lives of these women."
This documentation turned out to be her hugely successful 2010 satirical artwork, 'Society Girls', a look at women who were oblivious to external tumults and expressing the incongruence that lies at the core of modern Arabian Gulf society.
"Because of its huge success, of course, I was railed with comments ranging from: it cannot be a success because it was not actually good; or it cannot be a success because there was nothing in it that people would be interested in. So many rumors abounded after 'Society Girls’; ‘who is she; where did she come from'," but, despite all this negativity, the work was a huge success or “maybe it was a biased buyer.”
Her talk was spiced with incidents from her successful journey, way before the run-away success of 'Society Girls'; from the time she delved into art as a nine-year-old, to the outspoken woman, to the female whose success as a reformist and an outspoken artist was mistaken as a mere luck.
Feminism and selective censorship
Amin believes, "extremism needs to be dealt with extremism." As a mixed-media interdisciplinary artist (since she was 9 years old) and an Anglophone poet "whose purpose is to instigate change in society", she has, since long, also been facing the brunt of censorship and shutdowns at her galleries and art works by Kuwaiti authorities. For instance, her 2011/2012 art show, 'It's a Man's World', which had a strong ironical expression depicting a hedonistic, taboo world of men, was shutdown in March, 2012, in Kuwait.
"When I documented the lives of men, it was considered a taboo. Nobody could imagine what had happened after the shutdown. I was questioned in a small room like a common criminal. I was stuck in bed for days afterwards. I had to change schools of my children because they were bullied and my family was disturbed. It was a nightmare," she recalled.
She revealed that a local female artist, at the time, criticized her as someone who craves after media attention and suggested that Amin might have courted the media to draw their attention on her: "Sometimes women can be the perpetrators of this unfortunate patriarchal bullying. But media likes me, what can I do?"
She feels that being honored for a retrospective of her work and being featured in the biannual art journal, Contemporary Practices: Visual Arts from the Middle-East is "definitely more honoring for me than to have to call the media to announce the shutdown of my own show and to have all that turmoil."
The one good thing that came out of those shutdowns was that the public of Kuwait became aware of the idea of censorship, they started talking about the notion of censorship in newspapers and they started having discussions about it. International media caught on to it as well.
In response to the shutdown, her 2013 series, 'Popcornographic', dealt directly with the issues of women, censorship and all that is considered taboo in the Middle-East; whether it is tackling the ramifications of subjective censorship or the disturbing phenomenon of child marriages or even the art of tattoos on Arab skin.
Her paintings from 'Popcornographic' – 'A Man Of No Importance' titled from Oscar Wilde's A Woman Of No Importance', 'A Blind New World' based on Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, 'To Kill a Mocking Girl' titled from Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird and other – are all titles based on books, movies and paintings that were banned in Western history at some point. "I was trying to make a point with that by tying my literature-skills with my artistic skills," she explained. Amin was infuriated at the parliament's decision, which suggested monitoring how a woman dresses and she painted over Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Last Supper as 'The Last Straw', where tiny women are seated on the table as a part of the menu.
Women as catalysts of empowerment and progress
Amin considers her painting 'This Way Up: Painting the Roses Red' – in which a traditionally dressed Arabic woman is literally opening her sons eyes by pulling them up, even though she is very conservative – as a very important one. She justifies: "What I am trying to tell is that you can be a traditional and a conservative society and still raise open-minded sons; sons who will change these legislation and laws, a man who grows up and cares about economic progress, health issues, educational issues, technology, science, medicine, invention and creation, rather than obsessing about women."
With Amin, now being a part of BBC Speaker's Bureau, she expects people to mistake her achievement with a, "Who does she know?"
On empowering themselves, Dr. Al Sharekh urged all women, "You have to be aware of your rights; you have to be aware of what you can do legally and about the impediments in your way. You have to petition, you have to lobby, you have to not accept ‘no’ for an answer; only then will you achieve the balance that you are seeking. We have heard a lot about equality, but we do not want to be equal to men, because we are not men; what we need is a balance. We need to live in societies where we are respected because of our gender, not in spite of our gender.
By Ghazal Praveen