Life in Kuwait: Being oppressed as a woman
Last week I read a comment on Facebook about how restrictive life must be for women working in the Middle East… we have all read those ignorant comments by people who haven’t set foot in the gulf other than passing through Dubai Airport. I am so perplexed by the impression that is perpetuated by people who have never lived in a non-Western society. It got me thinking though… is this really what people think? That I am here and I am being… voluntarily oppressed?
The truth is that I love being an expat woman in Kuwait.
Hopefully this post will unravel the reasons for that statement and educate some uninformed people.
- What I wear is my own decision.
As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, when I announced that I was moving to Kuwait, people assumed that I would be covering very inch of my body, forced to wear an abaya and only exposing my eyes to the world. I laughed at that thought then and I am still laughing at it now.
Kuwaiti people themselves are not all wearing hijab (headscarves) and even less are wearing abayas and niqaab (the veil) on a daily basis. In Kuwaiti culture it is emphasized that the decision about how much of your body to cover is a personal one between you and God. In the same way, and I must stress this again, I AM NOT BEING FORCED TO DON ANY CLOTHES I DO NOT CHOOSE TO WEAR.
Now; even though nothing in forced upon anyone, it is still a relatively conservative culture. You don’t see women in hotshorts or crop tops when walking around malls. My work wardrobe is definitely far more conservative than it was in South Africa or in South Korea. Sleeves below the elbow and skirt below the knee are what is expected of female staff. It’s not unreasonable… just different.
As for what I wear on weekends, that’s my own choice. If I wear a dress that shows off some arm and some leg then yes people may look at me. But people also look at me when I wear a T-shirt and jeans too. What some fail to understand is that the people here aren’t staring because they are judging you/are perverts; they are staring at you because you aren’t from here and thus, look exotic. Or they are staring at the novelty of having a lady showing off arms and legs. Either accept it and move on with your life or move out of Kuwait.
2. Women get preference all the time.
When standing in line at the ATM, men will step aside so that I can go first. When buying something at the store, the men working there will never let me carry my own groceries. Not to mention priority lines for females only at the supermarkets. You never have to queue for very long at any place purely by virtue of being a female. The other day a man that I had never seen before bought me the milk that I had in my hand. Without expecting a single thing in return.
People ask me if I am restricted as to where I go here in Kuwait… not at all. Women and children are allowed everywhere in Kuwait… it’s the men who need to check when they can enter the mall or go to the beach. Some malls don’t allow men to enter if they aren’t accompanied by their wife and children.
Explain to me how I am oppressed here?
- There are no restrictions on who I associate with.
People in Kuwait date all the time. The hook up culture here is actually more rife than back home in South Africa. As someone who is not dating, and just observing from the sidelines, it’s interesting to note that if a man and woman are together in public, nobody is going to approach them and ask for their marriage certificate. Nobody is going to question you when you visit your male colleagues at their homes. No one is going to arrest you if you are a lone female in a group of males. Of course I didn’t expect any of these things to happen but it seems that others think it’s a norm.
Oh, you don’t see couples kissing in public or even holding hands but that is just the culture here- affection should be shown behind closed doors.
- I feel safe here.
I have heard the question several times in the last few months: Are you allowed to go out by yourself in Kwuait?
The truth is- NO. Women are locked up in cages and are only allowed to go out when the sun’s up.
YEAH RIGHT. I go out all the time by myself. To the store, to get a manicure, to visit friends… no I don’t need a male to escort me to drive me anywhere. And when I am out and about by myself I don’t walk around in fear of being assaulted or raped. Believe me, this was something that always plagued me in South Africa. Men almost never approach you in Kuwait. No one will ever whistle, catcall or shout something flirtatious as they would in South Africa. It isn’t part of the culture, and as such I feel much safer than I did walking around in other countries.
Kuwait is much safer than South Africa, statistically speaking. Much fewer robberies, much fewer murderers walking around with guns and knives. I haven’t left yet and I have the freedom to; I guess you can only assume that I don’t see terrorists walking down the street. There is no actual crime here… if I leave my phone on my table and go to a meeting, it will be there when I return. If I am alone in a taxi at night with just the driver for company, I don’t have any fear of him doing anything untoward.
Yes, as a woman living in Kuwait, I feel perfectly safe.
I wrote this post not only to share my experience of being a woman living here in Kuwait, but also because people shouldn’t comment on something they have no knowledge about.
Take the time to ask people about their lives in the Gulf… they will be glad to educate you. Here are some informative articles written by women in the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Oman with similar and different experiences.
Of course each country is different and life is definitely way more restrictive in Saudi Arabia but just don’t paint every country with the same brush. If you want to read an experience about being an expat woman in Saudi Arabia check out this article.