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Life in Kuwait: Being oppressed as a woman

October 12, 2016 15 Comments

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.

  1. 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?


  1. 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.


  1. 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.

In conclusion:

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.


All posts


  • […] Welcome to part 1 in a series of posts outlining the realities of living in Kuwait. The most common questions I receive are: “What’s it like?” and also “How did you manage when you first landed?”. Through these posts I hope to address some of those and other questions. I also receive outlandish requests from people hoping I can find them a job or expecting me to buy them things and send it to them. My responses to those will most certainly be covered in upcoming posts too! I also have an earlier post covering other details about living in Kuwait from safety to dressing which can be found here. […]

  • Prepping & packing – Expat Panda March 31, 2017 at 9:14 pm

    […] UPDATE: One of my biggest regrets was not packing a single item of winter wear. Yes Kuwait gets cold (why did no one ever mention this to me?), below 10 degrees celsius in winter! This meant I had to go shopping for a whole heap of winter stuff come December. Oh and shopping for clothes in Kuwait is EXPENSIVE. Try to bring as much as you can from home. For more information on what to wear in Kuwait click here. […]

  • Myriade May 3, 2017 at 4:58 pm

    You are probably right speaking about Kuwait, but what about for exampel Saudi Arabia ?

    • Expat Panda May 3, 2017 at 5:00 pm

      I only write about my personal experiences in Kuwait, I have never set foot in Saudi Arabia so can’t comment about it! If I ever do, that will definitely be an interesting blog post both to write and to read.

  • vinneve May 27, 2017 at 2:31 pm

    Very well said. I feel so much safer here in Abu Dhabi too even to compared to my hometown New Zealand.

    • Expat Panda May 27, 2017 at 5:29 pm

      Thats interesting because I always think of New Zealand as a super safe place.

      • vinneve May 27, 2017 at 8:15 pm

        It is a safe place compared to others like the USA or some in Europe but there is still a crime, some of which are really annoying because of laziness! Here in AD it is lesser crimes because of the penalties is so harsh besides most of the people here is either expat who has a job and/or secure lifestyle or locals who are mostly well off anyway.

  • paradise366 June 16, 2017 at 12:32 pm

    This is most enlightening. Thank you Panda. Much love.

  • Chanel | Cultural Xplorer April 8, 2018 at 6:39 pm

    Glad to see a glimpse into what life might be like for me if I decide to make the move to Kuwait!

    • Expat Panda April 9, 2018 at 4:15 pm

      Glad you enjoyed the post!

  • gahanaclive July 8, 2018 at 8:57 am

    Hi Panda. I live in Kuwait in Jleeb Al Shuyoukh. I had a bad experience yesterday. Once person touched me badly when i was walking towards my zumba class by 6PM. Why do you still say Kuwait is safe?

    • Expat Panda July 8, 2018 at 9:34 am

      Hi! My experience of Kuwait was that it was safe. It will be different to the experiences of others. I am truly sorry that you experienced this awful treatment.

  • Sierra February 1, 2019 at 1:31 am

    Hello! Just wanted to say how helpful it is to read a first hand account from someone in a similar position! I’m this (-) close to signing a contract to teach there and its SO nice be able to read your posts about life in Kuwait and get answers to all of the questions swimming around in my head or being asked by people that only hear about the Middle East from the news (“but.. but… will you be able to go in a store alone?! what’s the terror situation like there??” how safe will you feel walking around?”)

    So thank you!!

    • expatpanda February 4, 2019 at 8:15 am

      I am so touched that you found this post so informative. This is exactly why I wrote it; because I wanted women to have answers to the questions we have but can’t ask!

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