“The most frustrating aspect of working in a conservative country like Kuwait is that people equate traditions with religion and project that on gender roles in a manner that is convenient to them,” says Dr. Alanoud Al Sharekh who is doing ground breaking work in gender in the region. She is a researcher, academic and activist focused on youth and gender demographics, GCC security, bi-cultural trends and her special area of interest: Arab Feminist Theory, and is currently a Research Associate the Chatham House and the Arab Gulf Institute in Washington.
How would you describe yourself?
I had a conversation with a friend who is also involved in women’s issues who called me a self-declared feminist. I said I’m a self-evident feminist; it’s inevitable when you’re aware of your place in an arbitrary socio-political hierarchy based on “gender”.
I know that people have had feminist fatigue and even in the west, third-wave feminism has had something of a backlash against it because it excludes some people and others feel that it’s a white woman’s term, but I embrace it because for me it means that you believe in the empowerment of women and you are aware that there is a systematic disempowerment of women.
You are a gender activist, professor and entrepreneur. How did you choose this path for your career?
When I was younger I followed my passion for literature first and then I came back to Kuwait at a seminal moment of women asking for their political rights, and I became really involved in that movement. That changed my trajectory from being purely interested in literature to really focusing on feminism and feminist literature. The comparative aspects of understanding questions of gender and citizenship became a human rights issue, and I found a balance between what I was passionate about and what I was actually pursuing in my research and my work. Essentially, my academic findings became a way to solidify my activist interests, which were in human rights and women’s rights, and this led me to work in local and international geopolitical institutions looking at the demographic aspects of security especially youth and women, which then became the basis for my consultancy. It’s a cycle that kept feeding into each other and as geopolitical issues change and feed into these subjects my interests would follow them.
The comparative aspects of understanding questions of gender and citizenship became a human rights issue, and I found a balance between what I was passionate about and what I was actually pursuing in my research and my work.
You are “fearless” in your current position. Help us walk in your shoes and understand where you get the strength from.
It’s always a moment of awareness. You become aware that perhaps as a woman you’re treated casually, institutionally and insidiously as half a citizen. Sometimes people are not even aware that they are doing this but you are treated as Simone de Beauvoir put it as “the second sex”. So you’re not the standard, you’re something that is an accessory, you complete Adam for example. As your awareness of that grows, then you are aware of other and similar injustices for other disenfranchised groups that may be in an even more vulnerable position than you are because you might be a woman but a woman of a certain privilege, so you are able to, let’s say. to resist some forms of injustice that are being practiced against you or you are able to speak about this in a public platform. But there might be a lot of people out there who are voiceless, who cannot express their injustices or who may just be unaware that they are being victimized. I feel that it’s our job, our social responsibility to highlight these things and speak about them but also speak about them in a culturally-nuanced way. I don’t think it serves our purpose if we adopt issues or adopt campaigns as is in different countries that might have different sociopolitical circumstances and try to enforce them in this part of the world. We decided to tackle disciplinary violence against women and the social and legal practices that underpin “honor killings” in the NGO I cofounded Abolish 153 because no one was challenging the justifications of these acts as traditionally or religiously unacceptable.
What excites you when you wake up every morning?
I work on women and youth leadership programs that we customize for the private, public and NGO sector at my consultancy Ibtkar. We trained 15 women over the course of a year in political leadership, and I am excited to see a number of them run for elected offices. We focus on diversity and inclusion trainings for the corporate sector, and cultural sensitivity training for foreign companies working in this region. This year we are taking a group of women to Berlin in a leadership and dialogue exchange which is a CSR program we developed for Fouad al Ghanim & Sons Automotive Company. I feel very lucky that I am able to earn a living from promoting women in leadership which feeds into our work to change legislations in Abolish 153.
Share some examples where you have made a difference in your country and community.
Through my consultancy Ibtkar and my NGO work in Abolish 153, I work on a variety of issues that are interconnected, from empowering women politically and economically to protecting them from violence and changing the legislations that encourage discrimination. My work over the past decade has created an interconnected network of leading women and NGOs with similar concerns in Kuwait and beyond and when it is mobilized it is powerful. Our path to achieving our goals is long and we must be patient.
I am also passionate about producing academic work that bridges the gap in cultural understanding between our part of the world and cultures West and East of it. Our mutual concerns as women, and the need for protection and promotion far exceeds the differences between us based on geography, religion or traditional practices.
How easy is it working on gender issues in the Middle East? How do you balance being critical of the government and yet representing them?
I think gender equality is just one form of equality that we need to look at. We need to look at finding equal opportunities for young people. If young people or women from a certain socioeconomic background are only allowed to engage in the labor market in entry-level positions this is going to create problems for us in the future, because the aspirational underpinnings of investing in education are to create opportunities for social and economic mobility. If there is a ceiling on that then you have frustration, anti-establishment movements, and economic and cultural regression. I believe in gender equality in terms of legal rights and in terms of opportunities, but we need to investigate ways to make it a level-playing field for people from different socioeconomic backgrounds and especially for young people. Look at what the UAE has done; it might be a symbolic gesture having a minister of youth but it’s an important symbolic gesture. I wrote a short article a few years ago warning of an irreversible disconnect between GCC leadership and their youngsters if they don’t actively try to engage them more and I think the wholehearted embrace of digital media is one way for leaders to get automatic feedback from young people instead of through politicians or tribal and religious figureheads that claim to speak on behalf of them.
What are some of the challenges you face? How do you overcome them?
The most frustrating aspect of working in a conservative country like Kuwait is that people equate traditions with religion and project that on gender roles in a manner that is convenient to them. Silencing voices of dissent with absolutist arguments is a repetitive strain on gender advocacy whether you are lobbying for curriculum reform, increased visibility for females in leadership positions, or putting an end to violent legislation.
I believe in gender equality in terms of legal rights and in terms of opportunities, but we need to investigate ways to make it a level-playing field for people from different socioeconomic backgrounds and especially for young people.
How do you manage self-care? Do you believe in work-life balance or integration? What are some of the strategies you adopt?
We cannot help others when we are burnt out so I try not to give in to the temptation to work around the clock. Because we are working in an emotionally charged atmosphere helping survivors of violence at Abolish 153 we make sure that we have an annual in house self-care and development seminar. For each person the balance is different between home and work, and it has taken me a long time to come to terms with the fact that I need to recharge in order to be my best self. The best strategy is to accept that there will always be guilt, and the feeling that you could be doing better at one aspect or another, and to forge ahead with pre-scheduled leisure time because that’s a necessity too.
Do you consider yourself a “Global Girl”? Why?
I see myself as not that different from any woman who did not get an equal opportunity because of her sex. That is an issue that transcends nationality, it’s a global phenomenon and needs a global solution.
What is the advice you would give your 16 year old self?
What are three values you think are most important for a global leader?
Approachability, credibility and an inclusion perspective.
What’s next for Alanoud Alsharekh?
I am currently involved in a number of political studies with international institutions, looking at different aspects of inclusion reform in the GCC, as well as running several diversity and leadership programs in Kuwait and the Arabian Gulf Region through my consultancy Ibtkar. In terms of our civil society work with Abolish 153 and Eithar, we realized that women’s networks were an important lobbying and advocacy tool for all NGOs that are interested in resolving the many complicated issues associated with women empowerment and gender-based violence. This vacuum in the training and empowering of future female leaders is a major issue that I am doing my part to see resolved in the immediate future, not only in Kuwait but across the GCC.