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While living in New York, Maha Alasaker, a Kuwaiti visual artist, quickly became fed up with intrusive questions about if she wears a hijab in Kuwait, if she’s allowed to drive, or if she owns a pet camel. After years of suffering from New Yorkers’ ignorance about her culture, she decided to respond with a photographic series that depicts the day-to-day lives of Kuwaiti women and highlights their voices and thoughts, untainted by orientalist prejudice.
Alasaker’s book, Women in Kuwait (2019), brings together 25 portraits from the series (taken between 2015 and 18) featuring Kuwaiti women of various ages and backgrounds in the intimacy of their bedrooms. The series is the first to bring such a close and authentic glimpse into the personal environments of women in the country, presented by a Kuwaiti native. But it is also a détournement of an old orientalist trope in Western art: the depiction of Arab women as exotically enclosed in their harems, isolated from men and the outer world. Eugène Delacroix’s “The Women of Algiers in their Apartment” (1834) epitomizes that orientalist gaze. (The painting was later interpreted into a series of drawings by Pablo Picasso, who was known for his abusive treatment of women, whom he called “machines for suffering.”)
Without institutional backing, Alasaker self-published her book with the help of friends and peers who chipped in on a Kickstarter campaign. The book was soon acquired by the Getty Research Institute and the Thomas J. Watson Library at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Earlier iterations of the project were exhibited at the Permanent Mission of the State of Kuwait to the United Nations in Manhattan in 2018 and at ArtHelix Gallery and Carrie Able Gallery in Brooklyn in 2017, among other venues around the world. The series also received attention from Vogue Italia, Rolling Stone, and other publications.
Alasaker’s photographs are accompanied by excerpts from interviews with the participating women conducted by her collaborator, Nada Faris, a Kuwaiti writer and performance poet. These interviews touch on a variety of topics, from familial relationships to the trauma of the Iraqi Invasion of Kuwait in 1990, but focus primarily on the state of women’s rights in Kuwait.
Kuwait is a relatively young country (it gained independence from Britain in 1961) with a small population of only 4.5 million, about 70% of which consists of expatriates (as of 2016). It’s considered one of the more liberal Gulf countries. For instance, it’s one of a few in the region where an Islamic dress code for women is not mandatory (although modesty is formally encouraged by the government). The country is a hereditary monarchy, ruled by Emirs from the Al-Sabah dynasty, but it maintains a separation of powers between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government and holds democratic elections for parliament.
Article 29 of Kuwait’s constitution, approved in 1962, states that “All people are equal in human dignity and in public rights and duties before the law, without distinction as to gender, origin, language or religion.” However, women in the country were denied the right to vote and run for political office up until 2005 (apart from a brief period after 1962). They continue to face discrimination in crucial matters like marriage, divorce, guardianship, and citizenship. A reinstated edition of the constitution in 1992 dropped gender from the definition of equality. The amended article 29 now reads, “The people are peers in human dignity and have, in the eyes of the Law, equal public rights and obligations. There shall be made no differentiation among them because of race, origin, language or religion.”
“Kuwait has undeniably maintained a legal framework that discriminates against women, and in doing so violates the integrity of the constitution,” writes Lulu Al-Sabah, a Kuwaiti art journalist and art consultant, in a foreword for the book. “Yet it would be a mistake to perceive Kuwaiti women solely as an oppressed mass.”
This message of local pride alongside an ongoing struggle for equal rights echoes throughout Faris’s interviews with Alasaker’s subjects. “Kuwaiti women are bold,” says Amnah Al-Mutawa, a 31-year-old orthodontist, who’s introduced to us in a mirror reflection. “Proud to be a Kuwaiti woman yet facing difficulties in balancing traditions and the modern definition of equal rights.”
Alasaker’s series evokes other photography projects that chose bedrooms as settings for portraits of women (see Rania Matar’s A Girl and Her Room and Sarah Bennet’s Life After Life in Prison: The Bedroom Project, to name just two) but in a conservative society like Kuwait’s, bedrooms provide not just basic privacy, but also protection from society’s watching eye.
In her essay for the book, Faris explains that tradition in Kuwait dictates that children must live with their parents until marriage. “[Bedrooms] serve as sanctuaries for boys and girls who continue to grow in Kuwaiti families where collective needs outweigh the individuals,” she writes. Nowadays, women enjoy a little more privacy, while in the past they were instructed to keep their bedrooms doors ajar.
“Our constitution gives a certain amount of rights to each citizen and we as women are not given all these rights, only some of them,” says Mariam Mandani, a 25-year-old freelance designer who’s captured half-eying the camera next to her bedroom door. “It’s as if we are less of citizens than men,” she continues. At the top right corner of the photo, above her desk, you can see a tongue-in-cheek traffic sign warning of camels crossing the road. A large emergency “EXIT” sign posted on the door subtly suggests a desire to escape or break free.
Djinane Alsuwayeh, a 29-year-old art director and photographer, is captured in a pensive moment, her eyes downcast. She is seated on her bed, surrounded by pillows, against a turned canvas and a warm oxblood red wall centered by a black-and-white photo of a woman in a white dress. “Women are not equal to men,” she says in her interview. “You see it every day in the way kids are being raised, at work and in conversations.”
Alasaker’s photos emanate with warmth, a product of the trust and intimacy she was able to achieve with her subjects. Whether they’re seated on their beds or cross-legged on their bedroom floors, the women appear comfortable with the camera. In a patriarchal society with oppressive codes of respectability, “family honor” and “Hurma” (an Islamic term for women’s “sanctity,” which must be protected from violation), that alone is subversive.
One other recurring motif in Alasaker’s images is the depiction of several women reflected in their bedroom mirrors. What seems at first as a way to avoid full exposure can alternately be seen as these women’s plea for the world to see them just as they view themselves.
Up until Women in Kuwait, Alasaker’s work typically relied on self-portraiture. In an earlier series titled Belonging (2017), she addressed the double life she had to maintain in Kuwait as a means to avoid intrusive social scrutiny. Some of the works in the series were included in the ad takeover #resistanceisfemale which appeared on phone booths and bus stops across New York City in 2017.
“This last project made me think of us rather than me,” Alasaker told Hyperallergic in an email conversation. “I always felt that I am different from everyone else at home, but I realized that the struggles I go through are not mine alone.”
Several months ago, she decided to abandon the relative freedom she enjoyed in New York and return to Kuwait, the very place from which she escaped more than five years go. “I started feeling that my audience is my people, so I wanted to be closer to them and see how they respond to my art,” she wrote. “I feel this is the right time to be in Kuwait. Many things have changed since I left and I wanted to be part of that.”
And for the last time, for those who are still wondering: no, she does not have a pet camel.