kuwait travel

Julie Martyn

The effect of segregation of the sexes is profound in Kuwait.  Even at family gatherings where cousins and the larger extended family participate, men and teenage boys will go to one area while women, girls and younger children will enjoy themselves in another.  Arranged marriages are quite normal and to learn to love your husband or wife after the wedding is a path chosen by many.  It is very important in the more traditional families for the women to cover themselves completely when in a place a man might see them.  Many women and girls after the age of fourteen or so will not appear in public without an abaya, a full length covering with long sleeves, always black regardless of the season, and a hijab, a scarf which can be highly decorative and draped or pinned in a variety of ways.

Many families insist on their women wearing a veil and face mask, which can be lifted up discreetly when eating or drinking at a restaurant or café just for a moment at a time to pop something in the mouth.  The most extraordinary sight is that of women whose entire face is covered with a thin veil, even over the eyes.  I was once walking by the beach when we came across two women hidden in this way, covered in their shapeless robes, with their children.  It was impossible to tell at first if we were looking at their fronts or their backs.  Another double take view is when a woman is all decked out in the black gear and then has sunglasses on as well.  Protection plus.

With the advent of shopping malls, some teenage boys and girls take this opportunity to make some kind of contact, however fleeting, with members of the opposite sex.  I have never seen a more practised use of the quick flick of a look out of the corner of the eye in Kuwait as I did in these contexts.  They are so adept at this that surely it harkens back to an earlier era, one of desert taboos and campfire gossip.  The eyeflick is not learned or unlearned in one generation.  The more liberated girls, who are allowed out without an accompanying adult and are not forced to wear abaya and hijab can be seen all dressed up in their fashionable blues and browns, hair flying freely in the breeze as they stride their way through town on their not to be overlooked high heeled shoes.  Boys parade in groups on their motorbikes or in their late model cars, music pumping and often decked up like they have just jumped out of a trendy magazine.   For a boy to get the mobile phone number of a girl is a prize indeed, it has even been seen passed from a car of girls to a car of boys on a sheet of paper while both are travelling down the street.  At speed..

It is quite unusual for a Kuwaiti to take a bus.  This service, which is fairly extensive and prompt, is provided for the benefit of those expatriate guestworkers without cars: Egyptians, Filipinos, Bangladeshis, Indians, Sri Lankans and the occasional European.  Some Europeans I met had never taken a bus in Kuwait at all, preferring taxis to driving in the hazardous, free for all traffic.  My apartment was fairly centrally situated so buses were no problem.  Women would sit at the front and men at the back.  But waiting for a bus did have its moments.

Avoid Eye Contact

As a woman, one always had to expect the attempts of a pickup.  I have witnessed male prostitution on the streets twice but never females plying their trade so openly.  However, we were told that women at bus stops were mistaken for prostitutes.  We were warned not to look at any men who slowed down or parked at the bus stop, not to make eye contact, as they considered this to be a come on.  Come on!

The most memorable experience I had of this sort was when a middle aged man with a clipped grey beard parked in the layby behind the bus stop I was waiting at and started blowing his horn.  After the third honk I became annoyed enough to simply look at him and ask  “What?” before turning back to face the street, hoping a bus would come soon.  A guy turned up at the stop and fortunately this was sufficient reason to move the driver on.  Another man on the scene.  Protection.  The bus came and I thought no more of it.  Imagine my surprise when several minutes later, after dismounting, I saw the same old model Jaguar waiting for me.  He had apparently so little to do that he thought it worth his while to pull in up the road and watch me, follow the bus and then park again in the hopes of an encounter.  Oh the thrills…

This is the kind of occurrence that faces a woman of any age who uses public transport for shopping, going to the gym or any of the normal things one would do in one’s daily life.  About 50% of the time the car’s number plate was orange, which meant that they were licensed to operate as private carriers.  The other 50% were simply looking for some action.  It doesn’t matter what you wear so long as you are there.  I took to standing as far away from the kerb as possible and simply ignoring all comers. Except once, after six months of nose in the air, on a 40 plus degree afternoon, when I had been walking for about twenty minutes.  We didn’t make it past the hello where are you from before he had his hand on my knee so I was out of the car and back at the bus stop, hypothesis reconfirmed.

In this way, open confrontations were avoided, although the offers were always there.  I became so habituated to this that after only about three weeks in Kuwait when I was going shopping with a twentysomething blonde girlfriend, it got to the point that I was actually surprised we had had an incident free evening.  Not so!  Just as we were picking up some cigarettes at the local corner shop a Kuwaiti complete in dishdasha (traditional robe) and headgear approached us.  “Hello girls, do you need any help?” (No thanks)  “Can I take you anywhere?” (No, we are just near home) “I wanna sex!”  Now how would you respond to that?  We figured it was his problem, not ours.

The only conclusion I can draw is that some men believe or want to believe that every Western woman is like those they see in the porn movies they watch.  With these men, there is no respect for a woman’s profession, no thought of why or how she may have come to their country in the first place.  They just imagine she might want to make a bit of money on the side selling herself.  As it was so common to come across such men, I began to wonder how many of the fathers of my students behaved like this.  Not a thought worth pondering over.  In any case the subject was never open to discussion!

“This is Their Nature”

One mighty lesson was learned from a Filipina receptionist at the sports club I used to belong to.  This was at a time when security was really beginning to become an issue for Westerners.  There had been at least three officially reported incidents where American soldiers or Americans working on military contracts had been shot in the past couple of months by Kuwaitis, once by a Kuwaiti policeman.

We had been advised by embassies not to gather in groups and to avoid public places like restaurants or international schools.  (How can you avoid an international school when you work in one?)

I got off the bus as usual and started walking to the entrance when I noticed a fully bearded middle aged man right in front of me leering from his 4 wheel drive and honking the horn.  I have nothing against beards as such, mind you, it is just indicative in Kuwait of a fashion that goes with fundamentalism.  At that time we had our radars out for this kind of thing, which is probably just as much a sign of our fear as it was of the twisted nature of spin on the satellite English language media at the time.

There was nobody else around.  I walked straight past the car without looking at him which he then started up and turned around, following me.  Panicking, I ran the 100 metres to the entrance and then reported what had happened to reception, asking them if security could follow it up.  Of course the man had gone and the security guard’s office was positioned next to a sidegate for vehicular access, so they had seen nothing.

Guessing that she had faced similar experiences, as she was a woman, I asked the receptionist what she would do in a similar situation and she replied “The best thing is to show them no fear.  If you show you are afraid it encourages them to hurt you more.  This is their nature.”

Spin or no spin, I had learned my lesson.