Dr Alanoud Alsharekh is one of the BBC’s 100 Women of 2019 – a list of the most inspiring and influential women from around the world. Dr Alsharekh completed both an MA in Applied Linguistics and English-Arabic Translation in 1998 and a PhD in Comparative Literature and Feminism in 2003 from SOAS.
She then went on to help found and teach the ‘Islam and Britain’ programme at SOAS, before becoming the Director of Ibtkar Strategic Consultancy, which leads the ‘Empowering Kuwaiti Women in Politics’ training program. She is now leading the campaign to Abolish Article 153 in Kuwait.
We sat down with her on the steps of the Paul Webley Wing at SOAS with another SOAS alumna, Fatima Said, who completed her BA in Development Studies and Politics in 2018. We spoke about Alanoud’s life since SOAS and how she is bringing change to women in the Middle East.
FS: How does it feel to be back at SOAS?
AA: I love it, I love being back at SOAS, it’s a special place.
FS: In 2016, you were awarded the French National Order of Merit, and this year, you were chosen to be one of the BBC’s 100 Women for your work to improve gender equality in the Middle East. What do you think are the biggest challenges facing women in the region today?
AA: I think the biggest challenge is the idea of male guardianship, which is deeply entrenched within the social, political and legal structures of the region. It can manifest in insidious ways and often as institutionalised discrimination. I think we need to find a way to tackle this problem which also respects the traditions and cultures that we come from.
A lot of people fear that if you attempt to create a more balanced legal system and initiate equal opportunities for men and women, you will somehow threaten their national or religious identity, so I think you have to accept these fears and then find a way to disprove them.
FS: A lot of what you are saying ties into the things you were teaching here at SOAS when you were lecturer on ‘Islam and Britain’, after you finished your studies here. Can you tell us a bit more about your time at SOAS as a student and how it felt to then come back as a lecturer?
AA: I started at SOAS as Master’s student doing Applied Linguistics. One of the things I loved was that when walking down the corridors, I could never tell who might speak what language. I also enjoyed the leftish politics of the students and the fact that the student community was very active but had a very clear social ethos.
I think this is very much the appeal of SOAS and when I wanted to pursue my PhD, SOAS was the natural choice.
As well as this, the deep knowledge of the professors was also a big plus for me when choosing supervisors. My supervisor, like most of the other professors at SOAS, had a very nuanced knowledge of the subject matter. The professors are very much up-to-date and they publish a lot and write a lot, so therefore you learn a lot.
While higher education is a difficult process, you come out of it a different and deeper human being, even if what you learned was about your own culture. This was eye opening for me. I owe a great debt to the School and to the rigorous learning process we have here at SOAS.
FS: That brings me nicely to your area of interest and study. How has studying at SOAS informed your understanding of women’s rights issues, which is your current area of work?
AA: What spurred me on to pursue a PhD in comparative literature and feminism was actually the activism that was happening at the time. There was a bill at the Kuwaiti Parliament and we were hopeful that women were going to get full political rights, but that was denied. I really wanted to resolve the contradictions in our culture of how men believe that Paradise is beneath the feet of their mothers, but want to deny their mothers the right to choose their political representatives.
I thought that pursuing this question, which is a fundamental identity question for me, at a safe and respectful place like SOAS would enable me to come out of the other side understanding not only that this phenomenon is a question of power but a question of gender and power sharing.
There are universal structures in the world that will attempt to justify gender discrimination using religion or culture or science – or even tech! They get very creative nowadays but at the end of the day it’s simply gender based discrimination and it’s not particularly unique to our culture, religion or region. I was very happy to be one of the first specialists in this field of comparative literature in Arabic and English. It could only have happened at SOAS.
FS: Can you tell us more about Abolish 153, the campaign calling to end honour killings in Kuwait, which you helped to co-found? How did that come about?
AA: This is something that occupies a lot of intellectual debate at SOAS – postcolonialism and the effects of the colonial powers in shaping cultural and social dialogue to this day. The honour killing legislation of Article 153 in our penal code actually predates the independence of Kuwait and it comes from the Napoleonic code, but of course it has been modified to exclude women and generalized to include all females – mothers, sisters, daughters, as well as the wife. It’s an article that not many people know exists because Kuwait is not a hotspot for honour killings, but they still happen, and there are still a lot of honour crimes.
I started this movement not just to tackle this particular Article, but also because it follows a trend of what I call ‘disciplinary violent legislations’ that justify violence against women under the idea of the ‘male guardian’s’ law.
FS: And this is law still in place?
AA: We have succeeded in putting a Bill to parliament in May 2017, signed by 10% of our representatives, to give it an urgent status so they can vote on it and get it off the books. The campaign is very much ongoing and now the ball is in the parliament’s court – we did our job, we raised awareness, we got five parliamentarians to sign this bill. I feel we do not have enough female representation, we only have one woman out of fifty in Office. Women’s issues are not a priority.
This translates to Kuwait also not having a domestic violence law and we don’t even have women’s shelters. Hopefully by tackling the taboo subjects, such as honour killings, you attract attention to other subjects related to disciplinary violence that are being swept under the carpet.
FS: As well as your academic career, you have held senior consultative positions in governmental and non-governmental institutions in the Gulf and abroad including your current positions as Associate Fellow at Chatham House, and Director of your own consultancy, ‘Ibtkar’. For your students and alumni wanting to enter this field of consultancy and women’s rights, what advice would you have?
I think there’s a lot to be said for a more nuanced, non-binary understanding of regional differences. Ibtkar focuses on diversity and inclusion, and youth and women’s empowerment, and we lead programmes that focus on that. A year ago, I led the ‘Empowering Kuwaiti Women in Politics’ programme. It was a year-long training for fifteen Kuwaiti women. This year, I led the ‘Women’s Dialogue in Leadership’ programme, where we took ten women to Berlin on a dialogue and leadership exchange programme.
We need people who are experts on both sides of the conversation, instead of seeing it as West versus East or as a clash of civilizations. I think as the world is shrinking and we are more connected through technology, that kind of rhetoric is useless. Literally, I don’t see any use. A place like SOAS fully embodies that spirit of open dialogue between cultures.
FS: Did having SOAS on your CV help you in your career? Did people in the field recognise SOAS as an institution where your specialisms are addressed? And is the thinking behind your research and teaching what that people are craving?
I have to tell you that I’m deeply indebted to SOAS. As a young PhD graduate, I was incensed that the only dialogues happening around the Gulf were to do with petrodollars or terrorism. So SOAS, through the London Middle East Institute, gave me an opportunity to hold conferences that were ground-breaking not just for a Western audience, but also for those from the Middle East.
The first time that a female member of the Saudi ruling family was on a public stage, was at one of my conferences at SOAS. I was the editor of those series of published books on those conferences on the Gulf, the changing role of women in the Arabian Gulf, the Gulf family and political and popular cultures of the Arab Gulf states.
Now, these books are on their third and fourth editions. They’re taught wherever there’s a class on the Gulf, so I feel deeply indebted to SOAS for being a place where those kind of conversations on the Gulf could happen, even when that wasn’t a popular subject. I think that being part of the advisory board at the London Middle East Institute, and then being able to found, fund and help teach part of the ‘Islam in Britain’ course, were opportunities that I felt that would have only been available for someone like me at a place like SOAS.
FS: In your 2015 TEDx talk, you spoke about how finding out that you were going to give birth to a daughter spurred your interest and activism for women’s rights issues. What are your hopes for your daughter and for women’s rights in the region?
I was the last generation that was not allowed to vote in my country and hers is the first that doesn’t even have to worry about that. My hope is that this is going to be a series of firsts for them. We are looking forward to the long awaited promise to be fulfilled next year that we’ll have our first female judges in Kuwait. I’m hoping that this also means that other closed male spaces are going to open up for our young women.
I think that truly, the measure of progress is how available opportunities are and how much social justice you are able to create. Not only for nationals, but also for your residents. I can only be optimistic and hopeful because I see that this wave we’re living through right now, this nationalistic fever that has taken over the world, can only reveal everything that is wrong with not being inclusive or accepting diversity.
FS: Any final thoughts?
AA: SOAS is awesome!