Maha Alasaker: Women of Kuwait

Photographs by Maha Alasaker, Introduction by Nada Faris


Nada Faris

This project is the brainchild of my creative partner Maha Alasaker. When she arrived in the United States, Americans asked about her place of origin. “Where do you come from?” was then followed by a series of stereotypical questions: “Do Kuwaiti women cover their hair? Are they allowed to drive automobiles? Do you own pet camels?” Maha indulged these questions until one night she ran outof patience and blurted,“Just Google it!”

She felt in that moment the kernel of a creative project stirring. Instead of reacting curtly, she would depict Kuwaiti women for the outside world. The question was how? How does one go about capturing authenticity, or vulnerability, or intimacy of Arab females for a Western audience without Orientalizing the locals? And what is Kuwaiti identity, anyway? What makes Kuwaitis a different type of Arab? Or Kuwaiti females a different type of citizen? Are they?

Because Maha is a visual artist, she thought in terms of location. Kuwaitis live with their parents until marriage.They leave family homes to move in with spouses. Twenty years ago, Kuwaiti siblings lived in the same bedrooms. A strong oil economy, and an even stronger welfare policy of distributing national wealth among citizens, enabled Kuwaiti homes to expand. More rooms were built to accommodate the needs of individual sons and daughters. Simultaneously, families shrank. Our parents’ generation is known for having an average of eight to ten children.This number dropped to half that amount.These changes allowed sons and daughters to discover privacy. Eventually, they received locks to bedroom doors.

When the private bedroom was first built, daughters left their doors ajar. In conservative families even boys were forbidden to lock their rooms.“Bedrooms tell many stories,” says Maha. That was true for our parents’ generation as well. What makes bedrooms today special, however, is their function: they now serve as sanctuaries for boys and girls who continue to grow in Kuwaiti families where collective needs outweigh the individual’s. Families gather in living rooms, or at kitchen tables over breakfast, lunch, and/ or dinner ; they gather at family-owned beach houses or cottages in farms; on weekends, Kuwaitis gather at aunts’ or uncles’ or grandparents’ homes. Presently, bedrooms in Kuwait provide a unique space for individuals to discover themselves.

Maha started this project in 2015. She emailed her immediate circle and sent messages to friends and family members who might approve of having their pictures taken for a Western audience. Most agreed until they learned that they were not going to dress up for these photos. Maha insisted on makeup-less faces and on casual attire. Perhaps the most shocking request was staging these images in private bedrooms. Once everyone heard these conditions, they backtracked.

She had no one to photograph back in Kuwait. While eating lunch with the family on National Day before heading out to her aunt’s farmhouse, Maha asked her sister if she would be willing to pose in her dara’a, a loose gown that Arab women wear at home. It took ten minutes, because she already knew her sister’s angles. When she returned to the United States, Maha developed the images and recognized the shape and contours of the project. She also discovered that the objections to her exhibition stemmed from a misconception.

Because Maha sought to showcase an intimate aspect of the women of Kuwait, the candidates presumed she meant sleazy pictures in lingerie. After a few close friends followed in her sister’s footsteps, Maha was able to share visual samples on her social media.The images comforted the viewers. Henceforth, people outside of Maha’s immediate circle began contacting her and expressing interest in the gallery. By the third year, Maha had more offers than time to shoot them.

When she started, Maha hoped to reflect the various substrates of Kuwaiti identity. She wanted women who wore different variations of the veil as well as women who donned miniskirts and loose denim pants, women who belonged to various social classes and who experienced varied religious upbringings, those who were affluent and those who were impoverished, and the list went on and on, until it collapsed once Maha recognized the spirit of the exhibition. It was more about the will and freedom to participate than about being a visual depiction of socioeconomic categories and political or ideological labels.

Maha Alasaker

Maha Alasaker is a Kuwaiti visual artist based in New York City. Through her artwork, Maha tries to gain a deeper understanding of herself while attempting to engage issues of culture and identity. Her curiosity centers around how a woman’s upbringing affects identity and self-worth. Maha’s projects has been displayed in numerous exhibitions in New York City and London, The United Arab of Emirate and Kuwait, as well as Magazines such as Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, Marie Claire and Rolling Stone.

Nada Faris

Nada Faris is a Kuwaiti writer and performance poet known as “Kuwait’s Finest.” Her book Fountain of Youth is the 2016 Vine Leaves Vignette Collection Award Semi-Finalist and is available from Vine Leaves Press, Australia. Nada is also the recipient of an Arab Women Award Harper Bazaar Arabia 2018 in the category of Inspirational Woman for her impact on Kuwait’s Creative Industry.