Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Pleasant Discussions at a Diwaniya

I went today to a diwaniya which is the Kuwaiti custom of men gathering in a certain parlour room of a house or a tent. I had a pleasant evening filled with thoughtful and stimulating discussion. The parlor room for the diwaniya was decorated in a very elegant and refined manner. When I first entered, my friend Badr was not at the moment present which was a little unusual since I didn’t know anyone else there. But shortly later Badr came and introduced me to those others sitting and explained that I was here in Kuwait on a scholarship to do research. It seems when I explained to him that that Fulbright Scholarship was funded from US State Dept he took it to mean that it was somehow connected politically with the US government for he stated or implied a few times that evening that my interlocutors ought to be giving me an idealized image of Kuwait as I am here as researcher for the US government. I should make a greater emphasis that there is no political connection with my research, perhaps stating next time when asked that the Fulbright scholarship is awarded from a the International Institute of Education.
Nevertheless, I struck up a conversation with an educated man who appeared to be in his 30s. He had a very clean-cut dark black beard on his rather white complexion. It was correct to presume by his appearance that he was an Islamist or a strong Muslim. He studied Sharia and Islam and was currently doing his PhD in Morocco. He spoke excellent Arabic which I wished everyone else could speak. It was very noticeable the drop in the eloquence of speech when someone else spoke.
When we spoke about the topic of women’s rights, he immediately asked me if I was judging the situation in Kuwait based on a western or eastern viewpoint. He of course took the notion that the women in Kuwait do not want to imitate women as in the West with regard to the women’s rights movement, because women in Kuwait have their rights as Muslims and Islam guarantees them that. In that regard he truly spoke from an Islamic perspective on the issue. He believed that, as according to Islam, men and women had their proper roles in societies. It is for women to stay home and raise children and men to be the breadwinners and provide for their families. He mentioned how in the West women who are independent and working are seen in a more respectful light than women who remain homemakers because the working women are seen as having greater influence in trying to contribute to and improve society. He countered this notion with the argument that women at home are likewise having an important role in the shaping of society in her work to raise children with good characters and an education.
He also noted the irony that after women in Kuwait were given the right to vote, in the subsequent parliamentary election most of the women’s vote went to the very same Islamist candidates who had opposed giving them the right to vote. His other arguments against women entering into politics other than that her primary role is the raising of children, is that she lacks the mental constitution and qualities to be a leader. He said that a woman is more emotive than a man and is indecisive.
However, when asked what I thought of women entering into politics in America, I mentioned that according to his logic, that women should not enter into politics because that would distract from their role as caretakers, that if a woman in the US after having raised her children and they have left the house, there would be no harm in her choosing to use her experience and education to want to aid in the ruling and improvement of her society. I was simply trying to argue that women should have a welcomed voice in government in principle. I also noted that women, in general, have different priorities than men. They emphasize issues such as healthcare and education while men focus on national security and military spending. Thus, to have women in parliament advocating these issues would be a positive thing. It was at this point that it was fortunate that another person should criticize the US that although women have had the right to vote for 80 years, the healthcare system is in a poor condition as based on the movie Sicko by Michael Moore. I easily used this point to my advantage by stating that the major figure at the moment in American politics who wants to correct this issue of unequal access to healthcare is a woman, Hillary Clinton, and that is this woman who is renowned for seeking reforms to address this issue.
Throughout the course of the evening, a few other issues were treated as well. I was asked about how life is in Kuwait and my thoughts on the country. Rather than give the usual positive and reassuring answer. I highlighted two issues that were pressing on my mind these past few days. One was the lack of literacy or reading in Kuwait. I mentioned that if the reading level of an average American child and average Kuwait child from the same grade level were compared, it is undoubted that the American child would read with much greater fluency and understanding than the Kuwaiti child or any other Arab child for that matter. Literacy is of great importance as books are the preservers of mankind’s accumulated knowledge from thousands of generations. Reading is the keys into these portals of education and to be without this skill or deficient in it is to be deficient in the ability to improve and develop oneself, society, or civilization. The next major issue I took aim at was the manner in which Kuwait’s oil wealth was distributed amongst its citizens by creating unnecessary government jobs for them and providing for the material needs of their citizens to the extent that their motivation to work is absent or very weak. I mentioned the statistic that 90% of Kuwaiti’s in the workforce are employed in the government leaving the majority in the private sector to be foreign workers which does not lend itself to a sound and healthy society. Although my Islamist interlocutor agreed with my observations on these points, I fear they did not make me popular with my host who seemed indignant and the pride in country hurt. I often ask myself if it is I who focuses too much on the negative aspects of Kuwaiti society and not enough on the positive. I feel often challenged to raise these issues in a delicate and dignified manner.
All in all, it was a wonderful and stimulating evening and one of the better diwaniyas that I’ve been to.

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