Some of my students were just complaining about the recent heatwave in Los Angeles. Yes, it's hot, but for me, nothing can compare with the heat caused by wearing a burqa on a summer afternoon in Kuwait.
My journey to Kuwait began 6 months ago when I was contacted by a group of women at the US Embassy living in Kuwait. living in Kuwait. They informed me of their weekly "bellydance club" during which they practiced bellydance to my Goddess Workout DVDs. My mission in life is to empower and liberate women through the art of bellydance; therefore, I readily accepted their invitation to come to Kuwait to teach a 3-day bellydance workshop. Though bellydance originates from the Middle East, it is currently illegal for women in Kuwait to perform it publicly. There is not a single nightclub, gym or dance studio in this country to keep the ancient tradition alive. I was told the only type of dancing seen in Kuwait is a folk dance called Khaleeji, which literally translates, to "gulf'. This dance is performed in a long robe that covers the body from neck to toes and the dancer uses her head and hair to form dance movements. What is known in the west as "bellydance" can only be found behind closed doors in Kuwait, and the women I met were eager to learn anything and everything about their "lost dance." As their teacher, I was deeply honored to bring their dance back to them.
I have traveled extensively and I was surprised and delighted to find Kuwait the most unusual culture I've ever experienced. I spent part of my childhood in Morocco and have performed bellydance in many Middle Eastern countries: Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Tunisia, Turkey, Qatar and United Arab Emirates. Kuwait, however is unique.
As most Gulf States are (except the city of Dubai), Kuwait is a religiously conservative country. Alcohol, dancing in public and "merry making" are illegal. Women must cover their bodies in the presence of men other than their husband and father. Even non-Muslim women must cover their arms and legs. Currently, most women wear burqas ( called abayas throught the Gulf States). I saw women swimming in the Persian Gulf wearing full abayas.
Kuwaitis receive many government benefits in this oil rich nation, including 0% income tax, guaranteed employment, fully sponsored education and healthcare and a piece of the oil profits. It is an extremely affluent country and shopping is an integral part of their daily existence. There are hundreds of shopping malls in Kuwait City and the average woman has more designer clothes than I could wear in my lifetime. In this devout Muslim society, the woman's body is considered dangerous and women carry the heavy burden of protecting male honor. Every year women die at the hands of their fathers or brothers in so-called "honor killings" that wipe away the shame of a female relative's premarital or extramarital sex (or for simply not wearing a hijab in the recent case of 16-year-old Aqsa who was killed by her brother in Canada). So, after a full day of shopping, except in the presence of other women, they cover up their expensive designer threads with a full abaya.
I had to wonder, why bother shopping if you are just going to cover it up? It appears confusing. But is it to them? What does it feel like to wear an abaya? I was required to cover my arms and legs in loose-fitting clothing as a non-Muslim woman traveling in Kuwait, but I was not required to cover my face or hair. I decided that I wanted to appreciate the daily experience of the women in Kuwait, so I wore a burqa for a day.
Wed, June 11, 2008
by Ms. Dolphina