By Geoffrey Martin
Rai Insights Contributor
What kinds of changes in the social culture of Kuwait do you see in the last five years? This is the question I have been asking youths in Kuwait from different social, familial, and class backgrounds for the last few days. At hearing my question many of the young people I asked didn’t like the question. “What is culture? How can we categorize change on a broad level?” Most did not think they could and I tend to agree with them. If political science theories have taught me anything (a big “if”) it has been that humans aren’t good at studying culture. This being said, while I don’t think we can define culture or categorize cultural change, I do believe is that individual opinions can tell us something about the process itself, if not the outcome. This is just as important.
First things first. Why the last five years? Why not ten or more? Some people said because of politics (re: the Arab Spring) others because of changes in social life (re: changes in the local environment). I won’t get too far into the debates here. But what I will argue is that few people who live in Kuwait could argue that many aspects of public social life have not changed in the last few years. Along with the rapid political changes (raised public opinion and a more transparent political environment) that affected the wider region there has been rapid transformation in the way people socialize, meet new people, and spend time with their loved ones. I would argue this has changed values and what is permissible culturally in Kuwait.
The dominant theme that came from the various discussions I had was that in a sense there was increased dialogue about many different social issues in the country. One female respondent noted that among Kuwaiti youths there appeared to be “A burning curiosity about the lives of youths internationally which has affected us through culture of music, social events, dating, etc.” This dovetailed with the comments of another women who noted that unlike previous generations of Kuwaitis, the younger generation aren’t afraid of social change. She thought that there was also a sense that there was “No shame and no fear” about having such conversations anymore. This was a larger shift a male respondent noted, “Towards individualism and the fact that it is no longer taboo to breakaway from many traditions… [it] is no longer frowned upon which has fueled the shift to individualism.” One woman attributed this to ideology, saying that “more openness and liberalization” through the Internet and Western influence had changed the way young people thought.
What types of dialogue do youth think are important? New interest and awareness about animal welfare, environmental issues, and physical and mental health treatment among many other issues have risen to the fore among young people in general. These issues dominate local literature, social media, and newspapers.
But overwhelmingly youths focused on the liberalization of gender relations in society. Respondents noted a serious shift in marriage relations, especially concerning the dynamics between a young wife and her husband’s family. One Kuwaiti women noted that “married women no longer accept in-laws interventions and interferences…life is becoming more expensive yet they choose to leave the in-laws residence and live private lives…Women are no longer afraid of being portrayed as disrespectful to the husband’s family… they put their personal interests first…I think is a huge leap. They don’t really care about what people think anymore”. A male Kuwaiti echoed this, noting that “Society is changing… is getting open” concerning gender.
According to most respondents perhaps this change goes beyond ideas and into the physical realm. Spaces for new social norms have popped up all over the country. The Avenues mall has been pivotal to that as one women commented. She said that “Avenues is a place where people today show affection for each other. And for the rest of the Kuwaiti community.” In the last few years numerous other spots have opened too, providing different spaces for new social dynamics. Al Shaheed Park, Phase 1 and the newly opened Phase 2 or the new Boulevard park complex in Salmiya are just two of the new spaces providing an arena for new interactions. A whole list of new restaurant complexes (over five in the Ahmadi coastal area alone) also added new venues along with new restaurant and entertainment complexes in Egaila, Salhiya, and Al Mubarakiya. As one female respondent explained there seemed to be “lots more leniency in mixed groups” in general in these spaces. Another noted that the first obvious change for him was the increase in outside sports activities for males and females. He said that the “first running group was ‘Runfie’, it started 5 years ago and there is that have come after, and many different outside sports activities (body weights, yoga etc.).” There are also more “mixed sports clubs” in these spaces he continued “before it just in hotels and maybe in gym, now you see more.”
Venues for musical and theatrical performances have also increased interactions in many of these spaces. An interviewee said that “When the Avenues first opened, they used have live performances. It was something very new to us here. Someone who played the violin would move from one spot to another.” A male interviewee commented that there has been “a massive increase in public concerts”, which reflect the popularity of these spaces. Now you can see “3-5 different concerts or shows in one weekend” if you want to.
Social anxiety about these changes is also prevalent and the results are uneven. Not all respondents thought the changes were positive. One female respondent noted that “We became more westernized, less attached to God, more superficial.” A male interviewee agreed with this claim, stating that “I see lower standards in lots of aspects. How the society changed its values. For example, fashionista’s and social media influencer’s who either act stupid like clowns or the girls that expose more skin have become celebrities and a lot of people look up to them. It is the society that made them” and this isn’t necessarily a progressive change.
To another youth it is less clear whether society is really changing that much. He stated that “It’s strange, people are more open to different kinds of cultures, from different societies all over the world, especially from people coming from different places with their own cultures in Kuwait. Yet conversely, he observed “they are more open they are to getting to social or different cultural backgrounds, they are going back or sticking to or going back to their own local culture, and continuing their own local traditions. People are much more social in all aspects of different cultures at the same time as they focus on their own culture.” He provided that example that one night a youth may go to an Italian dinner and take part in all the various traditions, while the next they may be at a traditional diwaniya in dishdasha and gutra drinking Arabic coffee and playing cards.
Regardless of the reasons why, from my conversations with youths there seem to be more openness to a diversity of views in Kuwait. As one young women noted “society is being kind” to these changes. Even though the values espoused by youths clashes with more conservative values there is now public space for them. In many ways it seems to me that these issues have been largely separated from the usual political maneuvering so common in the past over these issues. Perhaps this is the hallmark of larger social change, widely accepted across large swathes of the youth population, and in my opinion, the government, which tacitly accepts the use of these spaces and in most cases has directly provided them.
*Geoffrey Martin is a PhD student in Political Science at the University of Toronto in Canada. He studies Kuwaiti politics, focusing on the historical development of social and political power in the cooperative societies since the 1940s. Geoffrey is also a freelance write for Zenith Magazine in Germany and an Advisor at Gulf State Analytics in Washington, DC.