KUWAIT–The academic and writer Ibtihal al-Khatib has long been a controversial public figure in Kuwait because of her bold positions on secular values and the rights of marginalized and oppressed groups.
She was unafraid to declare her support for the rights of foreign workers and the “Bidoon,” a multiethnic group of people living in Kuwait but considered stateless and denied citizenship. She has supported the rights of homosexuals in an Arab society that has long punished and rejected homosexuals. She has supported the rights of atheists to speak about their views in a Muslim society that sees atheism as a crime. Moreover, she called for the separation of religion and the state, and for permitting depictions of the Prophet in art.
These are highly sensitive issues not only in Kuwait, but across the Arab region. Unsurprisingly, al-Khatib’s positions and statements have drawn widespread criticism and denunciations from clerics and others who see her ideas as provoking “religious and social shock.”
“I understand the anger my ideas evoke,” she said in a recent interview, “because it stems from fear: the fear that what we have been raised up with as constants can be changed by thinking, criticizing and discussing it publicly.”
A professor in the English department at Kuwait University since 2003, al-Khatib teaches the history of arts and civilizations and is widely popular with students.
“At a time when freedom of expression is limited, al-Khatib was opening wide doors for discussion and expression of our ideas without any restrictions at her lectures,” said Noor al-Huda, one of her students. “She also taught us how to listen to each other. She has certainly participated in shaping my personality. She supported my talent and passion to practice photography, so I have my own exhibitions today.”
Al-Khatib not only encourages her students in classrooms, she also supports them in their outside pursuits, including advocacy for ideas and causes that may run counter to prevailing social attitudes.
“I liked her style of discussion and listening carefully to students’ opinions,” said Haya Mohammed, a student in the department of education who attends al-Khatib’s lectures from time to time. “Once, at a student fair, I was standing with my colleagues collecting donations to treat animals medically. Many were making fun of us. The culture of animal care and collecting donations for that goal are not prevalent in Kuwait. But al-Khatib supported us, stood with us, and also gave some donations.”
Al-Khatib believes that the role of a university professor is to urge students to doubt, open the door for them to ask endless questions, to think outside the box and to accept differences, whatever they are.
“Diversity is always a sign of mercy and beauty,” she said.
Al-Khatib does not just ask general questions. She tries to push her students to think in a more personal way. “For example, when you talk about differences between Sunnis and Shiites, the majority says that there is no difference and that we are all brothers,” she said. “Just ask them whether they will marry each other or accept such marriages, then the real discussion and questioning of social and cultural inheritance starts.”
Although many oppose her ideas and views, she is widely respected by a large number of her colleagues and professors.
“She is one of the few people who express their opinions frankly with a great deal of responsibility and self-control,” said Zahra Ali, who taught al-Khatib in the past and is now her colleague at the university.
Al-Khatib studied literature and humanities. She completed her master’s degree at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, in the United States, and pursued her Ph.D. in English language and literature at Yale University. In a society that often stereotypes women who defend public freedoms as “mannish,” she is careful to wear elegant and simple dresses, and she chooses a sophisticated feminine hairstyle. She also plays the piano.
“She was distinguished since her childhood,” said her father, Abdul Aziz al-Khatib, who is a lawyer. “Her questions were endless, and she has strong tendencies to be independent by her own decision.”
Still, al-Khatib’s father did not expect his eldest daughter to become a highly controversial public figure. “I thought her Ph.D. and teaching at university were her main interest,” he said. “But she showed great interest in public affairs and was very bold in expressing her opinions in a community of traditional and conservative ideas like Kuwait. It is something I certainly encourage her to do, despite my fears.”
Al-Khatib is also proud of her husband’s support. “After talking publicly on television about the rights of homosexuals to marry according to the law in a country where their rights are not recognized, I received many abusive and disturbing phone calls,” she said. “But my husband showed great understanding and support for me. He was firm in dealing with anyone who misinterpreted me.”
Mohammed al-Muzaffar, al-Khatib’s husband, said he sometimes disagrees with her, but “I support her 100 percent despite our disagreement. I understand the pressures a successful woman can face in our society,” he said, “and I understand her commitment to supporting all human rights.”
Despite al-Khatib’s full belief in freedoms and her efforts to support them, she believes that there is still a long way to go before the Arab region can achieve real progress in this area. “The mind, like the body, is always in need of training,” she said. “The Arab mind needs to be trained on differences and the ideas opposing its own thought, so that it can exercise openness and accept differences and variant opinions. This training can only be achieved through education and continuous communication and discussion with others.”