The history and modernization of women’s rights and leadership in Kuwait is explored through an introspective from Engineer Sara Akbar, ceo of Kuwait Energy. Akbar gives detailed accounts of her brief history of work and life as a woman in leadership. Through a lengthy ethnographic research, I traveled to Kuwait City as a Fulbright Scholar at the American University of Kuwait (auk 2009–2010) and had my first interview with her at the Engineers Society building. In 2013, on our first study abroad program at auk, I invited Sara Akbar to give a lecture to my asu students as part of a Lecture Series I organized; then I had another interview with her in her office in the new premises of her company, Kuwait Energy in Salmiya. Akbar’s dialogue highlights her theoretical feminist framework for life in Kuwait. In addition to her recounts of oppression and struggle as a woman in her workforce, Sara Akbar gives a call to action for people in all social and occupational hierarchies, men, and women, in Kuwait to broaden their horizons for women in leadership.
Sara Akbar is a businesswoman from Kuwait who grew up during an integral time of modernization. During this time Kuwait experienced many changes, among which are the invasion by their neighboring country, Iraq, as well as some distinct and internationally recognized advancements in the rights of women; gaining the right to vote and be elected to political office, which occurred in 2005. She is therefore an important witness, model for, and advocate of women’s rights in Kuwait. Her success as a woman in the heavily male dominated oil and petroleum industry is evidence of her expertise and the value of her opinions and ideas on the feminist experience in Kuwait. Moreover, she is someone who is very devout in her religious beliefs, wearing a modest dress, and speaking highly of the love and appreciation she has for her tradition of Islam in our interviews, therefore an interesting and ideal candidate for this study on feminist framework for life in Kuwait.
One can see in our dialogues that although Akbar is sympathetic and in recognition of the plight of women in Kuwait/the Arab Gulf, her sympathies are not without recognizing the responsibilities women have to their participation, particularly in the areas of political leadership. She is, for example, careful to not blame the religion of Islam for social limits that women have experienced in Kuwait and the Gulf Arab world overall. Akbar looks to the age old problem of women’s rights regardless of nation or religion, but the socio-cultural reasons that are often at play, without taking away from the advancements and successes that have been made in Kuwait over the past 10 years and continue to be made.
In this article, we will find a frank and honest discussion with Sara Akbar, beginning with a dialogue about her history and background in the field but also as a leader for women in the oil and petroleum industry and Kuwait. She shares intimate and real stories about her struggle on breaking into the Oil and Petroleum industry, particularly the fieldwork or more traditionally masculine duties of the industry; regaling us with stories of her success and respect earned despite the difficulties she encountered due to her gender.
In addition, Akbar provides great details in the role she played as protector of Kuwait oil during the Iraqi occupation of 1990, some parts frightening while others rather heroic and uplifting, particularly the part she had in extinguishing Kuwait’s oil well fires including establishing the elite firefighting team: the Kuwait Wild Well Killers Team, co-leading the team to international acclaim by way of an imax documentary film. Sara Akbar will forever have local fame and celebrity status, attained in Kuwait as a national hero because of this fire-fighting role; even today still she is stopped in the street and thanked by her fellow citizens for her heroism and nationalism. This is then continued by a discussion on the significance of women in the leadership and global decision making sphere as well as reflections on politics in Kuwait in general. Nonetheless, aspects of gender and religion, the political participation of women dynamic along with element of Islamist political Islam inevitably become part the dialogue.
A great example of the pioneer side of her personality and the time period she grew up in, it is significant to note that Sara Akbar was one of seven women and five men in Kuwait University’s first class of chemical engineers in her post-graduate petrochemical program, there were only four women among twenty men.1 “It’s a male-dominated industry,” she notes.2 Today, as ceo of Kuwait Energy, she is one of only two or three female ceos in the oil industry worldwide.3
Her first position was that of a petroleum engineer for Kuwait Oil Company,4 where Ms. Akbar became a skilled field engineer—despite structural constraints such as restricted fieldwork hours and concerns about such work being too dangerous for women. She navigated her way to this position by first working in the departmental offices until she convinced management to allow her a chance at working out in the fields.
She started by being told that she could only work daytime—7:00 am to 4:00 pm. When she started to complain about only being able to be there during certain hours the company responded, “The field is dangerous.” Ms. Akbar continued to pressure them for more work until she was assigned to her first field job on an offshore platform. On her first day on the job she got there at 1:00 pm but they didn’t start the job until 4:00 pm so she called and said, “It’s 4:00, are you going to send a replacement? I am abiding by the rules. I don’t want to break any rules.” They told her the sea was rough and that they couldn’t send a crew until it calmed down. To Ms. Akbar’s delight, this granted her the rare exception to stay working until 10 pm.
When the replacement engineer finally arrived at 10 pm, he was extremely sick due to the brutality of the conditions on the sea. Despite being sick, he was also afraid and didn’t want to come onto the platform. Ms. Akbar called her boss and explained the situation. Her boss told her to stay there and continue her work until her next replacement arrived. This replacement didn’t arrive until 10 am the next day. “This was my first job in the field. It took twenxty-four hours, but after that there were no rules anymore. I could work anytime-day or night-and I did ten beautiful years. I really loved working in the field, it’s my passion. The field is where my heart lies still to this day.”5
Akbar’s determination in the field was matched by her drive for professional excellence. She devoted the first ten years of her career to becoming “a very sound technical engineer” with a reputation for performing exceptionally well in every job.6 She recalls the importance of investing in her, building professional networks, and learning to be hands-on with technologies beyond her immediate line of work. She sent herself to conferences, read widely in engineering periodicals, and participated in engineering societies. Some of this, she noted, was subsidized by her employer—but sometimes she paid for these opportunities out of her own pocket because “in my view, my objective was clear: I wanted to be a good engineer. So I invested in myself.” She recalls buying herself an ibm xt 286, at the cost of a full month’s salary, after being unable to persuade her company to make the investment in desktop computers for office work. Ms. Akbar describes the impact and innovation of the xt:
[I learned] how to put the system together, how to install and run programs. By 1986/87, I would prepare all my documentation, reports, everything at home on my pc and present it to the company. They were so impressed because my own computer [looked] different from anything the company was producing. [I hoped] to convince them to go with pcs instead of those large ibm machines, but it didn’t work.7
Many professional associations critical to Ms. Akbar’s later success with Kuwait Energy were established during this time. For example, she became an active member in the Society of Petroleum Engineers,8 today an international association of nearly 125,000 members, for whom she served as a director-at-large in 2007.9 In 2013, she received the Charles F. Rand Award for “distinguished achievement in mining administration”.10
This combination of field-work expertise and professional networking enabled her unique role at the close of the Iraqi invasion in 1991. Concerns for Kuwait’s oil wells and infrastructure compelled Ms. Akbar to remain behind when Iraq invaded in October 1989:
On the first day of the job I thought: “Well, maybe the Iraqis are going to occupy a piece of Kuwait, and we are going to have to have men [leave for] military service, and then [women will] have to operate the field.” This was running through my imagination, you understand. And of course that didn’t happen because this small country was taken in six hours. Then, my decision was to stay and to do my best to fight this occupation. So, I stayed back in Kuwait.11
For seven months Ms. Akbar avoided trouble by staying with expats, while she distributed funds and weapons and wrote reports for the Kuwaiti government underground. Through her dedication, koc’s oil well records were preserved during the invasion.12 In December, she spoke with her husband, who was in Bahrain, who urged her to escape the country as so many other had. She replied: “My dear, I love you—but I love my country more than you. You have to understand.”13
On the 15th of January, a colleague told her that the Iraqis were preparing to pull out. Akbar rushed to her office the next day to work on a report out-lining resumption of koc services: how and when to reopen the wells and recall staff—and how to identify associates who had collaborated with the Iraqis:
By 2:00 pm there was nobody in my office, absolutely nobody, but because my door was closed I didn’t notice. At 5:00 pm the door slammed open, revealing three Iraqi soldiers. Here I was, alone in the room, writing all these details for the government. My first step was to hit “Escape”; then I started shouting at them, “What do you want?! What are you doing?! I am working on a report for the chairman, but what do you want?”
As it happened, they were only looking for a car. But to this day, Ms. Akbar says she can neither work nor sleep with the door closed.
During their retreat, the Iraqis set fire to 735 wells.14 Immediately faced with the daunting task of attacking these fires, Ms. Akbar and approximately fifty koc colleagues who had stayed during the occupation began formulating a plan to save these wells, support fire crews, and repair damaged petroleum-processing facilities in order to get the hundred-or-so wells that were not ablaze back into production. As the Kuwaiti army, firefighting crews, and the government prepared to but had not yet returned, Ms. Akbar, as an experienced field engineer, became part of the small Kuwaiti firefighting crew that controlled 42 wells.
People asked me: “Sara, firefighting is a very dangerous and risky job—how can you do it?” And my answer was even though driving on the road is dangerous, if you know how to drive it is not dangerous. . . . It’s the knowledge you possess and apply to a situation that can make unsafe things safe.15
As the only woman on the Kuwaiti firefighting team, at a time when a female oil-well firefighter was unheard of in the world, let alone in Kuwait, Sara Akbar recalls becoming a media darling. People would come up to her in the street and hug her and tell her, “I’ve been praying for you.” Still 22 years later, she says that it still happens, “People who remember those days and the darkness we had . . . when people see me they get that same feeling. They hug me and kiss me and say, ‘We know you. You did a great favor for Kuwait.’ ” Ms. Akbar noted that people asked her what reward she received from the government for her service and risk during the firefighting. Ms. Akbar says she didn’t do it to get a reward from the government. The best reward she got was the love and appreciation from the people in Kuwait. “Where can you get that? What is the value of something like that? It is intangible. Priceless. That even today, I have the precious reputation for being a nationalist, a patriotic Kuwaiti, who risked her life for her country, That kind of reputation cannot be bought with any amount of money.”16
As mentioned in the introduction of this chapter, international recognition was given to Sara Akbar along with the fire team in a documentary film, highlighting the overall accomplishment it was to have extinguished the fires so quickly and efficiently. Great big plumes of black smoke and fires over a hundred feet tall serve as the backdrop of the Kuwait desert in Fires of Kuwait.17 A documentary produced in 1992 and nominated for an academy award, this film showcases the damage caused by Iraqi forces towards the end of their 1990 invasion of Kuwait, and the severe environmental degradation caused by setting on fire Kuwait’s some 600 oil wells including those of the Burgan oil field, which at the time was the second largest oil field on earth to be discovered. Certain techniques to cause an implosion great enough to snuff out the fires is showcased in the film. These explosive methods which used tnt shockwaves to extinguish the fires makes this particular type of firefighting task among the most dangerous to handle.
Most significant for this study is that this documentary reflects the amazing teamwork of the Kuwait Wild Well Killers Team, whom are at the forefront of the film and accomplish the task of extinguishing all the fires in five months as opposed to the five years many experts thought it might take. Co-founder and leader of the Kuwait Wild Well Killers Team is none other than Sara Akbar, who in addition to actor Rip Torn, is a key narrator throughout, evidence of her leadership role in the arduous task of putting out burning oil wells that could have possibly lasted for a 100 years if left standing. Following her task of managing the oil production under Iraqi occupation as well as the risk she took in compiling secret reports for the Kuwaiti government under the watchful eye of Iraqi soldiers, Akbar’s success as an oil and petroleum engineer as well as courageous firefighter are further revealed in this film.
Images of what can only be described as ‘hell on earth’ are also narrated by various Team members and guest scientists from around the world in addition to Akbar, while she and the team avoid the various landmines hidden in the fields and navigate shifting winds that could mean their demise if the timing is wrong. One can hear the sadness in her voice as she describes a particular well in the Burgan fields as the “cream of the crop” that is being burned, reflective of the expertise garnered throughout her years working in the oil fields of Kuwait. The only woman on the Team, yes, but her face, hijab, and body are hidden by the protective gear that she as well as the others are wearing and rendering them all equally formless in the viewer’s eyes, simply partners and a team entrusting their lives to one another. It is plain to see gender is insignificant in this fire fight. The film ends with a hopeful note as well as the next great task ahead of Akbar’s following role; in charge of saving the wells and the resumption of Kuwait’s oil and petroleum production, a start on the long road to the country’s rehabilitation. To this day, Akbar is celebrated as a national hero in Kuwait for her courageous efforts with founding and serving on the Kuwait Wild Well Killers Team, garnering immense recognition for her continued advancements in the field of Oil & Petroleum and not only as a Kuwaiti citizen but as a woman too.
After the war, she was made the head of koc’s Petroleum Department, in part in recognition of her efforts supervising the rehabilitation of Kuwait’s oil production. By 1999, she took her management and field experience to the international stage as Manager of New Business Development for koc’s international exploration and production division, Kuwait Foreign Petroleum Exploration Company (kfp), where Akbar thrived on the challenge of identifying new projects in the developing world.
It was not all office work, however: in 2003, Sara Akbar and the Kuwaiti firefighting team again found themselves on the front lines of war. This time, it was Iraqi wells that the army set ablaze in hopes of impeding the American invasion. With fears of landmines and ambushes, the Americans had difficulty finding a professional crew to put out the fires—and in Kuwait, the barrage of Iraqi missiles lasted fifteen days. Ms. Akbar stated that the American army had asked if the Kuwaiti government would go to Iraq and put out the fires, Kuwait agreed. Ms. Akbar was interviewed in Rumaila following the fires and was asked, “We understand you are a firefighter and you put out fires in Kuwait because it is your country-but why are you putting out Iraqi fires? They set your wells on fire, but you are putting out their fires.” Ms. Akbar eloquently responds that Kuwait’s quarrel is not with the people of Iraq, but with its government. She states, “This is about the Iraqi wealth being burned into the air and this is our gift from the Kuwait people to the Iraqi people. We are trying to safeguard their wealth as we are trying to safeguard our wealth. We genuinely want to have a good relationship with the Iraqi people and this is our gift.”18
Ms. Akbar’s passion for the ethical development of national oil resources was a key part of her professional career from her time at kfp. After six years with the company, she felt she could still accomplish more, and recalled asking herself: “What are the options for a woman with my kind of background and this kind of knowledge about the sub-surface and engineering? My basic premise here was: I’m a good engineer, technically sound, and I have huge network internationally as well as an exceptional reputation. The combination of those three is what directed me to the career which I call Kuwait Energy.”
Founded in 2005, its founder is proud to point out that it is the first indigenous oil and gas exploration and development company in the Middle East.19 In 2005, Ms. Akbar started Kuwait Energy with three employees, no products and an initial capital fund of merely 3 million Kuwaiti Dinar kd, very small for the industry. Her tireless efforts and excellent reputation enabled her to find $170 million on the market in investor-supplied funds. Eight years later in 2013, Kuwait Energy produced nearly 25,000 kd in oil and gas a day, employing 800 people, and has been profitable every day.20
The day before her 2013 lecture in Kuwait, Ms. Akbar had presided over a landmark meeting for the company to consider its presentation on the uk market. She insists that Kuwait Energy differentiates itself from other oil and gas companies by its strong ethical policies.
“The only time we invest in any project is when our interests are aligned with the people’s interest. What we have learned is that the government’s interest is not always aligned with the people’s interest, and in that scenario we never invest. If it doesn’t serve the people and the environment then we don’t invest.” Always impassioned on the subject and willing to share her experience, Ms. Akbar presented two examples of opportunities that Kuwait Energy turned down for ethical reasons; the first being in Kurdistan. Ms. Akbar noted that Kurdistan had invited Kuwait energy multiple times to invest. She notes she couldn’t morally invest though due to the fact that oil companies are causing separations in regions, “If we invest in Kurdistan right now we would have to sign contracts with the regional governments. This would create even more tensions between the regional government and the central government of Baghdad to the point where . . . there will be separation between the Kurdish territories and Baghdad.” She noted that an amicable and mutual agreement between the two would give her incentive to invest, but there are far too many issues and getting involved could exacerbate the situation. She said as a company Kuwait Energy must ask itself, “What would happen to these people as part of the implications, the effects of our investment?”21
Ms. Akbar feels strongly that many oil companies push for unethical contracts, but is adamant that Kuwait Energy has proved that an oil and gas company can make a profit without sacrificing genuine ethics or even, as she believes is the case in Kurdistan, getting blood on the company’s hands. She contrasted the rejected opportunities in Kurdistan with those in southern Iraq. Since 2006, Ms. Akbar has been attempting to convince Iraq to qualify Kuwait Energy as a major company, “This was very difficult because we are a small company and all they wanted were the majors. So we had to go through a difficult process to convince them that we are genuine: that our interest is to develop the relationship between the two countries.” She understood the Iraqis hesitation to believe her, why should they? She noted, “They believed me when they saw one of my interviews, the one in the Iraqi fields in Rumaila.” As a result of gaining their business Kuwait Energy has three projects in Iraq that are all in the south with the Baghdad government. As a result of this business in Iraq, Ms. Akbar hopes it will be able to create a better relationship between Iraq and Kuwait, “We have had a very tough time between the two countries and the only way to go forward is through creative economic relationships. I always tell the Iraqis, ‘Look, we are not interested in a love-hate relationship; we are interested in a sound economic relationship, beneficial to us both.’ ”
But as Akbar pointed out, the world’s oil fields are seldom leased to the small companies, citing longstanding exploration agreements in China, Malaysia and India. The more recent case of Somalia highlights the ceo’s passion for ethics and her willingness to pay a high price for it.
Somalia is another country that has asked Kuwait Energy to develop in their country. At the time in 2006, Somalia did not have oil or gas legislation. Ms. Akbar stated, “One thing you have to know is that most of the territory of Somalia was given to international companies like Chevron, Shell, Phillips, eni, and bp. These companies have [rights of first measure] dating back to 1991 . . . We helped Somalia develop their laws.” Kuwait Energy wanted Somalia to be seen as a good citizen—one that honored deals with companies and contractual obligations—not just to benefit the companies, but to benefit Somalia;
So today, if you go to court with these companies, they will win because they have the first contracts. We pushed very hard for the Somali government to accept that it is in their best interest to respect the contracts signed a long time ago, since they belong to the big, major oil companies. If they keep their acreage in Somalia it is better for Somalia in the long term.
Ms. Akbar noted that Kuwait Energy worked, “against our best interest” so that they could work in Somalia’s best interest because intervention could potentially create a legal battle for Somalia against the big companies. As a result, they persuaded Somalia to call the companies to negotiate and come to and discuss new terms.
Not only was Ms. Akbar’s aid to Somalia in creating laws and regulations beneficial and charitable to the Somali people, so was the legacy she left after. Due to her time in Somalia she became close with the government, which acted as a catalyst for humanitarian programs to be developed, “We sponsored something like two hundred women to start up small business markets, small shops, and such, as well as sponsoring a huge aid program for kids. This was in parallel with showing the government how to act as a world citizen through the laws.” Ms. Akbar is hopeful that one day Kuwait Energy will have programs in Somalia, she just doesn’t think that it will be any time soon.
Ms. Akbar noted that she sees potential in Somalia because, “It is the only country in the world that does not have oil and gas production: which doesn’t mean there isn’t any, it just means they still have to find it.” She also believes that the incentive for companies to operate in Somaliland is the same idea as in Kurdistan-that one day they may separate from the rest of Somalia and they will then have their own laws. Like Kurdistan, there are issues between Somaliland and Puntland and the world will have to make a decision about what to do with the situation. “Most residents of Somaliland do not want to be part of greater Somalia, and for the people in the Puntland in the south, it will not really make a difference whether they are or are not part of greater Somalia. So the real danger is not actually for Puntland or Somaliland, but for the many tribes in the middle who actually belong to both.” Ms. Akbar believes that like with the Iraqis and Kurds, they are mixed and she doesn’t believe it is up to Kuwait Energy or businesses to decide who should be part of the federal government in Somalia or not. She fears that oil companies are doing the same thing in Somaliland as they are doing Kurdistan-trying to encourage a government to have its own state. She believes this could have a bloody backlash and that one should, “never ignore your business’ impact on people.”22
Not that this ethic-driven business model has not paid off for Kuwait Energy. Today, the company specializes in managing production in volatile situations. Kuwait Energy currently works in Ukraine, Russia, Latvia, Egypt, Yemen, Oman, Iraq, and Pakistan; the company is also developing business in Libya and Somalia. Many of these areas have experienced turmoil since 2011, and the ceo is proud that the company has managed to perform at its best during this period, without any incident—which is a boon for the producing nation as well as the contracted company. In Russia and Ukraine, Kuwait Energy sells the crude oil to the nations’ refineries. In Egypt, it is sold to the Egyptian government. In Yemen, crude is sold on the open market—usually to Exxon Mobil, and Oman runs on a pay-on-delivery system, with many different buyers.
As for the major companies, Ms. Akbar described Kuwait Energy’s approach as cooperative, rather than competitive: “We are on a different scale; they go after the massive projects, we go into the smaller projects.”23
Sara Akbar also provides a general framework for the norms of the political system in Kuwait along with a discussion on how it relates to a democracy and whether it has reached that point in its political development. Moreover, she shares her thoughts with us on the issues of social reform and political participation for women in the Middle East overall compared to Kuwait, commenting on the growing need for both. When asked to elaborate on social and political reform in Kuwait, Akbar points out the stagnation in the overall Kuwaiti political structure while navigating the interplay between religion and gender roles. In comparison to some other Arab countries, Kuwait reflects a much higher incidence of such female participation or a louder feminine voice. Nevertheless, one can see that according to Akbar still, much more reform and increased participation by women in Kuwait is needed despite the women’s right to vote being established in Kuwait in 2005 and the new appearance of female parliament members taking office. She even extrapolates on the larger global political realm of women’s leadership and involvement, hoping to see their contributions acknowledged and included in important policy making with an emphasis on international relations.
Referencing recent statements made in a German newspaper regarding Kuwaiti politics, Akbar paraphrases;
He said we are not a true democracy because we really don’t have political parties, the government is not formed from the most populous group that run elections. There is no program for each party, they are elected for what each ways he will implement and the people will choose them or monitor them or monitor their performance against a set plan that they promise to deliver. There are certain “rules” that apply to a democracy and Kuwait does not have them. So, the parliament’s role is to issue laws that go to the Amir and if he doesn’t like it then it goes back, and this cycle continues until it dies or something happens in legislation. The ultimate word on any legislation is from the Amir. So to say this is a true democracy, [we] would be lying to ourselves. But what we have created here is a system that has worked or hasn’t worked for us. Now, over the last 20 years we have been at these political upheavals, up and down, up and down—I don’t know how many parliaments we have had in the last 20 years. After all that the country has either stagnated or went backwards. So this system is not working, it’s a half democracy and it’s not working. We have to get involved in a system that actually suits us as Kuwaitis . . . We do really need political reform here because the evidence . . . what is the evidence? Twenty years of stagnation in all things and on some fronts even going backward, it is not a healthy situation. What is serving us? We have a good oil price and production, people will survive because we did not have enough money to make them happy, but to make them survive. Is this good for Kuwait? Is this sustainable for future generations? Of course not. So this evolution has to arrive. We have to change into another system. Now is this system through democracy? Should we have parties and allow people to develop their own parties with their own agenda and then give them leadership and make them prime ministers or other ministers like in the us and the uk? I don’t think so, this system will not suit us because you saw what happened when we had a majority Islamist and tribal people in the parliament, you saw the laws they tried to issue. Is that what we want? To give leadership to these people, what are we living in the 4th century bc? The mentality of the groups we have now does not give comfort to grant them leadership. So this is the position we are in now: between wanting to evolve into a true democracy but knowing what we will get if we do . . . a cycle, and another cycle, and a third in maybe 60, 70, or 100 years we will evolve into a nation or we may never end . . . I really don’t know . . . The most important thing is to figure out how to create the right environment and culture in Kuwait that can safeguard the interest of all; she maintained.
Where and how do women fit into the picture amidst fears of what sounds like Kuwait’s faltering and outdated governmental and political system; perhaps best described as a half monarchy/half democracy? Akbar further elaborates on the role of women in the Kuwaiti political sphere faced with the influence of Islamist politics, as a part of this larger picture she just described in terms of its struggle to become more inclusive of female participants, “In Kuwait . . . our political system has not changed . . . I believe there is a need for evolution. However, over the past few months there have been these demands for reform in our political system and some of it is very legitimate. As a small country we need to evolve, we need to reform.” She noted the strong economic and social development due to the vast wealth in the country, but says some of the demands are purely political games, “For example Islamic groups that try to push their agenda and don’t’ think that makes Kuwait a better place at all. That was purely political gain rather than true reform request.”
Although there was the issue of dirty politics, there were also some positives that have come out of Kuwaiti politics in the past years. Mainly being the fact that females were present and participating in the discussions, “The sound of the women was there and it was effective and sometime on the good and the bad side-they were there. . . . Their position is clear. I think if you went 20 years ago you wouldn’t have seen this female voice so loud now.” Although Ms. Akbar says that female participation in government is an accomplishment, she noted in my interview with her that there were still only, “two women who were put through the system. But in proportion, the number of women who run for the parliament were not as many as you would have liked to see.” She notes the power of the new single voting system that women will now have a greater chance to come forward for office, as a result of the fact that women outnumber men in all districts. Now she wants to see more women run for office and notes, “But at the same time we really need mass education and awareness for women, both those who run and those who will elect. We need a real, true, good campaign sponsored by some very good women who probably will not run themselves but who will promote and create.”
Along these same lines, Akbar further elaborates on the influence of Islamist politics as well as the hypocrisy involved in relation to the increased participation of women:
This argument that the Islamist conservatives depend on, that is the limit or forbidding of women from politics, I think is opened here. The best place is in Kuwait, the religious fundamentalist groups, have discussed and re-discussed it night and day, every hour they have new arguments as to why [a women shouldn’t participate in politics]. . . . When the law first came out which allowed women to run for political office [in the parliament of Kuwait], they [the religious fundamentalist groups] were the first people to take advantage, meaning they were now trying to use women in their elections. What happened to the rhetoric from before [about how they should participate]?
Another important theme covered in this discussion with Akbar is the idea of political corruption irrespective of gender, how even female politicians in Kuwait can succumb to the rigors of being in politics and the distractions or pressures faced when trying to focus on the needs of constituents as opposed to garnering power and the prestige needed to cement that power. She believes that once people get into office (male or female) they tend to forget everybody but himself or herself. This isn’t an issue that is purely unique to Kuwait or to a certain gender, it is an issue that manifests itself in every part of the world, “Truly they are busy with all of the work they have to do so their time is full. Also, the circle that surrounds them is the circle that keeps them away from the people, the masses, and the people who elected them.” Although she notes that they are busy and there are constraints to what elected officials can do she also notices that by doing so, they are completely ignoring the reason of coming into political office, “What is the use of you becoming another minister or government administrator and then you go into this ivory tower and forget about the mass population?”
With regards to gender reform in Islam and the role the male elite has on women’s rights such as their political autonomy and power, the rhetoric of Muslim feminist Fatima Mernissi was broached with Akbar; the idea of a limit on women’s rights neither being attributed to the Qur’an nor the Prophetic tradition but rather to the contradictory interests of the Muslim male elite. Akbar is very noncommittal and very diplomatic in how she tackles this part of the discussion, but also her love of Islam remains steadfast throughout her criticism. She notes that there are places in the Qur’an and in the Hadith that don’t place females equal to men, but;
If we try to see, we have to differentiate and this is a true definition of love . . . not I love you and everything is nice and good. No, the true definition is when you love someone even if they have deficiencies. You have to understand there are deficiencies with regards to the role of women; you take them as they are and embrace them. And this is my view about Islam. Islam is a fantastic religion, it has beautiful things, but there are a few deficiencies, but we love [them] anyway. It doesn’t mean because of these few things we don’t like it or—you know in the Qur’an where it says to resolve an issue between a man and a woman. What the extremists are trying to do is take these few small deficiencies and make them way bigger.
In response, I mention how some of these deficiencies come from the Jahaliya period, or age of ignorance, prior to Islam, and I mention to Akbar one of these examples in recognition of the deficiencies she is referring to yet how Qur’anic scripture is often times addressing and correcting these social deficiencies that are conflated with the tradition. For example, the pre-Islamic tradition zihar for divorcing a wife using the phrasing “You are to me as the backside of my mother”; Islam did away with this tradition in clear Qur’anic Scriptures (Qur’an 58: 2–3). The point is made in the dialogue that there is a lack of discrimination in Islam, between men and women. Moreover, it doesn’t seem that women’s need for more rights can be argued by criticizing the religion, which seems to be the message implied by Akbar in her reminder to not abandon or hate Islam for its small flaws that have been amplified and manipulated by political Islamist groups in Kuwait.
In continuation of this line of thinking, Akbar’s dialogue also extends to a discussion on the concept of men having a ‘darajah’ or a degree more than women, re-analyzing verses in the Qur’an that have been highly controversial and heavily referenced in the works of modern Muslim feminist writers such as Fatimah Mernissi, Amina Wadud, and Leila Ahmed among others. Regarding these verses Akbar’s love and respect for Islam is maintained although she recognizes the deficiency and misinterpretation attributed to the concept of ‘darajah’. It appears to be just a case of proper semantics:
It’s like it [the Qur’an] gave the benefit to men. But, it didn’t say to a woman, if he doesn’t please you [your husband], leave him, and if he hits you, do this or that. There are some basic rules just like the man has a ‘darajah’ or ‘responsibility’ [towards his wife]. So this means some of the aspects or attributes we try all the time to correct and toughen. This is because the opinion or view on Islam, that one could say it has shameful aspects, that it is not good, this is not right. It is a strong religion that has beautiful concepts, however; it has deficiencies, particularly as it relates to the role of women, [extremist groups, and politically motivated groups] they take these deficiencies and [exaggerate them].
With regards to how well versed Arab Muslim women and Kuwaiti women are on the egalitarian message of the Qu’ran, how the lack of Arab Muslim women politicians has encouraged extremists to go further and manipulate their patriarchal interpretation of Islam to serve their own political agenda, Akbar appears to attribute women being the key to changing this mindset “The women have to believe you first, then the men. Because the man feels that he “is the man” and no matter how much you talk, he won’t listen to you but to their own scholars.”
Akbar further extrapolates on the larger global political realm of women’s leadership and involvement, hoping to see their contributions acknowledged and included in important policy making with an emphasis on international relations. It’s not simply good enough to have women in power, they need to be at the table making international decisions, “We are not fighting against anybody here, we are selfishly looking for what is better for this world of ours. When we have women in decision making positions, then we can ensure that humanity has a future . . . The way it is going now with all these conflicts and tension created by mostly men making decisions has to change.”
Akbar’s ideas are reflective of a current trend and emerging dynamic in the field of feminism and international relations. According to one study done by Mark Tessler and Ina Warriner, as referenced by Tricia Ruiz in her article Feminist Theory and International Relations24 empirical research on four countries in the Middle East (Egypt, Israel, Palestine, and Kuwait), illustrates various links between gender, feminism, and international relations. In line with Akbar’s thinking, Ruiz determines that “gender equality can be linked to the increased use of diplomacy and compromise in their state’s foreign policy”, and supports Akbar’s hope that with more women in power “the world would be a better place”. This study on the Middle East, further supports Akbar’s logic and reasoning for wanting to see more females in politics not only in Kuwait but in the world by providing actual justification and understanding for what exactly women can bring to the plate in the arena of International Relations, how in a practical or real sense they really could make the world a better place. For instance, Ruiz addresses the idea of national security as being limited in that the idea of rape for women is often times more of a domestic issue than it is an international one, yet their marginalized voices have kept this concept in the background. Ruiz clarifies that “in contrast to traditional ir views that view security as protecting the state from other states, feminists argue the topic of security should address acts of rape and violence, not only from foreign perpetrator, but from their own fellow citizens as well . . . occurrences of rape increase during times of war and is even used as a method of ethnic cleansing among rivalries within [a] state.” Moreover, Ruiz also speaks to the continued challenges faced by women penetrating the field, how “a candidate seeking political office will highly depend on past military service as qualification for the position putting women at a disadvantage since they generally have less military experience.”
Today, Akbar is as focused as ever. She continues to be a leading figure in the field, as seen in her involvement in the Switch Energy Project and as a speaker at the Swedish symposium on energy back in August 2014. Switch Energy Project, is a documentary film and project on energy conservation and efficiency, environmentally sound options, and overall sustainable energy sources. Akbar was one of four women invited to offer expert advice on the film, a small number amongst the total speakers asked to weigh in on global energy problems facing the international community. One note the disclaimer provided by creators on website: lack of female representation in the energy field, hence the small total of female speakers, only four. Out of an eight minute total interview, two minutes are allocated to women in the Oil & Petroleum industry of Kuwait. Here, Akbar comments on how comparative to the United States, Kuwait has more females working in the industry yet how they still struggle with accessing senior leadership positions still—relevant to all industry in Kuwait, not only oil and gas. She attributes this limit to low influence in government: policy and government, lack of political participation and how they should be given a fair chance based on merits, not solely based on their gender. It really ties in well to the interviews I have conducted with Akbar and her push to see more women get more involved in politics with the hopes of changing the overall infrastructure in Kuwait which she considers stagnate and needing major reform. Perhaps with the increased participation of women, and the solutions oriented attitude that many of them bring to politics and other industries, Kuwait’s political sphere will receive the makeover it seems to need overall, not only from the feminist perspective or arena of women’s rights.
Ranging from the general state of politics and government in Kuwait to the role women have in the big picture, Akbar is always fair and balanced in her assessments, still making the point about political corruption being reflected amongst female parliamentary members. Nevertheless, she persists with a push or call for more of their involvement, emphasizing the need for women’s involvement globally in politics, as well as in Kuwait and the oil and petroleum industry. Religion is a factor, that is obvious in Akbar’s references to the Islamist political groups of Kuwait yet she is very careful to not offend in her Qur’anic discussion of women’s rights, trying to balance her love for and devotion to Islam compared to the arguments of current Muslim feminists and scholars; who seek to pinpoint the lack of political participation and social limitations created by a male dominated culture usurping the Muslim/Qur’anic tradition to limit the participation of women. This limit is seen in the Islamist politics of Kuwait that Akbar references several times during the interview. She is extremely cautious on being critical of Islam or the Qur’an, how although it is imperfect, extremists further distort or magnify flawed aspects of it, yet there is a need for current social context, not “life in 4th century bce”. Ultimately, Akbar appears to be speaking between the lines when it comes to Islam, implying that women in Kuwait or even the Gulf Middle East won’t be successful in their endeavor for more rights like political inclusion if they criticize Islam. They must acknowledge the outside factors influencing and exaggerating deficiencies within the religion that have yet to be worked out. The repeated theme throughout this article and with Akbar is the idea of not enough women in the industry of Oil and Gas but across all industries as well, with an emphasis on political involvement as a way for women to penetrate all industries in Kuwait and internationally. The problem with this is the lack of political participation and social limitations on females created by a male dominated culture usurping the Muslim/Qu’ranic tradition, which also creates a stagnate state of Kuwaiti politics that includes but is beyond the impact it has on women. Nevertheless, it seems that Akbar thinks women’s involvement in not only Kuwait’s political issues but global ones as well may be humanity’s “saving grace”.
One important area we didn’t get to elaborate on with Sara Akbar is the role of education. Some women in Kuwait are not given the same educational benefits and access to the type of education needed to penetrate and dominate the fields of oil and gas as well as to be policy makers via leadership roles in the government. While Sara Akbar did not give much details of her experience in education, she did give an honest and frank dialogue about her background as a Kuwaiti female “hero.” She reflected on her experiences with pride in the way modernization has influenced women. After her success and popularity in the Oil and Petroleum industry, Sara Akbar knew that her voice can and will be heard by the government, business leaders, and citizens. Since then, she has been such an influential advocate for women in Kuwait and the Arab Gulf. She is insistent on pushing women into leadership positions, both as political officials, but also participation. As a woman in Kuwait, Akbar is devout in her religious beliefs; hence she still wears a modest but fashionable dress moderately covering her hair-still practices tradition with pride. In her early career, Akbar embraced the challenges as a woman in her industry. With her story about how she overcame cultural oppression in the workplace, Sara Akbar became a genuine hero and inspiration for both men and women in Kuwait.
1 The Chemical and Petroleum Engineering College was founded in December 1974. The Chemical Engineering BSc became abet certified in 1990. http://www.kuniv.edu/ku/AboutKU/AboutKU/index.htm. http://www.abet.org/substantial-equivalency-kuwait/.
8 The Society of Petroleum Engineers, http://www.spe.org/press/docs/14FactSheet.pdf], accessed September 2015.
10 ‟Society of Petroleum Engineers” http://www.spe.org/notes/?s=Charles+F.+Rand+Memorial+Gold+Medal.
24 Ruiz, Tricia, “Feminist Theory and International Relations: The Feminist Challenge to Realism and Liberalism”. http://www.csustan.edu/sites/default/files/honors/documents/journals/soundings/Ruiz.pdf.
Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology “Kuwait.” Accessed March 1, 2014 http://www.abet.org/substantial-equivalency-kuwait/
Akbar Sara Lecture given to author’s ASU Study Abroad Program at the American University of Kuwait (AUK) June 2013
Akbar Sara “Pillars of the Industry: Obstacles on the Road to Success.” The Way Ahead 2008 http://www.spe.org/twa/print/archives/2008/2008v4n3/twa2008_v4n3_Pillars.pdf
Fires of Kuwait. Dir. David Douglas. Perf. Rip Torn. Black Sun Films, 1992. dvd
Ruiz Tricia “Feminist Theory and International Relations: The Feminist Challenge to Realism and Liberalism” http://www.csustan.edu/sites/default/files/honors/documents/journals/soundings/Ruiz.pdf
Society of Petroleum Engineers “SPE Notes.” Accessed March 1, 2014 http://www.spe.org/notes/?s=Charles+F.+Rand+Memorial+Gold+Medal
Lecture, June 2013. Transcript and translation provided by the author.
Lecture, June 2013.