The Talking Point: Latifa Al Barak

Latifa Al Barak, The Talking Point, Kuwait
Maha Alasaker
Kuwait’s pioneering educator

I remember moments from my childhood vividly, particularly the rooftops of my neighborhood,” recalls Latifa Al Barak, of growing up in 1930s Kuwait before it was transformed by oil wealth. “During the warmer months we slept on the roof to take advantage of cool night breezes,” continues the Kuwaiti pioneer, noting that women would communicate with each other across the neighborhood’s rooftops. “It was also on the roof that stories were told. My grandmother Lulwa was the greatest storyteller of them all and would recount tales from A Thousand and One Nights,” she says of her paternal grandmother, who was one of a handful of educated women to establish a Quranic school in her house.

At one time the only means of education for Kuwaiti women, the first Quranic schools for girls emerged around 1916 and taught the Holy Quran together with basic reading, writing and arithmetic. “When we were kids my grandmother would read us history books to expose us to the world,” says Latifa, noting that her father was another important role model in her life for his outspokenness and sense of justice. “He was the leader of the Youth Coalition in Kuwait’s Legislative Council and campaigned for better healthcare and education,” she recalls of her father, who went into exile in Basra, Iraq, shortly after the Legislative Council was dissolved.

“I was 10 at the time and stayed behind with my mother and siblings, because my father had enrolled me at the Al-Sharqiya School in 1937, which was one of the first public schools for girls to open in Kuwait that year,” recalls Latifa, who was born the year the first private school for girls opened in 1926. “It’s hard to imagine today with all the career opportunities women have available to them in Kuwait, but afterI completed five years of school, there weren’t any job opportunitiesso I stayed at home,” she says, recalling the day Kuwait’s Directorof Education, Sheikh Yousef bin Essa Al-Qenaei, offered her a teaching position.

“In 1943 I became the third Kuwaiti woman to work as a teacher and was posted to the same school I attended,” she says, noting that its Palestinian principle helped her put together her first lesson plans and administer exams. “I was 15 and remember the first day I walked into the classroom and the girls stood up for me as a sign of respect. I was initially shocked and then laughed, because I realised at that moment that I was a teacher like the rest of my colleagues at the school,” says Latifa, who became her family’s main breadwinner. “At the time my salary was 100 rupees a month, which was an extraordinary amount for a woman to make, let alone a man, in Kuwait,” says Latifa, noting that conservative members of her extended family initially objected to her working outside the house.

“My grandmother and mother believed it was vital for me to work and not pay attention to negative comments because no one had a say in how we lived our lives,” recalls the pioneer, who insisted on teaching after getting married and having children. “I realised that education was my passion and it gave me self-confidence. It helped me develop as a person and even become a better mother,” says Latifa, who also witnessed Kuwait’s transformation during her 34-year career. By 1953, the country was the largest oil exporter in the region and gained its independence from Britain in 1961. These developments would also transform the lives of Kuwaiti women, changes that Latifa observed in her classroom. “When I began teaching, Kuwait was still a poor country. We didn’t have enough books for students and at one point I shared a classroom with another teacher, Fatma Al Saleh, where we taught two courses simultaneously.”

With increased oil production after World War II, Kuwait’s government invested large sums into social services, including education. “In the 1950s we began to feel the effects of oil wealth,” says Latifa, who recalled her first time on a plane during a trip to Syria with her mother and sister in 1957. “I was amazed by the size and variety of fruits in the market as well as our hotel room, which felt so cool in the summer without a fan. It was so different from Kuwait where we slept on the roof to keep cool,” says Latifa, whose memories remind a younger generation of Kuwait’s evolution in a relatively short period. “When we gained independence in the 1960s there was a feeling of optimism and a desire to build the country, which was very different from the materialism one sees today,” says the pioneer, who recalled Kuwait’s burgeoning women’s movement.

With increased oil production after World War II, Kuwait’s government invested large sums into social services, including education. “In the 1950s we began to feel the effects of oil wealth,” says Latifa, who recalled her first time on a plane during a trip to Syria with her mother and sister in 1957. “I was amazed by the size and variety of fruits in the market as well as our hotel room, which felt so cool in the summer without a fan. It was so different from Kuwait where we slept on the roof to keep cool,” says Latifa, whose memories remind a younger generation of Kuwait’s evolution in a relatively short period. “When we gained independence in the 1960s there was a feeling of optimism and a desire to build the country, which was very different from the materialism one sees today,” says the pioneer, who recalled Kuwait’s burgeoning women’s movement.

“Feminism flourished here in the 1960s because the country was flourishing and women were supported by men,” says Latifa, who by the time she retired in 1977, had nurtured generations of women within her classroom. To honour her efforts, a school was named after her which still stands today on Sebawah Street in Kuwait City. “I never got bored of being a principle or teaching because I wanted to touch the lives of young girls and help them grow into fully formed individuals, whether it be my own daughter or my students, because they’re the legacy I hope to leave behind.”


From Harper's Bazaar May 2018 Issue 

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Latifa Al Barak, The Talking Point, Kuwait
Maha Alasaker