First Among Equals: Meet Fatma Hussein

BY Alex Aubry / Sep 24 2017 / 15:00 PM

Bazaar explores the legacy of Kuwait’s pioneering feminist and activist Fatma Hussein who used her role in the media to champion women’s rights. A member of the Kuwaiti resistance during the first Gulf War, today her influence can be felt amongst a new generation of Kuwaiti women.

First Among Equals: Meet Fatma Hussein

The Kuwait I grew up in was a very different place from what you see today,” recalls Fatma Hussein, pointing to a picture of herself and her siblings in a leather-bound photo album containing memories from her childhood; an item that is all the more precious to her considering many Kuwaitis lost valuable family heirlooms during the Iraqi invasion and first Gulf War from 1990-’91. “Although Kuwait was one of the earliest countries in the Gulf to discover oil, we didn’t witness the rapid development brought on by its wealth until the late 1950s,” adds Fatma, who was born in 1937 and remembers a time when families lived without electricity or running water, in addition to the one available Syrian doctor who treated the sick in her neighbourhood. “At that time there wasn’t much of a difference between the way the rich and poor lived in terms of amenities, so we didn’t feel as if we were lacking in something,” says the pioneering feminist and media figure, who first entered the hearts of Kuwaiti families through her radio and television show, a platform which she used to shed light on women’s issues. 

For Fatma, her collection of photographs in shades of black and white, sepia and Technicolour, not only tell the story of a woman who witnessed Kuwait’s rapid transformation over the last few decades, but also one who crossed oceans and paved the way for subsequent generations. “One of the reasons Kuwaiti women are so outspoken is that they’ve had to be brave early on,” observes Fatma, noting that until the discovery of oil, it was the pearl industry and trade with countries along the coast of East Africa and India, which drove Kuwait’s economy. “The men would be gone for months at a time, leaving the women behind in sometimes difficult conditions. The women not only managed large households, but came to control family affairs and finances,” notes the Kuwaiti pioneer, who was born the same year public schools for girls were introduced in Kuwait. “Initially, enrollment was low as families were still reluctant to send their daughters to school and it didn’t pick up until the 1940s when more girls began enrolling in primary school,” says Fatma, noting that prior to that, the only form of education available to girls was learning to read and memorise the Holy Quran under the supervision of female religious instructors, while a handful of wealthy and progressive families sent their daughters to Kuwait’s first private school for girls, which opened in 1926.

“What many may not realise, is that it was often the woman who pushed for these educational opportunities,” says Fatma, who credits her Palestinian teachers in primary school with transforming her life as a young girl. “At the time there weren’t any Kuwaiti women teaching, so Palestinians were brought to Kuwait in the 1940s to work as administrators and teachers since they had already established schools and universities back home. Although my instructors at school were very competent they were often hindered by mediocre curriculums,” she says, recalling being taught how to cook and give a baby a bath at the age of eight, as women weren’t expected to pursue a profession outside the home at that time. “It was the complete opposite of the English, math and science courses the boys were being taught, so we protested, made flyers and started to teach each other. We formed study groups where every girl who was good in a subject taught the rest of us,” notes Fatma of her first steps as an activist, which prompted the government to call in a Lebanese administrator from the American University of Beirut to evaluate the schools and revamp their curriculums.“Her name was Najla Azzedine, and I will never forget her because she opened our eyes to a whole new world and transformed girls’ education in Kuwait,” says the pioneer of her early mentor, who included Fatma in a group of 12 top female students to take part in a new curriculum.

“Looking back now, we were something of a test case for the government to see if girls could learn and excel in the same subjects as the boys. To make it even more challenging, we were given two months to learn the same courses as our male peers. We were then asked to take the same exam as the boys, which was administered for government scholarships to study at the University of Cairo,” says Fatma, noting that all the female students passed with high marks that often surpassed those of their male counterparts. Although the State of Kuwait sends thousands of young Kuwaitis to study overseas today, the Kuwait of the 1950s was still adjusting to the idea of sending its young students away for education, let alone sending young women abroad to pursue university degrees.

“Some of us had brothers and cousins who left to study in Egypt and came back to Kuwait with new ideas, so as girls we were very aware that change was inevitable and it began with education,” says Fatma, noting the government proceeded to send letters to the fathers of the 12 female students to gauge how many of them would allow their daughters to study abroad. “I remember my father saying yes, but on condition that no less than five girls be included in the group. He didn’t want me to stand out as different, since that wasn’t acceptable in Kuwaiti society at the time,” recalls Fatma, who in 1956 was amongst the first group of seven Kuwaiti women to study abroad under a government scholarship. “I was one of the few in the group who had actually travelled outside the country, because I used to visit Cairo during the summer with my family,” says the Kuwaiti pioneer, who found herself in the cultural and intellectual capital of the Arab World at the time of Nasser’s Arab Nationalist movement and the Suez Crisis.

Fatma Hussein

Fatma Hussein in New York, 1961

“Like so many of my generation, it was during that period that my awakening as an activist took root,” says Fatma, who initially considered pursuing a degree in architecture like her brothers, before switching to journalism. “I began writing while a student in school and the newly established Journalism Department had considerably smaller classes which appealed to me,” says Fatma, who became the first Kuwaiti woman to receive a degree in journalism in 1960. During her four years in Cairo, she also began to define her identity as a feminist, gradually questioning conventions, which had existed for generations. “I wore the abaya until I was 23. We used to leave Kuwait wearing it and remove it on the flight to Cairo. I would only put it on again when I returned home for the holidays,” says Fatma, recalling the day she decided to abandon it, having grown accustomed to not wearing her abaya for two years in Cairo. “I remember my family was initially shocked when I arrived at the airport, but I didn’t give them a chance to comment and acted as if everything was normal. They soon realised I was still the same person, with the same beliefs and convictions regardless of whether or not I was wearing it,” says Fatma, who was about to embark on another transformative journey shortly after returning to Kuwait, where she met her husband Suleiman al-Mutawaa, who had also recently returned after six years of studying in England.

After marrying in 1961, the year Kuwait gained independence from Britain, the couple boarded a plane bound for New York, where Fatma’s husband was pursuing his graduate degree at Columbia University. “I landed in New York with very little English, so the first thing I did was to enrol in English courses at the Community Services Department of the university,” says the award-winning journalist, who in addition to taking French classes, spent her days exploring the city’s many cultural venues from the MET to the Guggenheim. “New York took my breath away because it was such a dynamic and fast-paced city, so different from Kuwait, and I wanted to share my experiences there with my family and friends back home,” says Fatma, who recalled the day she came across a sign for Voice of America’s New York bureau while walking in downtown Manhattan. “I’ve always been a curious person and would never let a language barrier get in my way if I put my mind to something,” says the media pioneer, who walked into the modernist federal building and proceeded to take the elevator up to VOA’s offices and recording studios on the 30th floor.

“Looking back now I suppose it was a bold move, but I simply walked in and explained that I was a Kuwaiti woman living in New York and wanted to do a recording of my impressions of the city to send to Radio Kuwait, which had recently launched at the time,” says Fatma, who was initially told that they would be unable to accommodate her request as VOA’s Arabic bureau was located in Washington DC, and there was no one on staff who understood the language to edit her recording. “As I made my way back to the elevator lobby, a staff member ran after me and asked me to come back. They agreed to do a recording with me in Arabic as long as I was okay with an unedited version,” she noted, adding that the recording was immediately put on the air by Radio Kuwait shortly after receiving it. At their urging she would go on to launch her career as a radio broadcaster with her first programme, The Diaries of a Kuwaiti Woman in New York. Impressed by her efforts, Radio Kuwait offered her a scholarship to study broadcast journalism at New York University, where she learnt to produce content for radio shows while continuing to work at the radio station.

Less than a year after her arrival in New York, she received a telegram from Kuwait’s government, asking her to represent the country at the first International Conference for Women in Radio and Television in San Francisco. “I was only 24 at the time, but I remember giving a speech at the conference explaining that Kuwait was more than just an oil well in the desert, but a country with a rich heritage that was building a future for itself through a new generation of educated men and women. I was very proud to be Kuwaiti at that moment,” recalls Fatma, who spent two years in New York with her husband, where she gave birth to the first of their three children. 

By the time they moved back to Kuwait in 1962, Fatma had become a household name thanks to her radio broadcasts. As the only woman educated in broadcast journalism and capable of producing radio shows, she found herself in the middle of an emerging field and began presenting a radio programme focused on women. When Kuwait launched its television station in 1963, she became the first Kuwaiti woman to appear on the small screen. Broadcasting in black and white from a building close to Dasman Palace, she continued to produce a show on women and the family. Tackling social and domestic topics, it would bring her into the lives of thousands of households across the Gulf and remain on the air from 1963-’78. “Prior to that women- or family-oriented shows didn’t exist in the Gulf region. When I initially appeared on TV my father-in-law was against it, until my husband convinced him to watch one of my shows. He soon realised the positive message it imparted,” says Fatma, who also focused on topics such as education, hygiene and cooking.

Fatma Hussein

Fatma Hussein, second from right, at a party in New York celebrating Kuwait's induction into the United Nations, 1963

It was the latter, which brought her to the attention of Kuwait’s ambassador to Washington DC in 1966, the same year the country unveiled its new embassy and chancery. Reflecting its past and future, Baltimore architect Van Fossen Schwab designed a modernist building fronted by Islamic-inspired arches. Inside, New York interior designer Valerian Rybar created a grand reception hall featuring a mosaic of 27,000 carved pieces of walnut assembled in three months by 18 artisans flown in from Cairo. More spectacular was the Omayyad Room, housing a 1755 interior salvaged from a palace in Damascus, complete with hand-painted cedar panelling, low divans and embroidered pillows. “They were offering tours of the embassy to the public, who were curious about the kinds of food Kuwaitis eat, so I was asked to put a small cookbook together of traditional dishes,” recalls Fatma, who set about gathering recipes that risked being lost during a period of rapid modernisation in Kuwait. “I began with my mother and grandmother, and was soon collecting family recipes from everyone I knew. I also wanted to include recipes that could easily be prepared by Americans with ingredients available to them.”

Published in English and Arabic, her book Aklat Kuwaitiya (Kuwaiti Dishes) was an instant success. Reprinted several times over the decades, it can be found in kitchens across the Gulf today. “I never imagined it would be that popular, so I added and modified recipes with each edition to make them healthier. Even today I still get mothers asking me for extra copies to give to their kids who are going off to college in the States or the UK,” says Fatma, who also kept women’s issues at the forefront of the media in her role as a strong advocate for their social, economic and electoral right to vote and sit in the National Assembly. “When I was a 10-year-old watching Kuwait slowly develop from oil wealth, I was already thinking about the role women would play in building its future. That’s why it’s important to instil confidence in young women and encourage them to seek an education and pursue different professions,” says Fatma, noting that by 1975 Kuwait boasted one of the most vocal women’s movements in the Gulf. Over the decades she represented her country at numerous international women’s conferences, including one held in Beijing in 1995. She also continued to be a pioneer in media throughout the region, becoming the first woman editor of a Kuwaiti daily newspaper, Al-Watan, from 1991-’95. During this period she would also found and serve as editor-in-chief of Samra Magazine from 1991-’96.

Her life would take an unexpected turn on August 2, 1990 when Iraqi troops invaded Kuwait. Overnight its women would play a prominent role in resisting the occupation, organising demonstrations a mere three days after the invasion. “Only women and children participated in the march because we assumed they wouldn’t shoot at us. Many lost their lives that day,” recalls Fatma, noting that Kuwaiti women continued to play a major role in the resistance movement. They mobilised the opposition, started the underground resistance paper al-Kuwaitiya, passed weapons and ammunition through Iraqi checkpoints under their abayas, collected and distributed food and medicine, as well as running shelters for the sick and disabled. As a prominent member of the resistance, she became a target of the Iraqi occupying forces and was forced to flee. Making her way to the United States with a group of Kuwaiti women, gave talks to publicise the resistance movement’s campaign against the occupation.

Fatma would eventually publish her memoir, My Papers, in 2001. “I wanted to share my own journey and experiences over a lifetime with young people in the Gulf and particularly a younger generation of Kuwaiti women, who may not be aware of all we’ve accomplished in just a few decades,” says the activist, who hopes to translate her book into English one day to share her journey with a larger audience beyond the region. Today Fatma continues to be a pioneer as the first chairwoman of Kuwait’s Journalist Association, in addition to receiving the Arab Media Creativity Award during the opening ceremony of the fifth Arab Media Forum, held in Kuwait in 2008. “As Kuwaiti women, we have a very rich history of activism to be proud of and I continue to have faith in the human spirit and the desire we all have within us to nurture a better world,” concludes Fatma of her legacy, as Bazaar explores a new generation of Kuwaiti women following in her footsteps.

This article originally appeared in the September 2017 issue of Harper's Bazaar Arabia.