Active Arab Women is a project aiming to overcome Gulf Arab stereotypes by publishing the stories of female athletes in Kuwait. Designer Lara Al-Hadeedi wanted to record their struggles and successes, as sportswomen as well as in their everyday lives. She says: “Their training instills a level of purpose, self assurance and autonomy over their lives and bodies in a culture that tries to take that away; and this definitely also applies in the West. The simple act of a triathlete going for a run alone at night in the desert is so powerful. Particularly in a country that once didn’t allow women to leave the house unaccompanied. Their self-determination needs to be applauded, not shamed because it’s outside the status quo.”
“The simple act of a triathlete going for a run alone at night in the desert is so powerful. Particularly in a country that once didn’t allow women to leave the house unaccompanied.”
Lara has so far profiled a national basketball player, kickboxer, wakeboarder and triathlete, among others; and all of whom are working towards not only their own success but advocating sports as a viable career option or positive lifestyle choice for young women. “They not only have to contest with income inequality, but a culture that can stigmatise women engaging in physical activity. There is shame surrounding anything viewed as ‘non-feminine’, including muscles, sweat or ambition. We are taught from infancy to never bring ‘shame’ upon our family or country, cultural or religious, and the tie to exercise is that the clothing can be viewed as ‘immodest’, which is one of the biggest frustrations these girls have. It’s nothing new to have so much attention focussed on the way women look and dress at work, but I think when it comes to limiting and shaming women for these reasons it is a lot worse in the Middle East.”
But things are changing, “There’s a huge amount of entrepreneurial start-ups, networks and workshops, breaking down traditional barriers and hierarchies, creating safe spaces for young people that never existed before. Women now have far more to aspire to and are finally being taken seriously. But as with everything, it takes time” says Lara. Developments in mobile technology have also had a big impact, “The internet, and social media in particular have become an outlet for people. It fills the void left by the lack of entertainment culture, bringing popular culture to us in real-time and allowing us to create our own.”
Having grown up in Kuwait, Lara wanted to focus on local role models, “You can relate much more easily to people in your community, rather than international superstars. So much of this depends on word of mouth and these stories just weren’t being talked about.” One of her profiled athletes, Taiba AlNouri, a national triathlete, says: “I run in the desert a lot, alone at night. That’s where I feel as though I’m exactly where I need to be. I never run with music, I travel only with my thoughts. I bought my first bike in 2010, when I didn’t even know what a triathlon was. I didn’t know about competing as an individual, but now everyone knows about me as the crazy runner who runs alone.” WNBA player Dalal Alhamad describes playing the American Army in Kuwait, “These women are tough, tough, tough. They are one of our challenges. Sports gets me out of the typical Kuwaiti lifestyle of just going to restaurants, going out flirting, or to malls.” And for pro-wakeboarder Shaikha AlNouri, it has all been about strength and escape, “Riding a dirt bike or jets, it didn’t get much support from my family. It’s not a girl’s sport. I tried to take it seriously but they were against it – I used to ride it in the desert totally covered up to hide my identity.”
Lara Al-Hadeedi’s Active Arab Women is an ongoing project, which she started whilst studying at the Royal College of Art; “It is time these stories of strength, sweat and resilience are shared to create alternative role models for girls”, she says.