The Old Souk

Downtown Kuwait City, Kuwait


First off, it might be worth mentioning that a Souk is just an Arabic word for an open-air marketplace. The Old Souk is in the heart of Kuwait City and is named as such because, you guessed it, it is the old marketplace. Historically in this city this was the hub of the city. Used for all shopping needs from vegetables to jewelry to clothing to toys, it has also been a social center. I did feel a bit transported back in time as I wandered all the different corridors. One thing I noticed right away in Kuwait was the lack of women out and about. It was a bit eerie to me at first. I stayed with a friend in a working class district called Hawally, and it first became apparent to me there. Arriving at the old souk I noticed the same thing. Certainly there were some women there, still using the Souk for very normal needs like I mentioned above. They went about their business and did so rather quietly. But the men really dominated the area.

In Jordan I hadn't noticed this as much, but it really was apparent in Kuwaiti culture. The men congregate together and the women are not allowed to be involved in these gatherings. They usually go off together with their sisters and their kids and go eat together or go to the mall. But at the Souk it was one big man jam. I wandered around for a while and photographed what I cam across and met someone, but after a while being the only woman walking around got downright exhausting. I left to try to find more women and stumbled upon the Fabric Souk, which I will share with you later.

The women I photographed here were a decent representation of the cross-section of women I encountered in Kuwait. There are a lot of women from Africa, India, and the Phillipines who come here and work hard and work long. My American friend and I would ride the bus around, recipients of stares from fascinated locals (Westerners on the bus?!) and we saw these women riding around, exhaustion on their faces. They work in shops and all manners of service positions. So I met some working at a clothing stall at the Souk. Then there were many women who were fully covered. As I mentioned in my last post, that is pretty standard, or at least normal, in Kuwait. I had been told in general that Muslim women would not let me photograph them. Clearly that has not been the case. I certainly do receive "no's" and received more in Kuwait than anywhere else, but both of the covered women I photographed at the Souk wanted me to take their photo. A good lesson in not assuming that you know what to expect from people.

Another thing I noticed was that everything having to do with women at the Souk was still run by men. All vegetable stalls, spice stalls, everywhere the women were going to do their shopping were all run by men. That may not be shocking, but all the clothing stores (except that one that I found with women) were run by men. Fabric stores, jewelry stores, perfume stores, dress shops, laundry stations. Everything. Men everywhere! In general it felt like a much more male dominated society than Jordan. There is certainly a difference in the Gulf countries. As a Westerner full of naivety when it came to the Middle East, I was surprised at how different the cultures were between two countries. We tend to lump them all into that name, the Middle East, but there are tangible differences and my morning in the Souk shows that.

I have included photos of areas that have nothing but men to give you an idea of what that feels like. It certainly made me wish I had an Abiya on, I can tell you that much!