Fun is ‘frowned upon’ in Kuwait, but one Royal is breaking stereotypes

Sheikha Intisar Al Sabah is helping women heal from war trauma through laughter

Lubna Hamdan 4 Min Read 6 Min Audio

It’s not every day you find a Kuwaiti Royal playing with earth worms, making homemade compost, climbing trees, harvesting honey, picking figs, or shooting paint across a wall – let alone a 58-year-old mother of two. Then again, you probably haven’t met a Royal like Intisar Al Sabah.

One scroll through her Instagram feed and you’ll know exactly what we’re talking about. But don’t let these seemingly unassuming activities fool you. The Royal is on a mission, and her message goes far beyond having fun. 

“I was brought up to be serious,” she says. “My father used to tell me, ‘Stop playing and go read a book’. So, I know how people sometimes interpret fun as frivolous and unnecessary, and that we have to be serious to to set a good example. 

“I put these videos [playing with paint on Instagram] to set an example that yes, you can be smart, accomplished, from the royal family… and like having fun. I put these videos intentionally, because I want people to embrace the child inside them. Because when you embrace your inner child, the world is better,” she tells Frankly.

That’s exactly what she’s doing through her initiative Bareec, which uses fun exercises ranging from painting to laugher therapy, to train high school teachers in positive thinking and psychology, which they implement in schools across the country.

“I want to break the stereotype that laughing is frowned upon. Even my mother, when I was [laughing loudly], she would say, what are you doing? I would say, I didn’t do anything wrong. She couldn’t pinpoint what I was doing wrong but she wasn’t happy with me being in the light… and being vulnerable and like a real person, even though she is like that, but you don’t show it to the public. 

“And that is what we do in the Arab world. We keep it hidden, this fun and loving aspect,” she says.

The Royal had set up the foundation in 2012 as an alternative to traditional psychological therapy, which she thought was too serious to introduce to school programs. Instead, her initiative uses simpler tools that lead to better mindsets. 

“The more I read about positive psychology, I thought, that’s what’s missing in Kuwait,” she explains, “I don’t want to change the world, I want people to change their world by being happy themselves.”

Pushback from the community

Despite being a member of the Kuwaiti royal family, however, the Royal’s initiative continues to get pushback from members of the community who are not ready to embrace the programs.

“We still get people who don’t understand what we’re doing, so they don’t embrace it, and some of them want to stop it. People hate change… But the majority understand it more and are embracing it more,” she says.

“What we realized is that the teachers, in the beginning, they come and they’re [not convinced]… And then they start understanding and telling other people to join… We had an all-male school that sent 5 teachers, 4 of whom left, and 1 of whom stayed, because he promised the school head to do the program. 

“He said to me that all 4 who left had come back, because they had realized how much he had changed [after the program]. Sometimes people don’t understand what we’re doing and what the impact of a positive mindset can do to them and everyone around them,” the Royal explains, adding that the program has led students to get better grades, have a more positive outlook on life and encounter and take part in less bullying at schools.

‘What will the neighbors say?’ 

It’s because of the backlash she received with Bareec that the Princess is taking another approach when it comes to helping female victims of war trauma through her Intisar Foundation, which uses drama therapy instead of traditional psychology. Drama therapy uses theatre techniques such as storytelling, games, role-playing, acting and creative writing to solve personal and social problems.

“I realized that there’s no psychological support offered to Arab women affected by war… I know that women can directly influence people… They have more effect… Because if I work with a child, and get them to a better place, but they’re going home and being shamed and are abused or made to feel guilty, then no amount work is going to be enough. 

“But if I can stop the mother from abusing herself and her family, I am stopping a whole generational trauma from growing,” she says.

Drama therapy has proven successful in Kuwait because it’s a psychological form that’s not attached to a stigma, she explains.

“Girls say to their families… ‘We’re going to play’. So, it’s not anything that the families are worried about. If they said, ‘We’re going to the psychologist, then they might stop them… They will say, ‘What will people say? They will say we are crazy. The neighbors will think we are crazy.’ And [the parents] don’t want that. 

“So with drama therapy, there is a lot of movement connecting with emotions, but it’s done in a way that is very kind to the woman… because after [trauma], women stop dancing, they stop having any fun activities, and they change dramatically. Even with the refugees [in Kuwait], they like to stick with their culture, so we adapted the therapy to fit with their culture,” she says.

However, the Royal says the foundation only works Arab therapists, because, “you can’t have psychological therapy in another language,” she says.

“Imagine going to a psychiatrist and using a translator? It doesn’t work,” she adds, “they [the women] want to work with someone from their culture.”

Luckily for the women of Kuwait, Sheikha Intisar Al Sabah is fluent in their language and their culture, in more ways than one.