by Amna Abudyak & Sam Mejias
How do people form their identities? A subject explored by philosophers and psychologists alike, identities are developed through multiple, complex processes that bridge educational, familial, peer, discursive and other related social influences throughout one’s life. When it comes to citizenship identities, or how we engage with the civic realities of the societies to which we belong, citizenship education is often cited as a key influence in how young people come to understand their identities and potential roles as citizens.
In Kuwait, a Gulf state noted for its democratic exceptionalism, our recent LSE study ‘Empowering Democratic Citizenship through Education’ focused on the significance of schools as ‘ideological sites’, where ideas about what makes someone a Kuwaiti citizen are taught in both the formal curriculum – through textbooks and lessons – but also crucially through an ‘invisible’ curriculum; i.e. the range of modes, traditions and cultural preferences that are unique to and reinforced within the Kuwaiti context.
To better understand how youth in Kuwait from different backgrounds and educational environments describe their identity, our team of Kuwait and UK based researchers conducted classroom workshops at two state public schools (a girls’ and boys’ school respectively) and one private American school in February 2020. The two state schools offer the government’s citizenship education curriculum, ‘Constitution and Human Rights’ (CHR), which is taken by public school senior students in their 12th grade of high school. Instead of an explicit citizenship education curriculum, the American school teaches world history and other classes that cover international issues, the environment, and socio-economic inequalities. These differences, along with the fact that the American school teaches an international curriculum, is co-ed, and enrols some non-Kuwaiti students, led the research team to speculate that there would be some variation in responses due to how each educational context shapes both explicit and implicit understandings about citizenship.
Using workshop-style activities to facilitate engagement, the LSE project team asked senior high school students in each of the three schools visited to describe their identity in five separate words. Interestingly, despite differences between the schools in terms of pedagogy, curriculum, gender separation, in-class dynamics, and overall school culture, the most common responses from students across the schools we visited when describing their identities was the use of terms such as ‘Kuwaiti’, ‘family’, ‘religion’, and ‘Arab’. The youth we spoke to in each school clearly felt national, regional, and religious affinities as most central to their identities.
While surveys conducted in the American school – the only co-ed school we visited – resulted in generally uniform responses between genders, answers diverged in the public schools. In the boys-only state school, boys often emphasised morality and values. However, girls frequently mentioned a sense of responsibility and sacrifice along with a heavy emphasis on hobbies. Perhaps unsurprisingly, ‘traditional’ gender roles seem to be highlighted more clearly in the public-school students’ responses, where being separated from the opposite sex may more clearly support such discourses, as well as gender-specific social development.
The dominance of religious elements in public schools, including those related to citizenship, also appeared to influence young people’s responses. Most Kuwaiti student responses across the three schools mentioned religion as an important component of their identity. Religion’s link to identity becomes even more complex when considering the difficulty in determining the boundaries between cultural and religious influences.
While students offered their perspective on their identities, we also sought to better understand what educators make of citizenship and education’s role in developing attitudes, skills and competencies that support active citizenship. As previously mentioned, government schools provide the CHR curriculum to senior students. Similar to the ‘social studies’ curriculums provided to elementary school students, the CHR textbook highly focuses on ‘rights and responsibilities’ of citizens with the Kuwaiti constitution and religious text as main references in an attempt to inspire loyalty and devotion.
In an interview with a teacher from an all-female state school, a CHR teacher mentioned that prior to being assigned by the Amiri Diwan to teach CHR, she was unfamiliar with the subject of citizenship and what teaching it entailed. The teacher saw teaching citizenship as an opportunity to become more familiar with the concept herself as she taught it to students. She further shared her belief that students’ limited understanding of citizenship may be connected to an absence of its discussion within homes, with a lack of engagement and debate potentially spilling over into a lack of interest in learning about the subject in the classroom.
However, this is not the only factor limiting active participation and expression; our teacher interviewee revealed that school management often discouraged discussion or debate between students and teachers, maintaining that simply presenting the course material to the class was the main part of their job and that encouraging discussion should not be part of their teaching practice, so as not to potentially upset families. Despite the interviewee’s tendency to abstract the CHR curriculum and the effect of her own teaching practices on students’ understandings of citizenship, in the interview she noted the profound impact families have on students’ understanding of the political system, and what it is to be ‘Kuwaiti’.
Taken together, it becomes clear that even in public schools where citizenship education is provided, learning for cosmopolitan or rights-based citizenship co-exists alongside other forms of informal educational practices and discourses specific to Kuwait, in which nationalism and fidelity to Kuwaiti religious traditions and values are seen as the most important markers of Kuwaiti identity.
Our research has led us to ask questions such as: How might Kuwaiti education policy be altered to create a more inclusive, self-reflective learning community? How might Kuwaiti’s CHR curriculum be revised or updated to better reflect socio-political and demographic realities within Kuwait? And most importantly, how can educational policies promote social cohesion centred around a holistic and diverse Kuwaiti society, rather than fragmented loyalties to subcultures within a larger picture? Our full report offers analysis and recommendations for thinking through the challenges of citizenship education in 21st century Kuwait.
This blog post is part of the Kuwait Programme research project ‘Empowering Democratic Citizenship Through Education: Exploring Rights-Based Approached to Educational Policymaking in Kuwait’. Sam Mejias is the principal investigator on this project with Rania Al-Nakib.