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In conversation with HRH Sheikha Intisar AlSabah, founder of Drama Therapy for traumatised Arab women

25th Nov 2022
In conversation with HRH Sheikha Intisar AlSabah,  founder of Drama Therapy for traumatised Arab women

Sheikha Intisar, Princess of the AlSabah family, the ruling family of Kuwait, talks with Ahmed J Versi, Editor of The Muslim News, about her work to heal a generation of Arab women traumatised by war and violence by tapping into their inner strength through Drama Therapy.

The Intisar Foundation, which she launched four years ago, uses Drama Therapy, a relatively unknown and underutilised treatment in the region, to help women in Lebanon and Jordan work through their pain. Her Royal Highness also spoke openly about her own trauma, suffered during the first Gulf War.

What is Drama Therapy?

We use a psychological intervention tool, which is Drama Therapy with women affected by war, trauma, and violence. Drama Therapy is a mix of psychology and theatre techniques, and it encompasses movement, breathing, and dancing. And we use Drama Therapy because of the stigma of psychological support and because Drama Therapy supports not only the psychological release of trauma but also the physical release because they have to dance.

In the beginning, we didn’t call it “dance.” Unfortunately, there is a radicalization of women’s movements, so if you say dance, some people don’t also allow music and dancing, and that’s the taboo of movement for women. It’s got nothing to do with religion; it’s about culture and conservatism.

They [the women] live in very tight quarters. And they are also sometimes not to go outside and move. There is no space for them to move or exercise. So we take the biggest room in the camp or the area and we do dance movements. We do mind and hand coordination movements. So we call it movement.

What made you go into that field?

I am a victim of [the first Gulf] war and I was a refugee. I realised that, after the trauma of the war, or even during the trauma of the war, I went from being a very peaceful person to someone happy to see dead soldiers around and sort of kicking them. And this is not me. The experience left me very angry, violent and emotionally distraught. The violence not only affected me, but it started affecting my family because I started beating my daughters. I realised one day, “What am I doing? This is not right.”

And I didn’t come from a family that ever beat us. For me to start beating my family when there was no violence being passed on was strange. And then I started working on a lot of psychological interventions for myself to get to a place where I felt better. And when I realised that there was no psychological intervention or no psychological support offered to Arab women affected by war, and this was in 2017.

And there was zero psychological long-term or organised or focused psychological support offered to Arab women affected by war. I realised this is something that is very much needed, and I will start it. We looked at all the modalities, all the psychological interventions, and why there was a rejection of them, and then we realised it was the stigma of mental health at the time. We’re talking now that there’s no mental health stigma; how much things can change.

But, we still have mental health stigma in the UK.

But still, within two years of COVID, everyone realised everyone needed mental health treatment. In 2017, people wouldn’t even think about it.

We looked at everything available, and we chose Drama Therapy because of its many aspects and the many beneficial results that we could achieve, which is women speaking up. Drama Therapy, it’s theatre techniques and psychology mixed. Women affected by war and violence are usually told to be quiet and invisible. It’s dangerous for a woman to be visible when there’s violence or war. Drama Therapy makes them visible and grows their ability to speak.

And they get to embody their emotions; they get to understand other people’s emotions; they get to grow empathy and create connections.

A side effect of war is that people get disconnected, and everyone’s your enemy. And we use Collective Drama Therapy, so more of a group, to connect the women to themselves and other women and to create a support group in the area that they can work with later when we stop the programmes, they can continue with them.

Did you use any existing models when you started Drama Therapy?

Yes, Drama Therapy is a proper psychological intervention. And it’s been used in Ireland for reconciliation, so it is used especially in war-torn countries but only in the West. In Arab countries,

it is used a bit here but not properly. We’re using it to its full extent. We also have published reports and do research. We’re also measuring the impact. And part of our mandate is not only to support women but also to collect enough data to give to anyone who wants any information, as well as to make sure that we have enough data for policymaking.

What changes in the therapy recipients have you seen since you started?

We have seen a big decrease in depression, gender-based violence, stress, anxiety, and violence towards their children. There is also a big decrease if we could call it PTSD, which is not relevant to women affected by war because it’s continuous.

Do you only work with Arab women?

We only work with Arab women.

Which countries do you operate in?

Because there are not enough trauma therapists in the Arab world, we’re working only in Lebanon and Jordan. But we’re also working with the university, and we helped the university set up a Drama Therapy Master’s programme.

Not in Kuwait?

No, it’s in Lebanon. We don’t work in Kuwait yet. We set up work with a very strong university in Lebanon, a Master’s degree accredited programme. And the reason it’s in Lebanon is to have Drama Therapy, you need to have a very strong theatre degree. You must have theatre and psychology qualifications.

Psychologists must train in theatre, and theatre graduates must train in psychology. You must have both, and that university is very strong in both. It takes 800 hours of infield work to graduate. I just want to show you how difficult it is to get 800 hours. Even a psychologist doesn’t need 800 hours.

How do you create the content? Would it, for example, differ from what’s used in Ireland, which might be good in theory, but not in practice?

Of course, that’s why we only have Arabic-speaking drama therapists, because you lose the context when it’s translated. You can’t bring a Western mentality and implement it in a different culture. It doesn’t work, so we only work with Arabic speakers. That’s why we want to have more Arab drama therapists to be able to work with Arabs. Lebanon and Kuwait are very far away in culture, but they’re closer than Kuwait and the UK.

Do you work in Lebanon and Jordan because of the Palestinian refugees?

We work with Syrians, Palestinians, Lebanese, and Jordanians, so we don’t differentiate. I mean, did you select those countries because they have a large refugee population?

Yes, and because they’re the only countries, I think, in the Arab world (I’m not sure about Egypt) that do have Drama Therapy. We’re a UK-registered NGO, and if you want to ask me why, it’s because there is no political or religious affiliation. And it has the credibility of a UK-registered charity, which also means there is accountability, not only financial accountability but health and safety of the therapy recipients.

HRH Sheikha Intisar and Editor of  The Muslim News Ahmed J Versi (redit: The Muslim News)

Is Drama Therapy offered to men?

I love the question. I’ve been asked more. “Why don’t you take the children?” than “Why don’t you take the men?” And it’s the same answer for both. A woman is the most affected by war, more than children or men because they put everyone else ahead of themselves. Number two, they’re the ones who will most likely to say, “No, treat my husband, treat my son, treat my daughter. I am okay.”
One woman can affect at least six to seven people. It will be easier and more efficient to work with one woman who can change her whole family than with one man who doesn’t necessarily change a family or with a child who can’t necessarily change a family. We look at the most efficient way and the easiest way. The woman is the nucleus of the family.

What about making men aware of the therapy so they can integrate it after it ends?

We leave that to the women to decide if they want to tell their families because some women are not allowed to go to any therapy.

Some women do tell their families. It also depends on the family dynamic. Some tell their families they are going to go and play. “Oh, we’re going to play theatre,” so they diminish it so they’re not stopped from coming because sometimes that’s the only timeout they have. We’ve asked some women not to tell their families, especially if they’re in an abusive situation, not to tell their families what’s happening because women with Drama Therapy, start gaining confidence or regaining their power and sort of stop allowing any kind of verbal or physical abuse. So if they tell them, “Oh, we’re getting psychological support,” they’re going to be stopped. They will feel it, but if they feel it, you’d be better off than when they know they can stop you.

How do the husbands react to their wives’ dramatic post-therapy changes?

I’ll tell you the story of one woman. She had a very abusive husband and suffered 18 years of abuse. He not only abused her but brought women into their bed, he was “not there.” He put her in a mental institution. It’s a very bad case. When she started, her eyes were glazed because she was on drugs because she was put in a mental institution, and they used electricity. It’s quite a horrible situation to be in. We did about 12 weeks of therapy, and for her, we extended it to 16 weeks because we felt she would not be okay after 12 weeks. She’s in a group of 18 people. We extended our help to the whole group because they were all in bad situations.

By week eight or 10, she still wasn’t good, and then I went for the graduation. And the woman said that she’s realised she brings in the money, he takes it and beats her, and she’s realised she can be okay without him. She said, “I have enough money. I rented a place for me and my children.”

And she said, “I just want to live a good life. I will not allow him to hurt me anymore or hurt our children” because he was starting to abuse his children. So how do they react? They just gain the strength to leave. Another woman said, “It’s the first time I’ve ever lifted my arm, and I said stop.” She said, “In 16 years, I’ve never lifted my arm. I thought I deserved it.” So, the women change, and because of their change the men change too. I’m not saying everyone changes. But once women realise their power, they will use it.

Can you tell me about your trauma during the invasion of Kuwait in the Gulf War?

I was about 24, I had two small girls, and when Iraq invaded, I was going from one house to another because they were following all the AlSabah family, for two weeks before we fled to Saudi. It was very traumatic because there were dead soldiers, dead people, and a lot of gunfire and rocket fire as we were staying in an area they were trying to occupy. So, there was a lot of bombing, and I had two small daughters, whom I put at the back of the house. And I kept telling them, “Oh, it is a firework.” I was pretending to be dancing and having fun while being scared at the same time.

How long after that ordeal did you start the Intisar Foundation?

I started thinking about it in 2017 and started it in 2018.

Where did you get the idea?

I wasn’t thinking. The International Committee of the Red Cross vice president at the time asked to have a roundtable in Kuwait, advocating and raising awareness of the plight of Arab children and women affected by the war, because the Arab world, unfortunately, was the area with the most wars.

The reason she chose Kuwait was that it was the only country in the Arab world not involved in any war whatsoever. We had a roundtable, and one of the recommendations was more mental health care, but also physical health care for women and children. I also have other NGOs in Kuwait that use positive psychology in education and theatre to combat bullying. So we already use different modalities of mental health, and so I realised something needed to be done.



Interview by Ahmed J Versi
Conducted in Doha, Qatar during the WISH Summit

One Response to “In conversation with HRH Sheikha Intisar AlSabah, founder of Drama Therapy for traumatised Arab women”

Khalid MozaffarDecember 4, 2022

Excellent interview. Very insightful Anna inspiring. Therapy comes in many forms and every single Margo’s must be supported, lauded and promoted. Thank you, Sheikha Intisar.


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