This Kuwaiti Princess Is Using Theater to Turn Trauma into Peace

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Sheikha intisar alsabah

It’s not every day that we get the chance to speak to royalty. However, when we sat down with H.H. Sheikha Intisar Al Sabah, entrepreneur, philanthropist, author, film producer, columnist, and princess of the AlSabah family, the ruling family of Kuwait, we knew we were speaking with someone more than worthy of the title. As a matter of fact, she’s exactly the kind of royal our world needs.

Her name – ‘Intisar’ –  was given to her by her late uncle, the Amir of the State of Kuwait, H.H. Sheikh Sabah AlAhmad AlSabah, and means “victory” which is exactly what Sheikha Intisar has spent her life’s work pursuing – not only for herself but for others as well.  More specifically, female Arab refugees. 

Sheikha Intisar is no stranger to trauma. Nor to war. After she achieved personal victory over her own psychological trauma from the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, she put all her energy into empowering other Arab women and helping them find victory as well. 

If I can turn on the lights in my life, and I can support others turning on lights in their lives.

“I was privileged, I have to admit. But I know what it is being scared, not knowing what the future holds, and wondering what’s going to happen to my children,” she confides. “I respected my ordeal as a refugee and a victim of war, and I found ways to remove my trauma. I got over my fear, my anxiousness, all of that. And I realized I’m in a place where I feel so good, and I couldn’t have done that if I hadn’t been given lots of tools for psychological intervention. I realized that there was not enough psychological support offered to women affected by war, and I realized that these women, if they don’t find any way to lessen the burden, are going to be throwing the burden on their children and their children will throw it on their children.”

“Is it a personal issue for me?” she asks. “It is. Because if I can turn on the lights in my life, and I can support others turning on lights in their lives, what a glorious world it would be.”

Sheikha Intisar AlSabah

The world that her Highness envisions and believes in is one founded in peace, and not the kind of “world peace” lip service you would hear at a beauty pageant. She envisions profound peace that is born only through the worst kinds of trials and tribulations, where the victor comes out the other side knowing fundamentally that peace truly is possible. It’s that peace upon which her work at Intisar Foundation is founded.

“If we want to have sustained peace, we need to support the psychological relief of people affected by trauma and war. When I say trauma, it is because we also work with women affected by household abuse. They are a minority, but they do come in. It has a profound effect on them. They become stronger, they become more courageous. They are able to take responsibility for their lives and stop the abuse on them. If we want to sustain peace, it is not only giving them shelter and medicine, we have to prioritize psychological support.”

If we want to sustain peace, it is not only giving them shelter and medicine, we have to prioritize psychological support.

But Intisar Foundation does not work with traditional psychological therapy methods. For one, it is passionate about only using Arab-speaking therapists. It seems like common sense, but when well-meaning French-speaking or English-speaking women come from abroad to support the women, things are lost in translation, not just linguistically, but culturally and emotionally as well. 

“Having to have someone translate and try to adapt to the culture and the nuances of the culture doesn’t work. You need the emotional language. You need the cultural context. That’s why we do [our therapy] only in Arabic. Our mandate is not only to support the women in their local language, but the culture needs to be preserved as well. What we say to them and what I find very normal in my environment, someone from a different background might not find normal. They might find it very offensive, so one has to be aware of this, especially since these women have gone through a very hard time, and subjecting them to more hard times under the guise of supporting them is unfair.”

Another unique aspect driven by Intisar Foundation is its fundamental goal of women reaching women. In fact, the ‘One Million Arab Women’ initiative is a 30-year plan created to address and “alleviate the psychological trauma in one million Arab women who have been impacted by the brutality of war and violence through the use of drama therapy.” Research has proven that mothers have the biggest impact on families, particularly in families who have been affected by war. One woman will affect between six to 10 people, and during times of war, women and children are supposed to hide. But what Intisar Foundation does is the exact opposite by reaching and highlighting women in an empowering way.

“Peaceful people create peaceful families. We need to support people psychologically,” she states simply.

Sheikha Intisar AlSabah

But perhaps the most unorthodox endeavor would be Sheikha Intisar’s championing of drama therapy. Founded in research on the mental health of vulnerable Arab populations suffering from post-war and violence traumas, her organization has discovered that the qualitative and quantitative benefits of drama therapy far surpass traditional sessions. 

“When I looked at what was being offered psychologically, number one, there wasn’t enough. And number two, there was a shame and a stigma to it. That’s when I started visiting different centers and speaking to different NGOs that do offer women’s support to women,” she explains. “We realized if it’s one-on-one, they closed down because the costs were so high and they could only treat so many women. So we looked at the arts. We did pilot studies for different art programs, and we realized one setup is superior to all the other arts because it includes all the arts plus more. Drama therapy has dance, music, and releasing all emotions.”

In other words, Intisar Foundation has created a program culturally tailored to Arab women that incorporates the use of theater techniques and exercises, and the results have been overwhelmingly positive. 

Drama therapy has dance, music, and releasing all emotions.

Drama therapy is a unique approach to therapy in that it addresses the complete “triangle of trauma: the cognitive, the emotive, and the body” all in one. In traditional, one-on-one sessions, it is predominantly addressing only one or two: cognitive and emotional. But in drama therapy, dismantling the cognitive is saved until the end, and the first step is addressing the emotion.

“Traumatized women are disconnected from their emotions,” explains Sheikha Intisar. “If you get in a car crash, the first thing that hits you is your fear. Then the body, and then you analyze what just happened, right? So to unravel the trauma triangle, you have to go the other way around.”

They do this by having the women become actors in their own stories and the stories of each other, much like in Augusta Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed. By seeing her story brought to life by someone else, the woman is able to reflect and see new ways to react, save, or connect that she would never have thought of on her own. At the same time, the two women are connecting emotionally with one another as they live out each other’s lives.

“There’s dancing. There’s music. There’s a safe zone where women can come create, be able to vent if they need to, be angry if they need to, enact their stories with the script that they wanted to happen – they can rescript their life.”

Sheikha Intisar AlSabah

Every session explores something different than the one before it, and each session includes an aspect of movement in some way to help the women bring themselves fully into their bodies. Like the ‘Bear Scratching a Tree’ exercise where one woman pretends to be a bear scratching her back against a tree. Only, the tree is played by another woman. In one simple exercise involving touch, movement, play, and humor, there is a release of inhibitions, the connection is created, safety is established, and a profound realization that you can lean on someone else and it will be okay dawns.

When we see them scratching like bears against giggling trees…” Sheikha Intisar pauses as she reflects on what she is about to say. “You know, refugees don’t always giggle. They forget how to dance. We make them laugh. We make them cry too. Cause they have to release, but they also have to become human beings. They have to feel their body. They have to feel their emotions and be okay with showing their emotions in front of others. Because naturally, when we’re in too much pain, we want to hide from people because we’re so vulnerable, but it’s at their most vulnerable that they discover their strength.”

But it’s at their most vulnerable that they discover their strength.

Another defining impact of drama therapy is its emphasis on community-driven psychological support. 

“When there’s any kind of trauma, we need more psychological support within the social context. The community is going to be there when we leave. So we need to bring people together to not only teach them the tools to support themselves psychologically but also how to maintain that support system within the community or groups of people who are being supported. And drama therapy is non-stigmatizing. It’s a shocking social activity,” she laughs. “They come just to have fun. But within this fun, there’s a lot of catharses. There’s a lot of deep, deep, deep letting go of trauma.”

Sheikha Intisar AlSabah

However, despite the good work that she is doing, within the cultural framework, there is still a stigma of fear and shame attached to mental health and receiving therapy or psychological help. 

“There’s a big stigma,” she explains. “There’s a shame factor. That’s why the women come to join our programs, they don’t tell their families ‘we’re going to get psychological support.’ They never say that. They say instead, ‘We’re going to act.’ ‘We’re going to go play theater.’ ‘We’re going to have music.’ ‘We’re going to a social gathering.’ ‘We’re doing art.’ It is psychological support camouflaged as entertainment. And we go down deep into the emotional, scaling all the way to guilt and shame. Because if you’re feeling guilt or shame, so is your family, and so is the neighborhood, and everyone is so vicious to each other. You would think that when people go through a very hard time they get together and they support each other. But we don’t hear stories of people supporting each other when there’s war. When you’re in trauma, things are toxic. They’re not the same.”

It is psychological support camouflaged as entertainment.

But the results of Sheikha Intisar’s work speak for themselves. By supporting women, she is in turn supporting the peace process. Even in women who have been abused for 18 years, the cycle of abuse, trauma, and pain, becomes a cycle of healing, renewal, hope, and joy. 

“Every time I go to the same group, I can see the evolution of the women. They go from broken – and some of them are extremely broken women – to slowly but surely, steadily gaining their confidence, their courage, their self-esteem, their self-worth, and realizing their potential. From then on, if they had been abused, they could stop it. And many women have stopped it or reduced it – some need more time to stop it, but they’ve at least reduced it. Women have realized that they can be entrepreneurs, that they can make money. Women have started listening to their children and engaging with their children. Women have stopped – are stopping – their daughters from getting married young because they know they can take care of their daughters. They don’t need someone to protect them. Women disallowed their husbands to take their daughters out of school.

It’s at this point that this force of nature begins to show her own emotions and her voice begins to break just a little. As her eyes fill up with tears, and subsequently mine do as well, she lets me in on a little secret.

“Yes, when working with women affected by war, we are supporting her healing. You do cry, but you smile at the same time. Sometimes, I’m like ‘oh my God, I’m a part of this.’ And this is beautiful.”

Sheikha Intisar AlSabah
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