In an interview with Arab News, Sheikha Intisar AlSabah discusses the ground actions being taken to alleviate the impact of conflict on women in the Middle East and the importance of drama therapy as a tool for this end.
International organizations providing support to groups impacted by conflict tend to focus mostly on children and on providing basic needs, without factoring in the necessity of psychological support. This oversight is due to many factors, including a lack of cultural awareness of the importance of psychological care.
The Intisar Foundation has been active in providing support to women in the region through several initiatives, including the 1 Million Arab Women initiative, a 30-year plan to alleviate psychological trauma in 1 million Arab women through drama therapy.
Women in business and politics
Continuing the legacy of her predecessors who laid the ground for women in the Kuwaiti and regional private sectors in business and entrepreneurship, Sheikha Intisar advocates for gender equality in business. “Balance comes from women’s participation,” she said, highlighting the value added from women’s input in strategy and operations across sectors.
Sheikha Intisar also advocates for women’s participation in politics, as they often bring a different mindset and approach to conflict resolution by being more collaborative than their male counterparts.
“I am not into politics; I am into the betterment of people. Having only men make and implement laws is not for the betterment of society,” she said.
The Intisar Foundation
The Intisar Foundation was established in 2017 to address the insufficient focus on mental health and lack of psychological support for women. “Most humanitarian organizations don’t think about women, and women don’t allow themselves to come as a priority,” Sheikha Intisar said.
The foundation was the result of field research conducted in Jordan and Lebanon — two countries hosting the highest number of refugees in the region — to assess the supply of psychological interventions for women affected by war.
“What was offered was very limited,” said Sheikha Intisar, adding that women were not taking advantage of services because of the stigma associated with seeking psychological help. There was a need to raise awareness and acceptance of mental health issues in the region.
“Even if women don’t care about society’s perception, their families do, making it harder for them to get the psychological support they need,” added Sheikha Intisar.
Being a victim of war and understanding its implications, Sheikha Intisar sought a creative solution, turning to the arts. “Art is a form of social interaction, an activity rather than a one-on-one seated session with a psychologist.”
Drama therapy could serve women this way, bringing them together in a safe environment and enabling impactful psychological care, “with a sugar coating of being fun,” Sheikha Intisar said, that is accepted by society.
Women were shown to gain harmony within themselves and within the group, sharing their stories after realizing that they were not alone and that everyone else had a unique story.
Participants’ testimonials and available statistics measure the impact of drama therapy, backed by continuous research to “support women in the Arab world and to support the peace process” — the foundation’s goal.
Drama therapy, as a field of research
Drama therapy sheds light on the importance of culturally appropriate psychological support programs.
To this end, the Intisar Foundation signed a memorandum of understanding with the Holy Spirit University of Kaslik in Lebanon, the only university in the Arab world offering a master’s program in drama therapy, with a target to provide support for graduates opting for the curriculum.
The foundation engages theater troops around the Arab world and works with specialists in the field to tailor a training program that can be used to support women.
Theater troops’ activities will extend to a minimum of six Arab countries, including Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
The foundation, a British registered nongovernmental organization, collaborates with local NGOs to reach the intended communities and invite women to participate in workshops.
The role of drama therapy
One of the key findings of the research conducted suggests that women who released their trauma became more peaceful, which was reflected in a change of attitude in the household and enhanced communication within the family and the larger community. In a domino effect, allowing the mother to express herself also encouraged her children to reciprocate. With a drama therapy workshop including 20 women on average, each participant impacts the life of six indirect beneficiaries.
To date, the Intisar Foundation has reached around 500 women, completing 3500+ hours of fieldwork. With the pandemic, much of the foundation’s initiatives were carried out online to maintain and expand its reach in the Arab world.
The latest findings of a survey carried out among participants from Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and Palestine following a drama therapy program in Lebanon registered a reduction in depression (64 percent) and anxiety (53 percent), and an increase in self-esteem (68 percent).
“Drama therapy allows women not only to express what they are thinking and feeling but also to be aware of their feelings,” Sheikha Intisar said.
As a means of communication that goes beyond words and involves physical action, adopting different roles and achieving resolution, theater enables participants to express themselves in new, stimulating ways. Women are offered the chance to safely enact scenes portraying family experiences, such as early marriages, divorce and domestic violence, allowing them to work through their own traumas.
The theater activities focus on building women’s confidence, empowering them to be seen and heard, which then reflects on the way they manage their immediate environments. A more confident and assertive woman will in turn fight for her daughter to obtain access to education, thus curbing marriages at a younger age and impacting generations of girls and women to come.