Based on her academic experience as a person with a physical disability, Shahd Alshammari, a young Kuwaiti academic, has devised a curriculum of disability studies that she teaches to her students on her own initiative.
Alshammari, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at the age of 18, is an assistant professor of English literature and women’s studies at the Gulf University of Science and Technology, in Kuwait.
The voices of people with disabilities are too often absent among scholars and researchers, Alshammari told Al-Fanar Media in an interview via Zoom.
“Change starts from the classroom,” she said, “and for this I seek to use my experiences and my job as an academic to advocate for the rights of these groups, and the appropriate way to deal with them.”
Alshammari’s concept of her role as an academic goes beyond teaching and writing research articles. To her, it implies a commitment to a moral and scientific responsibility toward marginalised people and improving their conditions.
“My ambition is to invest in students with physical or mental disabilities to improve their living conditions and to provide them with greater opportunities to enrol in higher-education institutions,” she said.
Discovering Disability Studies
Alshammari’s interest in disability studies dates back to the years when she was studying for a doctorate at the University of Kent, in the United Kingdom.
“During that period, I discovered the existence of a specialisation in disability studies within the women’s studies curriculum,” she said. The specialty examines the experiences of people with disabilities in areas like education and hiring. It aims to reduce discrimination against them and raise awareness of disability issues among non-disabled people.
At the time, Alshammari wondered about the reasons for the absence of women with disabilities in the Arab world in the media, literature, theatre, and universities, and for the absence of Arab studies of the experiences of people with disabilities and the difficulties they face.
“Change starts from the classroom and for this I seek to use my experiences and my job as an academic to advocate for the rights of these groups, and the appropriate way to deal with them.”Shahd Alshammari
With the encouragement of Stella Bolaki, her doctoral supervisor at the University of Kent, Alshammari was eager to take the issue deeper. Bolaki’s support was an inspiration, she said, introducing her to “a whole new world of disability studies.”
According to Alshammari, her initiative at the Gulf University of Science and Technology represents “a precedent in addressing disability from an academic perspective as part of women’s studies in the Arab world, within the walls of the university.”
The curriculum prepared by Alshammari addresses students’ misconceptions about disability as a “tragic punishment that must be feared”. It also presents means of integrating disabled people within Arab societies, and constructing discourses around disability. And it shows the relationship of this specialisation with sociology studies.
To promote a culture of awareness of the rights of people with disabilities in the Arab world, Alshammari proposes introducing changes in the school curricula to include a definition of disability and discussions of the rights of people with disabilities and how to integrate them into their societies.
Research Articles and Books
Alshammari is also an active researcher. She serves as an occasional editor of the journal Disability & Society and has published a number of papers on the rights of people with disabilities in Arab societies. Scholarly articles she has written or co-written include “A Critical Content Analysis of Kuwaiti TV Shows and Plays on Disability Representations” (August 2021) with the Kuwaiti researcher Hussain Mohammed Alenaizi, and “Troubling Academe: Disability, Borders, and Boundaries” (November 2017).
She also collaborated with another Kuwaiti academic, Haneen Ghabra, on a study titled “Microaggressions in Flux: Whiteness, Disability and Masculinity in Academia.” That study won the 2021 most outstanding monograph award from the National Communication Association. (See a related article, “2 Kuwaiti Female Academics Use Research to Defend Rights of the Marginalised”.)
In addition to her research on disability issues, Alshammari has also published poetry collections and books based on her own experiences and those of other people with disabilities in the Middle East, particularly women and members of minority groups.
Her book titles include “Notes on the Flesh” (2017) and “Head Above Water“, set for release this year by Neem Tree Press. The latter book takes readers “into a space of intimate conversations on illness and society’s stigmatization of disabled bodies,” the publisher writes.
“My ambition is to invest in students with physical or mental disabilities to improve their living conditions and to provide them with greater opportunities to enroll in higher-education institutions.”Shahd Alshammari
Studying literature gave her “the tools needed to survive in the world,” Alshammari said. “I thought that I would find meaning in life only through words and literature.”
Her narratives always set out “from a point of resistance,” she said, “the simultaneous vulnerability of women lovers with disabilities and men who feel inferior to them, in a society that excludes and marginalises these voices.”
Alshammari points out that despite her parents’ conservative Bedouin background, they supported her in continuing her higher studies and gave her freedom of choice to study abroad. She earned a bachelor’s degree in English literature from Kuwait University in 2008, a master’s degree from the University of Exeter in 2009, and her Ph.D. from the University of Kent in 2014.
“My parents were always supportive of me in the face of difficulties,” she says. “My father believed that a woman should be a warrior and encouraged me to complete my higher studies, so that I could face any problems in life.”
After completing her doctorate, she joined the Gulf University of Science and Technology in Kuwait, as a professor specialising in literature and women’s studies.
“Influencing the younger generations at the university fills me with a feeling of pride and achievement,” Alshammari said.
Sarah Alobaid, a teaching assistant at Gulf University for Science and Technology, was one of Alshammari’s students before she joined the faculty. In a telephone conversation with Al-Fanar Media, Alobaid said Alshammari’s concern for the rights of marginalised people has been a source of support and encouragement for her. She added: “Any student can find in her a close friend and mentor, whenever they want.”
Alshammari’s teaching method is based on discussion, encouraging students to share their ideas and opinions by creating a safe space for them, Alobaid said. “She always told us that we are not just students of literature, but also critics and that we need to think outside the box and analyze texts critically.”
Women’s Studies in the Gulf
Pointing to the small number of female researchers in women’s studies in the Gulf, Alshammari said that the matter is mainly related to “the persistence of the existing manifestations of discrimination in Arab societies and academic institutions and the stereotype about female researchers specialising in this type of studies.”
A 2019 report by the Asfari Institute for Civil Society and Citizenship, affiliated with the American University of Beirut, attributes the lack of mainstreaming of gender studies in academic institutions in the region to “limited resources, colonial legacies, negative social and political environments, and institutional inequality.”
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