You’ve come a long way, babe!

V for the Vote, V for Victory – Students at Kuwaiti University, April 2012 V for the Vote, V for Victory – Students at Kuwaiti University, April 2012

By: Rania Maktabi, University of Oslo.

My crush on Kuwait is alive and well. More than twenty years have passed since I first visited the country in June 1992, a year after its liberation from the Iraqi occupation. Back then, I interviewed politicians and soon-to-be MPs, scholars, and people who had endured the occupation and its aftermath.[1] On tape records I still have interviews with Islamist politicians such as Salafist Ahmad Baqer (b. 1952) and Mubarak Fahd al-Duweila (b. 1954) of the Muslim Brotherhood. At the time, Kuwaiti women were gathering force to push for equal political rights which men have enjoyed since 1963. Vehemently against granting women the franchise, Baqer asked me rhetorically: “How can a family be harmonious if the mother votes for one party and the father for another?”.

V for the Vote: Kuwaiti women’s enfranchisement 2005- 2015

Kuwaiti women have come a long way since then. Given the less than enthusiastic starting point, I here reflect on three aspects that shed light on the position of Kuwaiti women after a decade of political rights: first, the presence of the first four-ever elected female MPs at the Kuwaiti parliament between 2009 – 2011; secondly, the response of Islamists towards Kuwaiti women’s enfranchisement as reflected in parliamentary documents; and thirdly, the dramatic rise of female lawyers as potential agents of reform that strengthen the civil rights of women within state laws.

  1. From suffrage in 2005 to parliament in 2009

Kuwaiti women gained the right to vote and to be elected to the 50-member National Assembly on an equal footing with men on 16 May 2005. This year marks the tenth anniversary of Kuwaiti women’s suffrage. In 2005, the franchise came primarily as a result of pressures from above, i.e. through an initiative from the government. The margin of 6 pro-women votes that finally tipped the scale towards women’s enfranchisement reflects a fairly conservative atmosphere among Kuwaiti males who were, by and large, not attuned towards granting Kuwaiti women political rights. In total 59 votes were cast in parliament: 35 were for, 23 against, one abstained, and five MPs were not present when Kuwaiti women were enfranchised.[2] One of those not present was the abovementioned Ahmad Baqer. Along with four other Islamists, he did not attend the parliamentary session when votes were cast in order to avoid displaying openly his disagreement with the ruling Emir. Together with the abstention and those not present, MPs who opposed women’s enfranchisement totaled 29.[3] Shortly after women’s enfranchisement, Dr. Ma’souma al-Moubarak (b. 1947), professor in political science at Kuwait University since 1982, was appointed Minister of Planning, the first woman to become a minister in Kuwait.

Professor in political science, Ma’souma al-Moubarak, first Kuwaiti Minister in 2005, and one of the four first elected female members of parliament 2009 – 2011.
Professor in political science, Ma’souma al-Moubarak, first Kuwaiti Minister in 2005, and one of the four first elected female members of parliament 2009 – 2011. Photos by author unless otherwise stated.

“It was a tremendous experience to be appointed minister, and an even greater experience to be elected as member of parliament later. I still remember the grumbles, squeaking and dissatisfied looks of some of my fellow colleagues, particularly Islamist MPs, when I entered parliament for the first time”, al-Moubarak recalls, “but I was determined to show my strength. We have worked very hard since the 1970s to be able to vote. I had to raise my head and show confidence.”[4]

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Members of Kuwait’s oldest women’s organization, the Women’s Cultural and Social Society (WCSS), established in 1963, campaign for female candidates before parliamentary elections in 2007. Photo: Poster at the Women’s Study Unit at Kuwait University.

The visibility of women as capacitated citizens in modern political life is most strongly symbolized in their political representation. In 2009, four years after Kuwaiti women were enfranchised, Aseel al-Awadhi, Rola Dashti and Salwa al-Jassar joined Ma’souma al-Moubarak as elected MPs.

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The four first-ever elected Kuwaiti women, from left to right, Aseel al-Awadhi, Rola Dashti, Salwa al-Jassar and Ma’souma al-Moubarak after their election in 2009. Photo: Kuwait National Assembly, Documentation and Information Unit.

All four women hold PhDs from universities in the United States in fields such as education, political science and economics.[5] Al-Jassar and al-Awadhi have sunni background, while al-Moubarak and Dashti belong to the sizeable shi’a community which amounts to one third of the Kuwaiti citizenry. The latter two also have personal experiences of mix-marriages between Kuwaitis and non-Kuwaitis: al-Moubarak is married to a Bahraini and has four children all of whom are legally considered non-Kuwaitis because citizenship laws in Kuwait confer citizenship through the father and not through the mother. By contrast, MP Dashti who is the child of a Lebanese mother and a Kuwaiti father is considered Kuwaiti because she is guaranteed a Kuwaiti citizenship through her father. Particularly al-Moubarak and Dashti brought significant life experiences which were articulated into law proposals that strengthened the civil rights of Kuwaiti women’s children born of mixed marriages. For instance, they succeeded in pressuring for amending existing social rights laws by enabling the children of Kuwaiti mothers married to non-Kuwaitis to receive free of charge education and health services.[6] Rola Dashti serves currently as Minister of Planning and Minister of State for National Assembly Affairs.

  1. Islamists as reluctant feminists?

In a study of parliamentarian documents between 2006 and 2014, i.e. eight years after women’s enfranchisement, I point out that women’s issues, such as social alleviation, ownership and access to housing for single unmarried women, mothers, widows and wives, particularly Kuwaiti women married to non-Kuwaitis, were addressed and articulated in new ways.[7] A sharp rise in attention occurred while the four first-ever female elected MPs served between 2009 and 2011: around half of all proposals dealt with at the Women’s and Family Committee (FWC) between 2006 and 2014 were raised during the two years women were present in parliament.[8]

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Kuwaiti MPs debating at the Kuwaiti National Assembly, February 2014.

Islamist MPs belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist groups – most of whom voted against granting women the franchise in 2005 – were among those most eager to address social, legal and economic issues by presenting proposals for amending existing state laws. For instance, MP Faisal al-Muslim (b. 1962), holder of a license in law and an MA in modern political history from Glasgow University, voted against women’s enfranchisement in 2005. Nevertheless, as an independent Islamist with tribal background and Salafist leanings, he was quick to support Kuwaiti women’s rights to guarantee for the residence of their husbands and children[9], and women’s right to access public housing loan schemes which were only offered to Kuwaiti men who are legally seen as heads of households.[10]

Can Islamist forces, at least those represented in parliament, be seen as reluctant feminists? Their acts in parliament in the form of suggestions and law proposals provide evidence that some Islamists certainly act as such when they support Kuwaiti women’s autonomy and strengthen their legal capacity in state legislation. Some of the suggestions Islamist MPs made contradict ideological views that permeate Islamic jurisprudence (shari’a) where males are seen as the guardians (wali) of women. Kuwaiti women, some Islamist MPs argued in law proposals presented in parliament, should be able to be regarded as heads of household and be thereby capacitated to convey material welfare services such as free education and health services to their children. By raising proposals that substantiated Kuwaiti women’s legal autonomy, some Islamists re-interpret thereby gender relations, if not in their ideological programs, then in their acts in the form of law proposals and suggestions in parliament.

  1. Female lawyers: Sisters are doing it for themselves

Young Kuwaiti women are studying law and taking charge of their own destiny in a remarkable way in the past decade. They are rebelling against legislation that prevent them from getting public jobs in important decision-making positions, and they are doing it their way: by raising cases against the state. In 2009, Shuruq al-Failakawi – a Kuwaiti female law graduate – sought a position at the Administrative Court where she could become a public prosecutor. Her job-application was not accepted on the grounds that the job was open only to male candidates. Al-Failakawi got immediate support from MP Rola Dashti who on 4 October 2009 raised her very first question in parliament by asking: “What are the reasons which the Ministry of Justice relied on for not accepting Shuruq Fawzi al-Failakawi’s application for primary legal researcher […], and why did the announcement condition that applicants should be males in contradiction to art. 19, 61 of the Judicial Administration Law?”. Tired of waiting for answers, Al-Failakawi filed a case against the Ministry of Justice which was rejected by a judge in April 2010. He explained that female prosecutors are not in accordance with the shari’a as postulated in article 2 of the Kuwaiti Constitution. A year later in July 2011, the Administrative Court had a new advertisement for vacant jobs. Six female law graduates applied, but their applications were rejected. The following month, in August 2011, the young lawyers filed separate lawsuits against the Ministry of Justice arguing that the Ministerial decision barring women from public jobs was unconstitutional. Less than a year later, a court decision on 22 April 2012 cancelled the Ministerial Order which barred women from entry-level jobs at the Administrative Court.[11] The case of female lawyers’ employment in the judiciary shows how Kuwaiti authorities support higher education and encourage the nationalization of the workforce, but fail to identify female citizens as equally capacitated actors as male citizens.

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The text reads: “Your light is your law. Learn about your rights to protect your life. The law is with you”. Photo: Poster at the Women’s Study Unit at Kuwait University.

Kuwaiti women won a significant battle when they amended the Ministerial Order that barred their access to positions as prosecutors. They want more. Young female lawyers are pressuring, for instance, to change the 1959 Kuwaiti nationality law in order to allow Kuwaiti women to confer citizenship to their children. Kuwaiti women also want to be able to study, marry and divorce without the consent of their husband or male kin as is required by stipulations in the state’s family law. “Divorce procedures are still difficult, but they have become considerably easier to obtain after 2003. The law ensures Kuwaiti women dignity in terms of basic economic rights”, informs lawyer ‘Athra Mohammad al-Rifa’i.[12] Kuwaiti women have become certified lawyers at a remarkable rate in the past two decades. In the late 1980s, only 20 women were registered as law students at the Faculty of Law at Kuwait University. In 1999, 120 women and 60 men were students. The latest available data for the academic year 2011/ 2012 indicates that 60 per cent of registered law students are women: out of 2,520 students, 1,520 were female and 990 were male.[13]

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A representative of a new generation of assertive Kuwaiti attorneys: Lawyer ‘Athra Mohammad al-Rifa’i at her office, 18 April 2012.

The upsurge of female lawyers in Kuwait impacts on societal pressures for reforms that bolster female citizenship in three ways: First, Kuwaiti women seek out female lawyers to a larger degree than male lawyers in order to get legal advice and/or raise a case in court, particularly in matters related to family law, i.e. legal issues related to marriage, divorce, custody of children, alimony and inheritance. Secondly, many female lawyers are observant Muslims who are confident enough to interpret religious law tenets, and argue for principles of justice within an Islamic jurisprudence framework in ways that challenge traditional interpretations and judicial practice. Finally, female lawyers have become active participants and leaders of different committees (such as the human rights committee) at the Kuwait Lawyers Association (KLA, est. 1963). They constitute potential agents of change in pushing for further reforms in gendered state laws.

A Kuwaiti pioneer in women’s rights

A prominent lawyer and former dean at the Faculty of Law at Kuwait University, Dr. Badria al-‘Awadhi is a pioneer in advocating for Kuwaiti women’s rights and a role model for the younger generation of Kuwaiti female lawyers.[14] A prolific participant in seminars and conferences on women’s rights, she points out that although the religious tide has grown stronger in Kuwait in recent years, Kuwaitis do not support fundamental religious leanings, but tend to prefer middle solutions [wasatiyya]. With regards to female civil rights, she adds: “Kuwaiti men, in general and particularly those who belong to tribal communities [qabaliyyin] do not accept the principle of equality [mabda’ al-musawat]. But, Kuwaiti women have become more educated. They are able to demand their rights. The Kuwaiti family law is not perfect. But judges and the courts attend to women’s problems seriously.”[15]

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A car of her own: Dr. Badria al-Awadhi, former Dean of the Faculty of Law at Kuwait University and torchbearer for women’s rights, prefers driving herself: “I am more free this way!”, she explains.

Al-Awadhi made an unforgettable figure at meetings I witnessed in 1992. She addressed the problems of Kuwaiti women married to non-Kuwaitis, including Iraqis and stateless Bidoun[16], right after Kuwait’s liberation from the Iraqi occupation. The women and children were in dire economic hardship and a terrified state of mind. With liberation came social exclusion and financial degradation: their husbands and children were legally noncitizens and belonged to what Kuwaiti officials came to term as ‘undesired nationalities’. Today, legal aspects related to mixed marriages between Kuwaitis and non-Kuwaitis, remain problematic and unsolved issues in Kuwaiti society. Through civil society organizations and through the parliamentarian called “Committee for addressing the situation of those whose citizenship is not identified”, people who belong to Kuwait are addressing sensitive issues regarding the demographic composition of the Kuwaiti citizenry.[17] Further research on the potential impact of the rise of females in the field of law may reveal interesting outcomes given that women in the Gulf become enabled to pressure for more women-friendly interpretations in state laws, including gendered based citizenship laws.

The franchise may not yield quick results, but voting rights are necessary prerequisites and important steps for further change that decrease the inequality gap pertaining to the distribution of power between male and female citizens in Kuwait.

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Happier girls – the face of the future in Kuwait. Seaside vacations celebrating Liberation Day, 26 February 2014.

[1] Rania Maktabi, “The Gulf Crisis (1990-1991) and the Kuwaiti Regime: Legitimacy and Stability in a Rentier State” (M.Phil. thesis, Department of Political Science, University of Oslo, 1992). https://www.duo.uio.no/handle/10852/14901.

[2] Voting results are from the second reading in parliament and rendered in Kuwait Politics Database, http://www2.gsu.edu/~polmfh/database/positions20.htm. For an excellent analysis of the 2009 elections, see Mary Ann Tétreault and Mohammed al-Ghanim, “The Day after “Victory”: Kuwait’s 2009 Election and the Contentious Present,” Merip Report (8 July 2009). For more: Mary Ann Tétreault, Stories of Democracy: Politics and Society in Contemporary Kuwait (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000).

[3] In addition to the elected 50 MPs, the National Assembly includes the 15 ministers in governmental positions, making the total number of potential voters 65. The Kuwaiti electorate numbers around 420,000 registered voters (December 2012 elections). The Kuwaiti Central Statistical Bureau estimates the Kuwaiti population at 3,3 million whereof approximately 1,3 mill. is Kuwaiti (35 per cent) and 2,1 mill. is non-Kuwaiti (65 per cent). Annual Statistical Abstract 2012, p. 47. http://www.csb.gov.kw/Socan_Statistic_EN.aspx?ID=18.

[4] Author interview, 22 April 2012. For an excellent study on women’s movements in Kuwait, see Haya al-Mughni, Women in Kuwait: The Politics of Gender (London: Saqi, 2001).

[5] Dr. al-Moubarak earned her PhD in international relations at the University of Denver. Dr. al-Awadhi earned her PhD in philosophy from the University of Texas with a thesis on Islamic liberalism. She was a professor in philosophy at Kuwait University before entering politics. Dr. Dashti (b. 1964) holds a PhD in Population Economics from John Hopkins University. Dr. al-Jassar has a PhD in philosophy from the University of Pittsburgh, and was professor at the Department of Education at Kuwait University before entering politics.

[6] A first draft of questions (as’ila), expressions of support (iqtirah birighba), and law proposals (iqtirah biqanun) raised by the four female MPs was presented in “Female Citizenship and the Franchise in Kuwait 2009 – 2011”, at the Conference “Arab Citizenship in the New Political Era” in Rabat, Morocco, 28 – 30 May, 2014.

[7] Parliamentary documents are accessible at the Kuwait National Assembly’s website (www.kna.kw) through the entry key ibhath fil-watha’iq al-barlamaniyya.

[8] “Reluctant feminists: Islamist MPs in Kuwaiti parliamentary documents 2006-2014”, Paper to be presented – if accepted – at the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies (BRISMES) Annual Conference, London, 16 – 18 June 2015.

[9] Expression of support (iqtirah bi-righba) presented by al-Muslim to parliament on 15 June 2009. Non-Kuwaitis are required to have legal guardians, kafil in Arabic, in order to get residence permits. If a Kuwaiti woman is married to a non-Kuwaiti, her husband and children are legally non-Kuwaitis and have to renew their residence permits yearly as if they were foreigners, although the husband or the children may be born and raised in Kuwait.

[10] Law proposal (iqtirah bi-qanun) presented by al-Muslim to parliament on 5 May 2010.

[11] Human Rights Watch, ”Kuwait: Court Victory for Women’s Rights”, 6 May 2012, http://www.hrw.org/news/2012/05/06/kuwait-court-victory-women-s-rights.

[12] Personal communication, 18 April 2012.

[13] Registered law student in Kuwait University 2011 / 2012, Annual Statistical Abstract 2012, p. 192. URL: http://www.csb.gov.kw/Socan_Statistic_EN.aspx?ID=18, accessed 28 February 2015.

[14] Badria Al-Awadhi, Al-Huquq Al-Siyasiyya Wal-Qanuniyya Wal-Insaniyya Lil-Mar’a Al-Kuwaitiyya [Political, Legal and Human Rights for the Kuwaiti Woman] (Kuwait 2006); Hameed Al Mubarak Badria Al Awadhi, Ahmed Al Attawi, “Women’s Rights in the Kuwaiti Personal Status Law and Bahraini Shari’a Judicial Rulings,” in Family Law Program, ed. Dima Malhas (Manama: Freedom House, 2009).

[15] Personal communication, 22 April 2012.

[16] Human Rights Watch operates with at least 105,702 registered, and estimates around 240,000 Bidoun – Arabic for ‘without’, meaning without citizenship – in Kuwait Annual Report 2014, http://www.hrw.org/world-report/2014/country-chapters/kuwait?page=1). Based on my research figures, the 200,000-estimate is more probable, rendering the Bidoun population at a sizeable 15 per cent of the Kuwaiti citizenry, had they been counted as Kuwaiti in census figures.

[17] Such as Mowatinum Kuwaitiyyun al-Bidoun (Kuwaiti Bidoun Citizens) and Group 29, see Marie Brokstad Lund-Johansen, “Fighting for Citizenship” (MA, University of Oslo, 2014).

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