One Step Forward, Two Steps Back: Women’s Rights in Kuwait

It’s been a busy month for the constitutional court in the tiny Gulf Arab nation of Kuwait. Earlier this week, Kuwait’s highest court ruled that women now have the right to obtain a passport without the consent of their husbands and guardians. The ruling abrogated an article of a 1962 law that required women to gain their husband’s signature on any passport application.

The court, following complaints from thousands of women who have petitioned to change the law, finally ruled that the article violated a number of constitutional provisions that guarantee personal freedom and gender equality.

The Kuwait Times, billed as the first daily in the Gulf, hailed the decision as “historic” and “landmark” in its piece on the ruling, and cited an interview with a Kuwaiti man who noted that the ruling was long overdue.

“The court should have ruled on this issue a long time ago as women have already obtained the right to vote and run for office in parliament,” Khalid Ahmed, a 32-year-old Kuwaiti told the Kuwait Times.

But, even as some Kuwaitis were lauding the new advances, others were criticizing a “controversial” decision by one of Kuwait’s four female members of parliament to fight another constitutional law.

Rola Dashti, who was elected to parliament in May, submitted a proposal to the court last week to remove a 2005 electoral law requirement that women must comply with Islamic Shariah law. The law doesn’t specify what that entails or which women it applies to.

Rola Dashti. Image via womenwithoutborders.org.

Rola Dashti. Image via womenwithoutborders.org.

Last week, the government’s Fatwa Department complicated the matter when it ruled that under Shariah law, Muslim women are required to wear hijab. Conservative lawmakers say that fatwa must apply to parliament’s four female members (two of whom wear hijab, two of whom two do not), the U.A.E. newspaper The National reports. But Dashti has dismissed the fatwa as non-binding and has said that including Shariah regulations in the electoral law is a breach of the constitution.

“The regulations clearly violate articles in the constitution which call for gender equality and make no reference to Sharia regulations,” she told the AFP news agency.

The timing of the two constitutional court cases couldn’t be more ironic and could indicate a significant shift in the cultural underpinnings of Kuwaiti society. Within the same month, Kuwaitis on seemingly polar opposite ends of the ideological spectrum are attempting to make their voices heard, for what they believe to be the good of the nation. It’s a delicate dance between those who are fighting to allow women more rights and those who would prefer she stay within the status quo.

But also of note are the mostly positive reactions to change in the country from major media outlets in the Gulf and the wider Middle East. A Voice of America news report quotes Hala Mustafa, of Egypt’s Al-Ahram newspaper, as saying the passport ruling is a “positive” sign of progress.

Meanwhile, an editorial in the Kuwait Times warns that the parliamentary hijab situation could spell “a recipe for disaster” for the country. The Times’ Badrya Darwish, heavy on the sarcasm, asks:

“How come the issue of hijab and niqab and the dress code among women is a major issue in the Arab world today? As I already wrote earlier this week, Egypt has a dispute over hijab or niqab. It looks like everything is peaceful in the Middle East. Business is booming. Economy is flourishing. Democracy prevails everywhere. There is stability and security at its best.”

The court is due to rule on the hijab issue next week, but in the meantime, one can’t help but wonder if Kuwait is in the midst of a paradigm shift in popular opinion of women’s rights.

  • Ayad

    Very well written!!!

  • faatima

    well done!

  • http://salmaxsweetsurrender@gmail.com salma

    I agree…well written. There are so many dynamics here. I see progress as more than taking off a hijab, or even women being in parliament. Perhaps many will dis-agree with me but where are men not threatened by women? Where do men prefer for women to have “more” rights?

    The fact that we (WOMEN) are an “issue”, that we are on agendas, and are the subject of news stories and reporter sarcasm is pathetic enough.

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  • Orabynm

    great article …very engaging !

  • Sarah

    I don’t see why why hijab is a national issue or a Middle East issue – hijab is a personal choice….well done Malika – however teh conversation is frustrating ;)

  • Malika

    Thanks for all of your comments!

    Salma – agreed. It seems that time after time, women and the issues associated with them are fodder for so much debate, and yet the same doesn’t seem to be true for men.

    And on your first point, I don’t think the Kuwaiti MPs were suggesting that progress = taking off one’s scarf or not wearing hijab, it’s more than that, as you said. Progress = choice and not having to be forced into wearing or not wearing one.

    My two cents :)

  • dina b.

    malika – fantastic story! thank you for sharing your take on how this really is one step forward and always several back…

    i completely agree with salma’s comment:

    “The fact that we (WOMEN) are an “issue”, that we are on agendas, and are the subject of news stories and reporter sarcasm is pathetic enough.”


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