By Geoffrey Martin
Rai Insights Contributor
Women in Kuwait have long been the most emancipated women in the Middle East region. In 2014 and 2015, Kuwait was ranked first among Arab countries in the Global Gender Gap Report. Kuwaiti women outnumber men in the workforce, constituting 53%, far above the Middle East and North Africa average. In education and in the state bureaucracy Kuwaiti woman dominate key (although few leadership) positions.
Why is this?
Women in Kuwait have experienced many changes since the founding of Kuwait, but one of the key ingredients of the social fabric of the country has been the informal power of women in social and economic life.
From the 17th century until the discovery of oil in the 1950s, the economy of Kuwait was largely dependent on maritime trade. The nature of maritime trade had a fundamental impact on the power of women. While the large majority of men (up to 80% at times) were at sea – pearling, fishing, or on long distance trade missions for up to nine months a year – Kuwait’s women were managing the homes, financial affairs, and most importantly, raising the next generation of men that would ‘lead’ the family. There are distinctions to make, of course: upper class women were more spatially, physically, and culturally isolated, while lower class women were actively involved in life in the souk. As Kuwait developed into a bustling trade hub in the early 1900s the growth of the town led to an even more increasing role for the lower-class women, which ironically, filtered upwards to the more politically empowered women.
Education for women, first in Quran schools (kuttab) as religious instructors, and then through public education significantly advanced women’s social and economic capabilities. In the 1950s women of upper class status mobilized and pressured for more rights (albeit this was exclusive to their own social class) as the wave of Pan Arab values swept aside some conservative values. It is important to note that the ruling family, both subtly and tacitly supported these moves. In 1962 the newly minted Kuwaiti Constitution, approved by Sheikh Abdullah Al Salem Al Sabah, outlined in Article 29 that gender discrimination should be prohibited. Notable organizations like the Arab Women’s Renaissance, the Women’s Cultural and Social Society, The Girls Club, Bayader As-Salam, Islamic Care Association were established during the subsequent decades. These same networks have become the civil space for women to define their role as conservative values reasserted itself as the dominant social force in Kuwait.
But despite these changes the publicly accepted role of women, as wife, mother, housewife, sister, and daughter remained as the main stereotypes of female identity in the public education system. This challenged the courageous pioneers and organizations they founded concerning what is taboo and fair to discuss publicly.
Starting with Noureya Al-Saddani in 1971, women began their long journey to pressure parliament to grant political rights. It wasn’t until 2005 that women obtained their right to vote. Again, the ruling family and the soon to be Emir, Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmed Al Sabah was more integral than parliament’s men (who are largely opposed to universal suffrage including the nationalist and liberal camp) in pushing through these reforms. Without the support of the current Emir, women’s political emancipation could not have happened.
Yet, in my opinion women have not figured heavily in parliamentary life over the last 12 years. The high-water mark of women in parliament was in 2009 when four were elected into parliament. But subsequently, few leading positions in government have been held by women, although those women who do lead carry some of the most important portfolios. Massouma al-Mubaraka was most notable as the first women to hold a cabinet position (in the Planning Ministry. More recently, Hind Al-Subeeh, has held the Minister of Social Affairs and Labor and Minister of State for Economic Affairs since 2014. Other notables include Salwa al-Jassar and Aseel al-Awadhi, and Rola Dashti. Yet as an Al-Araby article noted “Suffrage granted but glass ceiling firm” in Kuwait.
Again, why is this?
First, many of the women in parliament did not provide the support necessary to allow women to obtain more rights. The handful of women in parliament, Safa Hashem being the most recent example, have been preoccupied with class and sectarian issues, and in many instances, have endorsed discriminatory policies against women. But analyses on the ‘poor’ performance of women in parliament has been somewhat unfair. Compared to the men in parliament, women have been quite successful. Even without the same access to the political arena and the diwaniya (where women are forbidden to enter traditionally) women have become central figures in the parliament. Never has a male M.P.’s performance been attributed to his gender, while many people argue that women’s lack of experience makes them ill-suited for parliament.
Furthermore, legal changes have also gone at a snail’s pace. Although women now have political rights, the personal status laws of the country are still largely discriminatory or lacking in legislation altogether. Tradition rules of guardianship for marriage contracts, and issues of child custody (after remarriage) disadvantage women in comparison to men. One particularly important issue is the fact that the Kuwaiti Nationality Law discriminates between men and women in the right of passing nationality. Kuwaiti mothers married to non-Kuwaiti men cannot pass on nationality to their offspring. Another is the lack of laws prohibiting domestic violence and rape (especially marital rape). While a 2015 law has established a family center that assists in dealing with cases of domestic violence, it prioritizes reconciliation over protection for victims making the system ripe for abuse considering taboos against acknowledging domestic violence at home (which includes abuse of maids).
The political turbulence in parliament the last few years have exacerbated reform efforts. New laws, meant to reform citizenship laws for women and their children, the absence of shelters, and budgetary increases to tackle gender issues were approved by the 2013 parliament but frozen when it was dissolved last year. The new parliament abandoned any semblance of similar reforms as ‘opposition’ figures demonstrate little interest for women’s rights.
Because of the neglect of this formal institution civil society’s role in advocating for women’s rights remains increasingly important.
A major issue that women’s organizations have begun pressuring about is the lack of clear statistics about domestic violence in Kuwait, making it impossible to ascertain the scale of the problem. As a 2017 Human Line Report outlined “published statistics are based on the type of case and information on the sex of the offender, if found, without specifying the gender of the victim.” Another recent campaign that is pushing against the status quo is the human rights group ‘Abolish 153’, which aims to abolish article 153 (the law legalizing honour killing in certain circumstances) from the Kuwaiti penal code. Abolish does not just address legal reforms, it also lobby’s parliament members to raise awareness of women’s issues. Similarly, the Women’s Cultural and Social Society has started work establishing the legal structure and framework for women’s shelters and hotlines to support battered women. Yet this movement in still in the very early stages of gaining the support necessary to change the law and represents elite interests more than the interests of all women (especially Bedouin and non-citizen women).
A long-term vision for change is needed by all parties and strong female leaders exist to build this programme, although most are currently outside the formal system. Without strong leaders, with clear ethics, informal power cannot ever be turned into something more formal. It takes more than a pen stroke to change social and political values.
*Geoffrey Martin is a PhD student in Political Science at the University of Toronto in Canada. He studies Kuwaiti politics, focusing on the historical development of social and political power in the cooperative societies since the 1940s. Geoffrey is also a freelance write for Zenith Magazine in Germany and an Advisor at Gulf State Analytics in Washington, DC.