Women's Organizations in Kuwait

by Haya al-Mughni
published in MER198

Women’s groups, like all voluntary associations in Kuwait, are controlled and funded by the state. They have elected boards, written constitutions and paid memberships. Law 24 of 1962 governing the activity of associations -- partially amended in 1965 and still in force -- gives the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor full control and power over voluntary associations. The Ministry has the power to refuse to license an association, to dissolve its elected board or to terminate an association if it determines the group not to be beneficial to society as a whole or not to be abiding by its constitution.

As the only legitimate forum for Kuwaiti women to engage in public activity, women’s organizations, by and large, have inhibited the development of a feminist movement, in part by providing elite and upper-class women the power to control other women’s access to the public sphere. Their activities have conformed to official policies defining women’s role in society, stressing traditional practices and islah (reform) rather than social change. This is evident from the rise and subsequent collapse of the women’s movement for equal rights in the 1970s. The rise of Islamist women’s organizations in the 1980s led to their alliance with the state in promoting its model of ideal womanhood. In the brief period following the Gulf war, the agenda of the women’s movement has remained firmly under the control of the state and upper-class women opposed to any change in the status of women.

Today there are five licensed women’s organizations: the Women’s Cultural and Social Society, licensed in 1963; the Girls’ Club, in 1975; Bayadir al-Salam (Threshing Fields of Peace), in 1981; the Islamic Care Society (ICS), in 1982 and the Volunteer Women’s Association for Community Services, in 1991. Membership is overlapping (some women may join more than one group) and the majority of members are women, middle-aged and middle- to upper-class. The low level of membership in women’s organizations -- 1,752 in 1988, about 3 percent of all women in Kuwait -- is due to exclusivist policies carefully practiced by organizational leaders to maintain control over their particular organization.

Early Women’s Organizations

In the 1950s, the development of the oil economy and the rise of the modern state necessitated the integration of Kuwaiti women into the national economy to increase Kuwaiti participation in the labor force and to reduce the country’s dependency on foreign labor. The departure from the traditional practice of female seclusion was facilitated by the nahda movement, which advocated a departure from rigid traditions and customs in the name of taqaddum (progress) and civilization. This movement was led by young upper-class men who had studied in Egypt.

In this climate of rapid modernization and state building, women’s associations were formed, giving Kuwaiti women access to a public sphere from which they had long been excluded and, more importantly, to the world of male politics. In 1963, the Women’s Cultural and Social Society (WCSS) was established to provide a social gathering place for educated and comfortable merchant-class women with the energy and wealth to indulge in charity work. This group extended women’s traditional role of support and nurturing into the public sphere, without challenging the position of women in society.

The same year saw the formation of the Arab Women’s Development Society (AWDS), whose members were middle class women who focused on issues that the WCSS avoided addressing -- namely, gender equality and women’s citizenship rights. The AWDS challenged official policies on women’s status, demanding the extension of political rights to women; equality in all fields of employment; the appointment of women as special attorneys to draft family law; the provision of child allowances to married women; and the restriction of polygamy. In 1973, ten years later, the AWDS succeeded in forcing the all-male National Assembly to discuss an equal rights bill, provoking the stormiest debates in the history of the assembly. Opponents of the bill, who formed a majority, demanded the preservation of the patriarchal integrity of the society, claiming that Islam gave men and women different responsibilities and made men superior to women. The bill’s supporters were the nationalists who also supported individual rights and democracy. The equal rights bill angered the male community and threatened political disarray. With support from the government, the assembly avoided voting on the bill by referring it to the assembly’s Legal Affairs Committee for further “study.”

The mid-1970s witnessed increasing state intervention to protect the traditional family arrangement and to reduce the influence of the secular and feminist groups. The government urged the media to “combat all that threatens the existence of the family or distorts the character of solidarity between its members,” and to propagate family values based on obedience to the male head of household. [1] The government formed a special police force to combat “moral crimes” and promoted the concept of al-usra al-wahida (the united family) as a way of reinforcing allegiance to the monarchic state.

In 1978, the ruling emir, in a public address, stressed his government’s dedication to the Islamization of society. That same year saw the Personal Status Law enacted, legitimizing the control of men over women. Earlier clauses of the penal code relating to crimes of ‘ird (honor) and sum‘a (reputation) were amended to bring tougher sentences to women offenders. The period of incarceration for women having sexual relations outside marriage, for instance, was increased from five to ten years.

The secular opposition and the women’s rights movement responded with persistent demands for civil liberties and individual rights. [2] The Girls’ Club, formed by a group of upper-class women in 1975, sided with the AWDS to put further pressure on the government to include suffrage in the laws that benefited women. To reduce the influence of the secular opposition, the government closed the Istiqlal Club, the mouthpiece of the Arab nationalist movement, and dissolved the elected boards of most of the associations controlled by the left and nationalist groups and appointed new ones. [3] In 1978, following accusations against AWDS of financial fraud that were never adequately proven or investigated, a female government official was appointed president of AWDS. Two years later, after members continued to refuse to collaborate with the newly appointed leader, the government disbanded the AWDS, marking the end of the women’s rights movements in Kuwait.

In 1981, the Islamic Heritage Society and two Islamic welfare societies were licensed. During the same year, a religious women’s organization, Bayadir al-Salam, was also licensed. A year later, the Islamic Care Society for women was established. Parallel to this expansion of religious groups was an explosion of writings and debates on “women’s rights and duties in Islam.” The Islamic veil made its appearance and a new model of womanhood emerged. Although there was no consensus as to what place women should occupy in society, most of the religious groups called for a return to traditional female virtues and morality. Women were defined as having moral duties to strengthen family ties, to raise good children and to defend the traditions and customs of society. A body of discourse was generated to justify the importance of women’s domestic role, emphasizing natural differences between men and women to rationalize asymmetrical gender relations in society.

The ICS, established by the wife of the crown prince and prime minister, Sheikha Latifa al-Fahd al-Salim Al Sabah, holds that the ideal woman works for the interests of society and the family; she is religious but not fanatic. The ICS introduced classes in embroidery, dressmaking, Oriental cookery and tawjid (Qur’an reading).

Bayadir al-Salam, a Sufi-like organization formed by upper-class women, displaced women’s interests from self-centeredness to God-centeredness, placing emphasis on tazkiyat al-nafs (self-purification) and the acquisition of Islamic virtues. For Bayadir, the ideal woman fears and loves God and always does al-‘amal al-salih (virtuous deeds).

The WCSS and the Girls’ Club silently observed the development of this anti-feminist movement, doing little to oppose or even resist the Islamic movement. On the contrary, they used their adherence to Islam to justify their attitude of complacency toward the patriarchal structure of the society. They supported the imposition of Islamic adab (female modesty and chastity) and perpetuated the myth that Kuwaiti women’s achievements in education and paid employment were synonymous with female emancipation. Nevertheless, both the WCSS and the Girls’ Club supported female suffrage and campaigned, albeit separately, to win the vote for women.

In 1980, the WCSS addressed a petition to the Council of Ministers demanding that Kuwaiti women be appointed to senior government posts. Positions, such as those of undersecretary in various key ministries and college dean, have been opened up to women. Involvement in key jobs serves the interests of both state and ruling classes. In her book Kuwait: Anatomy of a Crisis Economy, S. M. Al Sabah indicated that the integration of women into the labor force is central to maintaining social harmony and political stability while “the absence of that stability, in the case of a nation such as Kuwait, threatens not only the prosperity of a country but also its very existence.” [4] At the same time, throughout the 1980s, women’s groups worked closely with the government to teach women how to become better housewives and how to raise their children within the confines of Kuwaiti culture. Each group devised its own educational programs and worked independently under the umbrella of the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor. Bayadir al-Salam focused on domestic consumption, while the ICS, the WCSS and the Girls’ Club focused on mother-child relationships.

The period after the Gulf war saw two major developments. First, the majority of women’s organizations shifted their concerns toward khidmat al-mujtama‘ (serving the community). Secondly, in 1994, the Federation of the Kuwaiti Women’s Associations (FKWA) was licensed as the sole representative of Kuwaiti women’s associations outside Kuwait. All the women’s organizations except the WCSS joined the FKWA. Sheikha Latifa, already acting chairwoman of the Islamic Care Society and the Volunteer Women’s Association for Community Services (licensed in 1991) was elected president of the FKWA. This gave elite women full control over the activities and symbols of women’s groups, and the right to speak officially on behalf of Kuwaiti women.

The FKWA calls on women to push for the implementation of shari‘a and to comply with “Arab and Islamic traditions,” ignoring the many social and economic problems faced by Kuwaiti women in their everyday lives. After the Gulf war, the number of impoverished female heads of households increased, and the situation of Kuwaiti women married to non-Kuwaitis seriously deteriorated. Foreign husbands and children of Kuwaiti women are denied all protections to which Kuwaitis are otherwise entitled. The patrilineal character of citizenship in Kuwait allows the state to disavow any responsibility to support them. Government housing, child allowances and unconditional welfare assistance are provided directly to Kuwaiti men as heads of households. There are more than 7,000 Kuwaiti women married to foreigners, of whom 718 were on welfare assistance in 1993.

In 1993, when Kuwaiti women married to non-Kuwaiti sought refuge in the WCSS, the latter adopted their cause and demanded that Kuwaiti women be given the right to pass citizenship on to their children. For over a year, members used the premises of the Environmental Protection Society (EPS) as their headquarters until they were told by the society’s all-male board to look for a new meeting place.

The politics of female marginalization practiced by the state are supported by the FKWA. This group’s leaders blame women -- not the state -- for existing social problems, arguing that it is the fault of women if their marriages break down, if their husbands fail to support them, and if their children and foreign husbands are stateless and unemployed. They advise Kuwaiti women not to marry “outsiders” and to look after the stability of their family. The issue of women’s citizenship rights is cast aside as unimportant and incompatible with shari’a principles of differential gender responsibilities.

The WCSS, meanwhile, has been trying to change its former image of an organization devoted entirely to charity work. It now has a new president, ‘Adila al-Sayir, and new members recruited from both the middle and upper classes, most of whom are highly educated and hold managerial positions. The WCSS has reformulated its objectives “to raise the educational and cultural level of Kuwaiti women, and to increase their awareness of both their rights and obligations as citizens and as family members.” [5] However, the formation of the FKWA has reduced the authority of the WCSS, forcing it to look for new allies in the public sphere, notably the Graduates’ Society and the Lawyers’ Society. Although these societies are in favor of extending more rights to women, they are not in favor of conceding all men’s privileges to women or changing gender relations. Nor is the WCSS interested in changing the traditional male-female relationship. During their first “Post-Liberation Conference on Women’s Role in Cultural, Social and Economic Development” held in April 1994, ‘Adila al-Sayir emphasized that the “women’s role in social development should not be seen as merely a matter of achieving or seeking equality with men...but rather of participating with men in formulating new social models” that are congruent with Kuwaiti traditions and customs. [6] In other words, men and women have different roles and responsibilities, and cooperation between them is essential for achieving harmony and social stability. Men are defined as husbands/brothers/partners with whom women share common interests and concerns.

Family unity is essential for both the FKWA and the WCSS. The Fourth UN Conference on Women had unleashed a furor never seen before in Kuwaiti society, with the Islamists denouncing the conference as subversive and a Western ploy aimed at destroying the values of the Muslim community. During the conference, many members of the WCSS joined the FKWA and other anti-feminists groups to stage protests against abortion, gay rights and sexual liberties that they feared would lead to the decline of the moral authority of the family and bring social disorder and instability. Aligning themselves with Kuwaiti officials, the FKWA made it clear publicly that they will not allow the implementation of “anything contradictory” to Islamic shari‘a and the tradition and culture of Kuwaiti society. The “headstrong attitude” displayed by the Kuwaiti women’s groups in opposing resolutions contrary to religious morality and family values was praised by the Islamists and the government.

Into the Future

Kuwaiti women’s organizations, including the WCSS, have empowered those who are already empowered and reinforced women’s subservience to patriarchal rule. There is strong resistance on the part of the state, the male community and elite and upper-class women to any changes in women’s status. The closure of the AWDS, a vocal feminist group that advocated full citizenship rights for women, illustrates the anxiety of the patriarchal society over women’s autonomy and independent status. This anxiety is shared by elite and upper-class women -- hence the contradictions in the WCSS’ brand of feminism which, on the one hand, advocates political and civil rights for women and, on the other, opposes the right of women to decide on matters affecting their reproductive health and sexuality. In addition, although the WCSS and the Girls’ Club support suffrage for women and, since the early 1980s, have campaigned for political rights, they have made no effort to form a coalition. This lack of unity has undermined the women’s political rights movement and has raised doubts about the commitment of women’s groups to win the vote for women. It seems unlikely that the WCSS and the Girls’ Club will join forces before the new elections in the fall of 1996, so deep is the divide between them that to bridge such division would require that the leaders begin to identify themselves with women’s issues rather than with the groups they represent.

Endnotes

[1] Kuwait Ministry of Planning, al-Siyasa al-Ijtima‘iyya fi Arba‘a Sanawat (Social Policy in Four Years), June 1975.
[2] For a more in-depth analysis, see Mary Ann Tetreault and Haya al-Mughni, “Women, Citizenship and Nationalism in Kuwait,” paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Studies Association, Chicago, February 1995.
[3] See Shafeeq Ghabra, “Voluntary Associations in Kuwait: The Foundation of a New System?” Middle East Journal 45/2 (Spring 1991), pp. 199-215.
[4] S. M. Al Sabah, Kuwait: Anatomy of a Crisis Economy (London: Eastlords Publishing, 1984), p. 25.
[5] WCSS, Women’s Cultural and Social Society, 1963-1994, April 1994.
WCSS, Masirat al-Jam‘iyya (March of the Society), 1994.

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