Women's Rights and the Meaning of Citizenship in Kuwait

by Mary Ann T├ętreault | published February 10, 2005

Prosperous and possessed of a spirited parliament, Kuwait has prided itself on being a standard setter among the Arab monarchies on the Persian Gulf. With respect to women's rights, however, today Kuwait ranks just above Saudi Arabia. Kuwaiti women are allowed to drive and they occupy positions in public life ranging from secretary to second-level government ministers, but like their sisters in Saudi Arabia, they can neither vote nor run for political office.

In 2004, Kuwaiti feminists opened another chapter in their perennial campaign to get the parliament to vote for women's political rights. The current chapter is strangely quiet. Most Kuwaiti feminists are convinced that the measure's time has finally come, but few intend to lobby legislators to pass it. The National Assembly elected in 2003 includes few men committed to the cause of women's rights. But this is not the reason why Kuwaiti suffrage activists are directing their efforts elsewhere. Like their fellow citizens, they believe that what a majority of Parliament thinks about important issues does not really matter. What matters is what the government thinks.

The eclipse of Parliament is a sign of stress in the regime, a situation that complicates the politics of women's rights. It is true that the lion's share of power in the Kuwaiti political system lies with the ruling family. In recent years, however, the rulers have been challenged repeatedly in Parliament, mostly via the interpellation or questioning of ministers. Some challenges to the rulers' handpicked ministers come from Kuwait's liberal opposition and most of these are efforts to make government more transparent and law-abiding. Parliamentary liberals are regarded as allies in the women's rights battle, but today they are few in number and the government prefers to keep them at arm's length for political reasons.

Islamists have been wooed by the ruling family since the late 1970s. The emir Ahmad al-Jabir Al Sabah (who acceded to power in 1977) used religious rhetoric and sought religious allies to boost his legitimacy early in his tenure, during a period when the constitution was suspended and the parliament was closed by fiat. Islamists were seen as safer than the secular Arab nationalists who made up the backbone of the liberal opposition, yet they are neither a monolithic nor a politically "reliable" group. Islamists also petition to interpellate ministers as a means of moving their agendas along. Even more alarming for the regime, even MPs conventionally envisioned as embodying "traditional" values are now asserting themselves on the floor of the National Assembly. How will this affect the suffragists' strategy on women's rights?

Proxy Issue

The government's position is formally clear. Since 1999, the emir and his cabinet have supported women's political rights with fine words—but few deeds. Following the dismissal of the 1996 parliament, the emir issued a decree conferring political rights on women, along with a host of other controversial measures that the government hoped would be ratified by the 1999 legislature. All of the decrees came down during the 60-day interval between parliaments and all of them, with the exception of budget allocations, were defeated. An identical women's rights measure originating in the National Assembly also was defeated by two votes, thanks to two abstentions by ostensible supporters of women's rights.

Informally, the government's position is less clear. The women's rights decree aggravated divisions among parliamentary factions just by the circumstances under which it was issued. The decree forced candidates for the new parliament to reveal their positions at a time when constituencies were highly mobilized around the issue of women's rights, yet the government made no move to convince either sitting members or their challengers to support it.

Gender politics became a prominent proxy issue for conflicts between legislators and the government during the 1992 parliament, the first to sit after Kuwait was liberated from Iraqi occupation. The venom directed toward women by women's rights opponents came as a shock to Kuwaiti feminists rightfully proud of women's contributions to the nation during the occupation. In 1990, Kuwait had been a virtual "city of women," whose sex offered some protection from Iraqi forces charged with monitoring the population. Women mounted the first anti-occupation demonstration and were active in the resistance, transporting weapons and leaflets, as well as food meant for foreigners whose whereabouts were concealed lest they be carried off to Baghdad as hostages. Women who were caught doing these things were tortured and killed, their bodies thrown in front of their families' houses. Many of the women I interviewed in 1992 were convinced that women's heroic actions under occupation had earned them equal citizenship rights. It was not to be.

The most vociferous opponents of women's political rights in the parliament are Sunni Islamists. Ironically, Islamists have successfully traded on the pivotal role of the mosque during the Iraqi occupation to assert their own rights to political prominence in post-liberation Kuwait. The mosque—like women's "domains," home and hijab—is a protected space in Muslim cultures, a place where Friday preachers, many neighborhood volunteers, could broadcast news and coordinate resistance activities in codes that outsiders were unlikely to understand. After liberation, Kuwaitis praised these actions. Even the Muslim Brothers, whose international organization had supported Iraq in the conflict, found that their members' resistance activities diluted the animosity of Kuwaitis toward the group as a whole.

"Traditionals," Kuwaitis closer to their tribal origins than urban dwellers, are the other group that remains firmly opposed to women's political rights. Traditional representation in the National Assembly received a boost when the emir reordered constituencies before the 1981 election, carving 25 districts each electing two members out of the original ten that had each elected five. The 1981 redistricting project aimed primarily to reduce the presence and power of the political opposition, which, at that time, was primarily urban and liberal. The new districts cut across some tribal lines, encouraging the spread of informal (and now illegal) tribal primaries to reduce vote scattering, and bundled Shiite Kuwaitis (who tend to support women's rights) in a way that reduced their weight in the parliament. In the parliament, Sunni Islamists and traditionals have constituted a formidable bloc on the women's rights issue, one encompassing the vast majority of members.

Because so many traditionals are "independents," however, the government can often secure their votes in return for benefits to themselves and their constituents. So far, the government has not opted to deploy this not-so-secret weapon in a renewed fight to pass a women's rights bill.

Dress Rehearsal?

The difficulty of the government's position can be seen in the fate of the redistricting bill that went to the parliament in the spring of 2004. The measure was expected to pass. First, its submission to the parliament signified its acceptance by the government; second, the parliamentary committee worked hard to present the members with a range of clearly laid-out alternatives. In addition to the government's two plans for ten districts, the committee offered a third ten-district plan, plus one for six districts and another for five.

The consolidation of districts has been a goal of the liberal opposition since the emir redrew the electoral map in 1981. Small districts make it cheaper and easier for interfering parties to buy votes or to finance multiple candidates to draw votes away from someone they hope to defeat. Islamists also support redistricting. Like liberals, they expect larger districts to reduce electoral corruption—one liberal observer told me that as many as nine current members bought their seats, although this estimate is probably on the high side. Liberals and Islamists also see consolidating districts as adding momentum for legalizing political parties, another hoped-for reform.

But every status quo generates special interests. The 25-district system has been a boon to "independent" candidates. Small districts, relatively inexpensive "neighborhood" campaigns, and the solidarity of family and friends all improve the electoral chances of persons without a political history or even much of a platform. Consequently, one third or more of each parliament consists of newcomers. Since liberation, when the economic rewards accruing to members of Parliament began to expand at a very rapid rate, winning a seat has become highly desirable even for persons who are not particularly interested in politics but fancy the role of intermediary, channeling state largesse to their constituents. Thus, the 25-district system has also been a boon to the government. The ruling family is generally regarded as the most consistent and insistent interferer in Kuwaiti elections and the real power behind any organized effort by independents to take a coherent stand on an issue when it reaches the floor.

Unexpectedly, independents took a stand against redistricting, arguing that none of the proposed plans provided for equal population across constituencies. Debate was so heated that the speaker was forced to adjourn the June 12 session for a week. The government indicated its support for redistricting, but—another surprise—when the assembly met on the proposal again the government voted for a motion to delay consideration until the fall legislative term. This reversal elicited a rare public rebuke from a newspaper columnist. Writing in al-Qabas, Abd al-Latif al-Duaij charged the ruling family with "ruining" the country and acting "against the interests of the nation."

Horse Trading?

Neither the redistricting bill nor the women's rights issue has come up in the parliamentary session that began in the autumn. Meanwhile, the parliament itself looks increasingly unstable. In December 2004, two liberals interpellated cabinet minister Mahmoud al-Sharar, exposing an enormous amount of official malfeasance. In another surprising move, rather than asking for a vote of no confidence in Sharar, the two liberal interlocutors requested and received parliamentary support to send the mass of documents they had collected to the Audit Bureau, perhaps the most trusted government institution in Kuwait. The Audit Bureau was charged with making a report within three months, and could refer the matter directly to the courts if it finds violations of the law in the evidence it reviews.

Meanwhile, on December 20, three Islamist parliamentarians from the hard-line salafi group filed a request to interpellate the information minister, Muhammad Abu al-Hassan. They accused him of violating public morals by allowing pop music concerts to take place, neglecting to halt the airing of "subversive" TV programs and ignoring the emir's directives to prepare the country to move to sharia law. Rather than face interpellation, the minister resigned on January 2. Since Abu al-Hassan was the only Shiite in the cabinet, the interpellation threat aggravated sectarian differences. It was seen as provocative rather than serious, little more than a means for advancing the Islamist agenda. That conclusion is strengthened by the decision of all the Sunni groups to support it. On January 5, an independent MP filed a motion to interpellate the justice minister.

Taken together, these events might explain why some Kuwaitis are anticipating a cabinet reshuffle and a few expect another parliamentary dissolution. Neither would halt the patient grinding of the Audit Bureau although either could exchange problem ministers for new faces, even if the prime minister leaves the personnel of the current cabinet substantially in place. But without more fundamental change, the stage appears set for the women's rights measure to fail yet again.

What Do Women Think?

Kuwaiti activists, including feminists, are tired of fruitless confrontations in the National Assembly. Instead, many are focusing their efforts on civil society where they are making notable strides toward bridging the various sectarian divisions that the government and parliament are so assiduous in cultivating. Initiators of civil society reforms are seeking to shape the future by concentrating on human rights, including the human rights of women. Few argue any longer that women deserve political rights because they resisted Iraqi occupation or because they are such good citizens. As women—and others, like the Shia—learned after liberation, special status is a trap. Instead, as a female economist put it, because they are citizens, women must have the same rights as men.

In December 2004, activists made a spectacular end run around status quo forces in Kuwaiti society when economists elected Rola Dashti as chair of their professional organization. Dashti is the first woman to hold such a position in a mixed-gender non-governmental organization in Kuwait. In addition to her credentials as an economist, she is an active feminist and a Shiite. As important as her energetic leadership of citizens' efforts to win political rights for women is her assertion of her right as a citizen to own a business and to host diwaniyyas (salons) in her home where women come to discuss politics, business and other matters of interest just as men do at their diwaniyyas. Rasha Al Sabah, a cousin of the emir, has held mixed diwaniyyas for years but, as a member of the ruling family, though what she does may be exemplary it is not "normal." Rola Dashti, along with a handful of other women, is normalizing diwaniyyas for women just as she has normalized the role of Kuwaiti businesswoman.

The Economists Society sees her election as sending a strong message to Kuwaiti society. One Sunni member told me that she thought it was time for Kuwait to shatter the glass ceiling that impedes all but token members of the Shiite and other minority communities from being fully recognized for their abilities and achievements. The Economists Society has stepped forward into the vacuum left by the state, the country's largest employer, and hopes to set an example for other civil society institutions to move beyond tokenism to inclusion.

What Do Kuwaitis Think?

Following the 1996 election, a group of 20 Kuwaitis, women and men, got together to talk about how politics might be done differently. Out of this and subsequent meetings, a new, mixed-gender NGO was formed, the National Democratic Rally (NDR). Its primary aspiration was to organize the center, citizens in and out of parliament who were not affiliated with a political group but wanted to work together on issues they all thought important.

That first attempt at bridging socio-political divides has recently been expanded into a new political movement, an alliance that combines the centrist NDR with older groups such as the liberal Kuwait Democratic Forum. Organizers are concentrating on mobilizing young Kuwaitis into this coalition and also into professional associations like the Economists Society that groom their members for future leadership in the professions and in politics. While some former leaders might be described as ambivalent at being unceremoniously "retired," the enthusiasm of most others is genuine, as is their commitment to fundamental change.

Another new entry onto the Kuwaiti political scene is the Justice and Development Movement (JDM). Like the female suffrage movement, it includes women and men, Islamists and liberals and, like the alliance, its emphasis is on pluralism. The December 19 Gulf News reported the views of JDM member Nasr Yousef al-Abdali on the group's goals: "Democracy in Kuwait is a lie. The whole process has been hijacked by the fight between the Islamists and liberals who are not really looking to the future of the country.... We do not identify ourselves as Islamists or liberals. We are a movement for all lovers of freedom and include professionals, academics, economists and media. Our movement represents a social force that is trying to express its opinion on matters that are important to us."

The commitment to pluralism is echoed by the Muslim Brothers' political group, the Islamic Constitution Movement (ICM), whose leaders also are embracing pluralism in their calls for the legalization of political parties as an element in a multi-party system that would ensure power sharing. Nasr al-Sane', an MP and the assistant secretary-general of the ICM, put it this way in an article published on December 12: "The goal of a multi-party system is to form a harmonious government if it wins elections." Significantly for the leader of a movement that historically has pressed for a constitutional amendment to make sharia the sole basis of Kuwaiti law, he added this observation: "I believe the Kuwaiti constitution as it stands needs no amendments except toward the participation of the people and democracy.... Our constitution cannot and should not remain stagnant and amendments could be added to include the formation and recognition of political parties."

Early in February 2005, the hard-line branch of the Sunni Islamist salafi movment raised the stakes even higher by launching what the group is calling a political party, Hizb al-Umma. The new organization was born into a chaotic situation that has pitted Islamist gunmen against Kuwaiti security forces in several deadly confrontations since the beginning of the year. The initial response from Kuwaitis outside the government has been mixed. Liberals and Shiite moderates have reiterated their position that political parties are necessary for democratic development, but the ideology of Hizb al-Umma is repugnant to them. Given the repudiation of democratic provisions of the Kuwaiti constitution in the new party's charter, they find it difficult to welcome it or urge its acceptance by the government and other citizens.

At the same time, pressures to open avenues for political participation continue to grow, especially among the young. Hizb al-Umma, with its call to Islamize the country, might be looking for a constituency among disaffected youth, a few of whom have joined the local Islamist insurgency. The JDM sees itself as a political home for professionals in their late thirties and early forties. Liberals also are gearing up for a more open politics in Kuwait and they are appealing to even younger activists, many recently returned from graduate and post-graduate education abroad. A few (women as well as men) have shown their mettle by competing successfully in elections to the board of the Kuwaiti Overseas Student Association. They are looking around for attractive candidates to support during the next parliamentary election. They see campaigning as a way not only to work for people they would like to see elected but also to learn useful skills to apply in their own future candidacies. Activists from this newest generation, Khaled Hilal al-Mutairy, Fatma Hayat and Khaled al-Fadhala, already occupy leadership positions in the alliance.

The Government's Dilemma

Women's political rights, redistricting and the legalization of political parties would be good for the government in the long run and arguably even in the short run. Micro-managing a state is difficult. Kuwait's leaders look more like the little Dutch boy putting his fingers in the leaky dyke than statesmen steering the ship of state. As with any leaky enterprise, the biggest leaks attract the most attention but palliatives do little to preserve the integrity of the vessel. A case in point is the Islamist use of interpellation as a kind of hostage taking, to get results they would not be able to command in an open forum.

Allowing Islamist parties of various stripes to compete openly with secular parties might be a better way to minimize Islamist radicalism than by applying the time-honored strategy of repression. As the interpellation of the information minister approached, the prime minister, fearful of aggravating sectarian divisions, held frantic closed-door meetings with parliamentary independents and Sunni Islamists to ensure that the questioning would not end with a vote of no confidence against the minister. In exchange, he agreed to ban the entertainment programs the Islamists had objected to. As it turned out, none of this mattered as the threat of a scandal over the transfer of ownership of a local daily newspaper pushed the minister to resign before a vote of confidence was taken. The prime minister accepted his decision.

The prime minister's rush to reach a private accommodation with the Islamists produced a predictable response from another Kuwaiti professional association, the Kuwait Graduates Society, which long has opposed the encroachments of Islamists on citizens' rights. In a statement published on December 29, the society accused the prime minister of using constitutionally guaranteed civil rights as a bargaining chip to pacify "parliamentarians who have no respect for constitutional values and for the democratic system as a whole.... Deals struck between the government and Islamist MPs [come] at the expense of our freedom," and threaten to take Kuwait toward a Taliban-style regime. The last time such an impasse occurred was the spring of 1999, when the emir dismissed the parliament in the hope of getting a better one. Yet the new parliament the emir's dissolution produced was only a little more reasonable than the one it replaced, while its successor body has proven to be at least as bad if not worse.

Reform opens the possibility of changing the Kuwaiti political universe in a positive direction. A reconfiguration of constituencies could bring a more professional kind of legislator to the National Assembly and perhaps a more consistent and transparent method for regulating public discourse. Legalizing and regulating political parties could add responsibility to what is now a very unstable and irresponsible system. Open party competition would force radical Islamists to seek public support for their ideas rather than being able to sneak behind closed doors and use threats to get what they want from a fearful regime. Even though a majority of women are thought to be heavily influenced by religion and tradition, adding women to voter rolls and candidate lists would be another prop for responsible politics, especially when Islamist extremism presents a direct threat to the safety and wellbeing of Kuwaitis and their families. Doing nothing promises far less: deadlock, rancor, rising resentment and perhaps continuing violence. The Red Queen's advice to Alice applies equally well to Kuwait: you have to run as fast as you can just to stay in the same place.

Filed under: