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There was a time when Kuwaiti women were burning their abayas and demanding equal rights, when its music and theatre scenes were famous throughout the region, when the country was a haven for journalists and writers. No more.
Political dissent is increasingly silenced and personal freedoms limited. Opposition media outlets are being closed down, despite contrary court rulings; the executive is overriding the judiciary.
New media laws make matters worse. Although Article 36 of the constitution guarantees some freedom of speech, prosecutions for offending the emir and criticizing the state are increasing, resulting in jail sentences and sometimes the revocation of citizenship.
Also, discrimination continues, including the oppression of the bidoon, the large group of stateless people who are accused of hiding their true (Iraqi, Saudi, or Syrian) nationality in order to take advantage of Kuwait’s resources. The debate has now reached the surreal level of “offering” them Comoros Islands citizenship.
What happened to the country where the revolutionary Iraqi poet Ahmed Matar once found refuge? Where schools were mixed and whisky was legal?
“It is the curse of the Bedouin,” a female artist says, referring to the naturalization of large numbers of tribesmen in the 1960s and 1970s to garner support for the ruling family. This caused a demographic shift from a majority of the old merchant/towns-people class (hadhar) to a majority of Bedouins.
“They ended up in parliament—this is the curse of democracy,” an older Kuwaiti says. “Now we are stuck with their backward ideas.” These views are common among the hadhars, who claim to be the only real Kuwaitis, the ones who built the country and consider themselves modern and open-minded.
Although the Bedouins did bring more conservative elements into society, it is not necessarily true that this resulted in today’s deteriorating human-rights situation. That probably has more to do with the government’s long-standing divide-and-rule strategy.
The rift between hadhar and Bedouin is just one of many in Kuwait. There are divisions between Kuwaitis (both hadhar and Bedouin) and the bidoon, and between Sunni and Shiite, and between Kuwaitis and immigrants.
There is a deep mistrust between these different groups, where each group accuses another of being after Kuwait’s wealth and power. The divide-and-rule strategy has backfired: Bedouins are now the government’s fiercest critics. The power of the rulers is based on jelly,” the older Kuwaiti says. So what do the rulers do? They shut up the opposition.
Perhaps not entirely unrelated to the influx of Bedouins, Kuwait has become more religious, not less. In a textbook on human rights for law students, we read, “The Islamic concept of freedom of expression is much superior to the concept prevalent in the West. Under no circumstances would Islam allow evil and wickedness to be propagated.” It is not only the emir who is untouchable—so is Allah.
The government attempted in the late 1990s to introduce human rights into the school curriculum. The subject was to be tackled from three perspectives: Islam, international conventions, and the Kuwaiti constitution, in that order. An official pamphlet providing information on the new module stated, “There are rights that cannot be accepted as they are in conflict with the Sharia.” Examples were provided: premarital sex, same-sex marriage, and equality between males and females in inheritance laws.
The school initiative, which some hoped would solve the problem of citizenship and social divisions, has largely failed. In 2010 the three-year programme was reduced to one year because younger students were deemed intellectually unprepared for information about democracy, the constitution, and human rights.
Meanwhile, women are still not treated as equals, and gays have no rights. Although homosexuality is not forbidden by law, debauchery is, and courts have prosecuted homosexuals under this provision. It is the conservative part of society, even more than the courts, that gays and lesbians must fear.
The Case of the Domestic Workers
All this goes largely unnoticed by Kuwait’s large population of low-paid domestic workers. Their concerns are not with political participation, gender equality, or freedom of expression. Hovering just above the poverty line and unprotected by law, they are exposed to exploitation and violence.
Their salaries may or may not be paid, proper food or health care may or may not be provided, they may have a room of their own or sleep in the kitchen, they are part of the family or treated as slaves. Everything depends on the whims of their sponsors, the family for which they work and that holds their passports.
For them, though, there is a ray of hope. Because the issue is less sensitive politically and religiously, it is one of the few in which Kuwait seems to have made progress, not in the least because people such as Bibi Nasser Al Sabah, granddaughter of the emir, have been pressing for better laws.
Recently, the National Assembly passed a law that will grant domestic workers basic rights, such as a weekly day off, holidays, and a minimum wage. Another law will curtail the commercial recruitment agencies and replace them with agencies controlled by the government.
Human-rights organizations have cautiously welcomed the laws, lauding the initiative—the first in the Gulf-region—at the same time pointing out that there are still many unsettled issues.
It is unclear when the law will enter into force and how, if at all, it will be enforced. This may very well be the greatest challenge in a country ruled by wasta, the use of connections to get things done, to make police reports disappear. Yet another curse of the tribal Bedouin culture, some say.
It is also unclear where Kuwait is headed. It is still the freest and most liberal of the Gulf States. Blogs such as the one referred to above about gay rights are allowed. But for how long will the more liberal parts of society stand their ground? Many of them, young and old, say they have given up and spend as much time as possible abroad. “Anywhere, as long as it is not here,” they say.