Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Building a Better Kuwait: Women’s Rights Are Equal Rights

Building a Better Kuwait
Women activists rally in support of their right to exercise activities, outside the National Assembly in Kuwait City on February 7, 2022. A Kuwaiti women’s yoga retreat that was denounced as “immoral” has been postponed after authorities said it needed a permit, its organiser said, prompting a backlash online and a complaint to parliament. Yasser Al-Zayyat / AFP

Nejoud Al-Yagout

In recent months, Kuwait has witnessed a surge in misogynistic tirades by conservative men in positions of power. First, a lawmaker spoke of the necessity of shutting down a desert yoga retreat for women. The police justified this shutdown by stating that the retreat’s host had not obtained the proper licence registration. The police’s justification did not mask the lawmaker’s intent, whose aversion toward both yoga and women was evident to activists. The LA Times even picked up on the incident, writing that “clerics thundered about the ‘danger’ and depravity of women doing the lotus position and downward dog in public, and ultimately persuaded authorities to ban the event.” 

This shutdown, in turn, led to further debates on whether or not yoga is haram. Zain Telecom, which capitalised on the controversy, featured an ad in which they presented women, some of whom were practising yoga. After being viciously criticised by some members of society for promoting a practice that, as they claimed, goes against our heritage and traditions, Zain pulled the ad. This sparked another controversy where angry locals accused Zain of exhibiting what they deemed weakness by cancelling the ad. 

Another lawmaker suggested a fatwa to prohibit men and women from dancing together at concerts. Furthermore, conditions for women to be able to work or join the military were a point of discussion. The first of which was that women should have the permission of a male guardian, the other that women should wear a hijab to work. 

The hijab has always been a personal choice in our country. It was never enforced by the government. Worldwide, only two countries enforce the hijab: Iran and Afghanistan. Our neighbour, Saudi Arabia, rid itself of this stipulation several years ago. 

Although the rulings for these conditions were not passed, the fact that conservative men are trying to dictate the lives of Kuwaiti women is disconcerting, to say the least. And why now? Why, when our neighbours are opening up and becoming more progressive, do these men in power consider it necessary to tighten the grip on extremist ideals? The pushback from many Kuwaiti women and men has been refreshing. Regardless of where we stand on the spectrum of traditionalism to progression, this divide is tearing our society apart.

Kuwaiti women descend from women who ran the family’s finances and affairs while the men were out at sea as pearl divers and merchants. Whether liberal or conservative, Kuwaiti women are ambassadors, ministers, activists, teachers, doctors, dentists, and part of the police force. Sadly, with all the freedom given to us, there are no women in our Parliament today, making it easy for men to ‘try’ to dictate our lives since women have no representation. Ever since women were given the right to vote and run for Parliament in 2006, only a handful have made it into Parliament. This year, according to the BBC, “[t]here were 29 female candidates, but none secured a seat.” The only woman in a position of power lost her seat during the last election.

Women have reached a desperate turning point in Kuwait’s history. Either we give the reins to men, or we fight for our rights and ensure women are treated as equal members of the community. Women are working tirelessly on the latter. 

The founders of Abolish 153 are fighting to abolish an article in the constitution in which honour killings are treated merely as misdemeanours rather than crimes, penalised only with a short three-year sentence and/or an embarrassingly small fine. Soroptimist Kuwait, Kuwait’s branch of Soroptimist International, stimulates women to reclaim their identities and assume positions of power. Other women, such as the founders of Lan Asket, encourage women to speak out against harassment. The founders of Gray Area advocate for the naturalisation of children born to Kuwaiti mothers, children deprived of the right to obtain their mothers’ citizenship if their fathers hold no Kuwaiti citizenship. According to its Instagram account, another initiative, known as Mudhawi’s List, “support[s] women running for elected office positions” and spotlights the achievements of women in Kuwait. 

There are many men and women here who are not part of initiatives but who support women to shine on their own as individuals and co-members of society. Women and men, both conservative and liberal, know that it is crucial to stand up now and that transformation is possible, even though there are a few men in power in the Ministry of Awqaf (Islamic Endowments) or as members of Parliament who are trying to suppress women’s advancement. 

As Malala Yousafzai stated: “We cannot succeed when half of us are held back.” Our society can only thrive when women are respected as individuals. Until then, each member of Kuwaiti society will face the consequences of an imbalanced society, which goes against humanity’s ideals: ideals of freedom for all.

We have pressing issues that warrant our attention, including corruption, a political crisis and censorship. It is time for us to unite and create the Kuwait our forefathers envisioned: a Kuwait that does not view freedom as a threat but as a right. And rights are not rights unless they are given to all. 

Neither liberals nor conservatives should impose their lifestyle on the other. All of us have different perceptions of reality, and Kuwaitis did well living side by side for generations, progressive or traditional, liberal or conservative. It is essential to live in a society where we coexist with one another. 

Both men and women should speak out against any form of injustice that gives power to one community and deprives the rights of others. Kuwaitis are being called upon to create a healthy society in which all are considered equal. 

For now, let us recall Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s famous quote: “I don’t say women’s rights – I say the constitutional principle of the equal citizenship stature of men and women.” That is what Kuwaitis should aim for, constitutional rights for all genders. And where the constitution fails us, as is the case with some of our constitution’s articles, our duty, our ethical and moral duty, is to raise awareness and press for change. 

DISCLAIMER

The opinions expressed in this publication are those of our writers. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of Fanack or its Board of Editors.

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