Only Sharia-following women can engage in Kuwaiti politics

This piece was first published by Raseef22, on August 3, 2023.  An edited version is republished here, under a content sharing agreement.

Female members left the Kuwaiti National Assembly session during the passing of Article 16 of the General Election Commission law. The amended version mandates “adherence to the provisions of the constitution, law, and Islamic Sharia to exercise the right to vote and run”. This move was perceived as an attempt to exclude women from political participation and impose further guardianship over them in the name of religion.

The special session convened on August 1, 2023, witnessed the second round of discussions regarding the draft law for the election of National Assembly members. The Council had previously approved it during its initial discussion on July 27. 

With 62 deputies present and the endorsement of 53, the council approved Article 16 of the Election Commission law. The article’s second paragraph connects the right to vote and candidacy to adherence to the constitution, the law, and Sharia. Only nine members rejected this paragraph, including Dr. Jenan Boushehri, the sole female member in the current Kuwaiti parliament.

The council dismissed a removal request put forth by MP Jenan Boushehri, who cautioned against the “danger of including a broad and open-ended provision in the election law,” interpreting the amendment as “political manipulation” and a “political game with Sharia and its rules and fatwas.”

The amendment’s main objective is to enforce women’s compliance termed “Sharia regulations,” including wearing of the hijab and dressing “modestly,” as proposed by MP Majed Al-Mutairi and others.  However, the joint committee consisting of the parliament's Interior and Defense Affairs Committee and the Legislative and Legal Affairs Committee expanded the scope, obligating both genders to “adhere to Sharia.”

Consequently, there have been appeals for Kuwaiti women to rise up in defense of their constitutional rights and gains against what’s been described as “the birds of darkness” before the session.

‘The entire country has been hijacked by religious hard-liners”

Numerous Kuwaiti activists and citizens have taken to social media to voice their dissatisfaction with the approval of the article, which they view as an attempt at “politically excluding women under the guise of religion.” They deemed it as a “historical setback” reinforcing the notion of “imposing guardianship on women and using religion and Sharia to justify it.”

In a video message, Kuwaiti Professor Nawal al-Rasheed questions the new law, saying:

We have been voting for years, so why now? Does clause they are advocating for signify progress or regress? It's 1000% regressive. It cannot be seen as progress. Unbelievable. Kuwait in the '70s and '60s was never like this, the entire country has been hijacked by religious hard-liners and extremists.

Feminist activist, Maryam al-Azmi hinted that the decision revolves around “political hypocrisy”:

 The intention behind women's hijab, niqab, and abaya is to exert male guardianship and political control over society. You think they really care about the veil? For some of them, their daughters and wives don't wear hijab, yet they vote for the hijab to suppress women living in remote areas far from their influence.

Kuwaiti media personality Laila Ahmad, commented on the passing of the amendment:

Lack faith in the urgent issues of Kuwait. They do not want to discuss the reasons behind the country's paralysis and the people's discontent. They distract the people with unimportant matters to protect the corrupt and perpetuate stagnation and general paralysis in government administration, with deputies reconciling with their interests.

Kuwaiti academic Shaikha Bin Jasim humorously questioned the intended meaning of the amendment:

Now we need one of the brilliant minds who agreed to the condition of Sharia compliance to precisely outline what that means. Does it entail wearing the ‘dishdasha’ (traditional Kuwaiti male dress) that extends to the ankles? Must men grow their beards? Shave their mustaches? Are women expected to women wear a head abaya? Are perfumes allowed within parliament?

She also speculated that “this law will likely not pass, and even if it does, the Constitutional Court will nullify this clause, as it happened in 2009

Kuwaiti author Shaikha al-Bahawed concurred, saying:

In reality, this clause will likely have little impact, similar to the one in the election law that was deemed unconstitutional. However, on a political level, it reeks of hypocrisy to boost their image at our expense, insisting on categorizing us and undermining the choices of women, which all calls for challenging this mentality.

In response to assertions by proponents of the amendment that it advances “equality” through its application to both men and women, Kuwaiti writer and politician Salwa Al-Saeed clarified that this perspective is flawed. Instead, she argued that the amendment exacerbated the issue.

Requiring Sharia compliance from both genders could potentially disqualify candidates based on their vague commitment to Sharia principles. This decision lies with the Commission, operating under the authority of the Minister of Justice, leading to uncertainties in selection.

Al-Saeed emphasized, “I've said it before, the lack of legislation is better than bad legislation. This represents a lamentable decline in legislative quality!”

Kuwaiti women activists underlined the significance of leveraging the session’s events when choosing their representatives in future parliamentary elections. Dr. Aroub al-Rifai, a public affairs activist, urged:

We, as women, must not forget those who endorsed discriminatory actions against women and those who supported them.

When casting our votes in the upcoming elections, we should consider candidates’ positions on women's issues. This will guide us to withhold support from those who harm us.

Additionally, we should acknowledge the invaluable role of women deputies in parliament — an essential achievement that cannot be replaced. Women in parliament are our advocates and voices on matters that affect us.

While Kuwait became the first Gulf country to adopt a parliamentary system in 1962, it wasn't until 2005 that Kuwaiti women were granted the right to vote and run for elections.

In 2009, four Kuwaiti women made history by winning seats in the National Assembly for the first time. However, the number of female deputies in the assembly has declined since then.

While Kuwait was at the forefront of granting women political rights in the Gulf region, extending back for decades, it has experienced a distressing regression in freedoms and achievements in recent times, coinciding with the emergence of those who advocate for the fusion of religion and politics.

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