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The Rise of Islamic Feminism in Kuwait

L’Émergence du Féminisme Islamique au Koweït
Haya al-Mughni
p. 167-182

Résumés

The paper examines the emergence of Islamic Feminism in Kuwait, based on the writings and personal accounts of leading Islamist women activists.  It begins with an analysis of the socio-political factors that led to the creation of Islamic groups in the 1980s. It then outlines the role of women in the growth of the Islamic movement and shows how the contradictions between women’s contributions to the Islamic cause and the secondary role they play within the Islamic organizations controlled by men were conducive to the rise of Islamic feminism in the 1990s. The paper also demonstrates how the involvement of islamist women in the struggle for suffrage forging a coalition with liberal women activists had played a decisive role in changing the position of islamist groups towards the enfranchisement of women. The last two sections of the paper look at the participation of islamist women activists in the re-definition of the dichotomy between the public and private spheres and at their involvement in the process of interpretation of Islamic sources, known as Ijtihâd. The paper concludes that the engagement of islamist women activists in the discourse of women’s rights can be powerful agent of change towards a more egalitarian society.

L’Émergence du Féminisme Islamique au Koweït

Cet article retrace l’émergence du féminisme islamique au Koweït en se basant sur les écrits et les profils des militantes islamiques.  Il donne en premier lieu un aperçu des facteurs socio-politiques qui ont contribués à la création des groupes islamiques dans les années 1980, et sur le rôle des femmes dans le développement de ce mouvement. L’analyse montre que les contradictions entre la contribution des femmes à la cause islamique et leur rôle secondaire au sein des organisations islamiques contrôlées par les hommes ont donné naissance au féminisme islamique dans les années 1990. Cet article montre aussi comment l’engagement des militantes islamiques dans la lutte pour le droit politique en formant une coalition  avec les militantes libérales a joué un rôle décisif dans le changement de position des islamistes a l’égard de la participation politique des femmes. Les dernières sections de l’article examinent l’engagement des militantes islamiques dans la redéfinition de la séparation des sphères publique et privée et l’interprétation des sources islamiques (Ijtihâd). L’article tire la conclusion que l’engagement des militantes islamiques dans le discours sur les droits des femmes peut contribuer à une société plus égalitaire.

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1Kuwaiti women have been involved in islamic movements since the early 1980s. They donned the hijâb, formed religious organizations and participated in the islamization of society. Prior to the 1990s, islamist women activists shared the same views as their male counterparts. They too believed that a society governed by religious idioms and norms would bring social cohesion and cultural authenticity. Such ideals and women’s support for the islamist groups did not change or wane over the years. However, women’s expectations of their role within the islamist movement and the society at large have changed. Today islamist women activists are thoroughly engaged in the process of redefining the role of women in an islamic society in ways that promote women’s empowerment.

2This paper looks at the rise of the islamist groups in Kuwait, the role of the state in the islamization of society and the role of women in islamic resurgence. It shows how the state had encouraged the creation of religious associations and supported women’s engagement in the islamization process. The paper also examines the role of women in the expansion of the islamist movement. Analysis of islamist women’s writings and personal accounts reveal increased frustrations and disappointment with islamist associations dominated by men. By the early 1990s, islamist women activists began campaigning for equal political rights, forming a coalition with liberal women activists. This ultimately led to the enfranchisement of Kuwaiti women in 2005. The last sections of the paper look at how islamist women activists have re-negotiated women’s role in the private realm as well as their involvement in the process of interpretation of islamic sources, known as ijtihâd. The paper concludes that the involvement of islamist women activists in the discourse of women’s rights can be a powerful agent of change towards a more egalitarian Kuwaiti society.

State, Islam and Islamist Movements

3Although islamist groups have existed in Kuwait since the early 1950s, early religious organizations were mainly involved in philanthropic activities. They had few followers and their influence was limited to a small circle of elderly men (Ghabra, 1991). These organizations flourished in the 1980s, joined by numerous other islamist groups, and gradually became leading forces in Kuwait’s political life. The rapid growth of the islamist groups was the result of the state’s islamization policy. In 1978, the government declared the official islamization of society, defined as the application «of religious rules in all spheres » and the beginning of a « new order » (Tétreault and al-Mughni, 1995: 71).

  • 1  Although the Cultural Social Society was disbanded in 1989 and it was not reinstated until recentl (...)

4The first islamic organizations were the Social Reform Society (Jamîyat al-Islâh al-Ijtimâî) and the Cultural Social Society (Jamîyat al-Thaqâfah al-Ijtimâiyah)1.The latter has served the interests of the small Shi‘ah community which represents about 30 % of the Kuwaiti population, while the former is a Sunni group, affiliated to the Muslim brotherhood (Ikhwân al-Muslimîn). In 1956, when the Muslim Brotherhood organization in Egypt came under attack, many of its members settled temporarily in Kuwait and made the Social Reform Society as their headquarters. However, throughout the 1960s and 1970s, a period characterized by rapid modernization and state-building, these two religious groups played a marginal role in society (Ghabra, 1991). As elsewhere, Arab nationalism was then the dominant political ideology. Kuwait’s secular groups, namely the Arab nationalist and leftist groups, led the political opposition in parliament and had full control of the emerging civil society. They advocated political and economic reform, individual rights, and the emancipation of women. The state’s move towards the islamization of society was largely intended to diminish their influence and power.

5The islamization of society had a two-pronged aim: on the one hand, to safeguard traditional values and, on the other, to weaken the secular opposition (Tétreault and al-Mughni, 1995). Thus, while the government suspended the parliament and dissolved the elected boards of many of the professional associations controlled by the arab nationalist groups, it granted the islamists unhindered access to the public space (Ghabra, 1997). By the early 1980s, numerous religious groups sprung into existence, among them were two islamic women’s organizations, Bayâdir al-Salâm and the Islamic Care Society, as well as a salafi islamist men’s group named the Society for the Revival of Islamic Heritage (Jamîyat Ihyâ’ al-Turâth al-Islâmî).

6Through the control of mosques, professional associations, students union, charitable organizations and islamic banks, islamist groups were able in less than a decade to move from the margins of society to become leading players in Kuwait’s political life. Their ultimate goal shifted from the islamization of society towards the instituting of the sharî ah as the main source of legislation in the country. To that end, in the early 1990s, they formed political groupings to strengthen their political power and ensure that they were well-represented in parliament. The Ikhwân formed the Islamic Constitutional Movement (ICM), the Salaf created the Islamic Popular Alliance, and the Shi‘ah islamists formed the National Islamic Alliance (Ismael, 1993; Esposito, 1997; al-Mdaires, 1999). Although the call to make shariah the main source of legislation remains contentious issue in national politics, islamist parliamentarians have succeeded in passing a number of laws with conservative overtones. These efforts included a women’s early retirement bill intended to enable mothers to devote their time to child rearing, a measure imposing gender segregation in postsecondary schools, and a new labor law that bans women from working night shifts.

  • 2  Kuwaiti liberals are the former Arab nationalists, representing the traditional merchant community (...)

7Increased pressure to islamize society combined with the emphasis on moral issues at the expense of the country’s economic development produced unintended consequences for the islamists. By the mid-1990s, the government began to re-evaluate its former alliance with the islamists. It encouraged the development of a modernist islamic discourse and redirected its interests towards the liberal groups which advocate the separation between state and religion2. Another striking consequence of the islamists’ repeated attempts to limit women’s participation in the public sphere and impose an ultra-conservative interpretation of women’s role in society was the rise of islamic feminism in Kuwait. A small but a significant number of islamist women activists have begun to question and challenge the mainstream islamists’ views on women, demanding more rights for women.

The Rise of the Islamist Women

8The state’s official islamization of society triggered a massive interest among women in islamic revival. From the very beginning, Kuwaiti women from a variety of backgrounds took part in the islamization process through the creation of religious groups and preaching (da‘wah). Women’s islamic activism was also strikingly evident in the university campus where female students played an active role in converting women to the islamic cause and popularizing the wearing of the headscarves. By the mid-1980s, as Nesta Ramazani observed, « Religious observance has increased in Kuwait; more and more women on campus and elsewhere wear “islamic dress”, and some even wear gloves lest their bare hands be exposed to male view » (1985:270).

9The early appeal of the islamist movement to Kuwaiti women was a result of a variety of factors. There was the issue of culture and identity. The rapid pace of modernization disrupted the traditional gender relations and brought new values into the Kuwaiti society. Consequently, women’s lives changed beyond recognition: Kuwaiti women moved from being veiled and secluded to moving about freely in the streets dressed in Western clothes and driving their own cars (Nath, 1978). Many women felt a sense of alienation and disorientation (tagrîb). Islam provided some form of stability in an ever-changing society. It also helped ease the strains of modernity by preserving traditional values and practices. This was particularly evident among elite and upper class women who searched for new meanings into their lives but did not want any radical transformation of the socio-economic structures from which they derive considerable power. These women were attracted to the newly-established women’s religious organizations such as Bayâdir al-Salâm and the Islamic Care Society that focused on the spiritual aspect of Islam and did not challenge the status quo. In contrast, women from middle-class backgrounds yearned for a society based on social justice and equality. These women were more likely to be attracted to the politicized islamist groups which gave them hope for change in their economic conditions (al-Mughni, 2001).

10Nonetheless despite diverse political aspirations, almost all the religious women’s groups carry out similar activities, directed to women and children. These activities include dawah (preaching) sessions, religious classes and summer camps. Bayâdir runs an elementary school and several kindergartens which function like any private educational institutions except for the additional religious lessons provided. Religious education centered on the Qur’ân and sharîah gave women the opportunity to become more knowledgeable about matters of religion. It has also enabled them to use their religious abilities to question orthodox interpretation of women’s role in Islam. Moreover, the islamic movement also created new opportunities for women to assert their social agency and acquire new skills.

11In recent years many islamist women activists emerged as prominent and influential leaders. Among them, to name only a few, are Khadîjah al-Mahmît, a Shi‘ah activist; Khawlah al-‘Atîqî, a member of the Social Reform Society; ‘Urûb al-Rifâ‘y, a leading official in Bayâdir al-Salâm; Iqbâl al-Mutawwa‘ and Kawâkib al-Mulham, both of whom had been active in different islamist groups. These activists are all married, educated and outspoken. Al-Mahmît and al-Mutawwa‘ have doctorates in islamic studies. Besides, despite their different experiences within the islamist movement, they share a common belief, as al-Mulham put it, « to correct the position of islamist men towards women » (1989:37). However, during the 1980s, islamist women activists did not articulate the interests of women and produce a discourse that addressed gender inequalities in Kuwaiti society. Instead, emphasis was put on women’s duties towards their family and their community at large. Issues of women’s rights were dismissed as products of Western culture and lifestyles. It was not until the 1990s that they began to articulate new roles for women in the public sphere.

Breaking the Silence: Voices of Protest

12The shift in women’s gender activism was partly the outcome of women’s involvement in the islamic movement. For more than two decades, islamist groups have mobilized women and galvanized them into a variety of activities to ensure a broader social change in attitudes towards the islamization of society. They did so by setting up numerous women’s committees (lijân nisâ’iah) in various parts of the country to expand their grassroots base. However, these committees were left outside the decision making bodies in ways which mirrored the unequal patterns of gender relations based on male authority and female obedience. As elsewhere, such contradictions between women’s contributions to the islamic cause and their subordinate role within the islamist movement led many islamist women activists to challenge their leadership and demand a fairer share in decision-making (Abdellatif, 2008).

  • 3  Women make up 60 % of the students at Kuwait University.

13The engagement of women in the islamist movement has benefited islamist groups in many ways. The women’s committees have helped to recruit women to the islamist movement and increase the visibility of the muhajibah (veiled woman). The widespread use of islamic dress among women has often been exploited by Kuwaiti islamists as a sign of their popularity and hegemony. Moreover, through their active involvement in fund-raising activities, the women’s committees have facilitated the financing of a wide range of community-outreach programs, such as the construction of mosques and schools, both inside and outside Kuwait. And thanks to women, since the early 1980s, islamists were able to maintain control of Kuwait’s University’s student union and the influential teachers’ association3.

14Yet, as noted earlier, despite the importance of their role in strengthening the islamist movement, the women’s committees have remained an appendage of the islamist men’s organizations. They are kept outside the major bodies where important decisions are taken and their members do not have any participatory rights. While male members can elect their representatives and serve as board members, women cannot. By contrast, in most liberal civic organizations in Kuwait, women can participate fully in the election process, and occasionally serve as founding members or contributing board members. And, when in 2005, Kuwaiti women gained full political rights, the National Democratic Alliance, a liberal group, fielded a female candidate. Yet none of the islamist groups had so far placed a female candidate on their electoral lists. Many islamists still believe that Kuwaiti women do not possess the necessary capabilities that would enable them to stand for office. Instead, in May 2007, the Islamic Constitutional Movement (ICM) formed a women’s bureau to ensure it will be well-positioned to campaign among the new female electorate. Women’s votes proved vital to their electoral success. In the 2006 parliamentary elections, women’s ballots saved a leading ICM member from a near defeat (Brown, 2007).

15The marginalization of women has been a major source of dissatisfaction among islamist women activists and, in recent years, many defiantly went public with their criticisms of the islamist organizations. In 1998, Kawâkib Al-Mulham published al- mar’ah al-Muslimah ala atab al-qurn al-qâdim (The Muslim Woman on the Threshold of the Next Century) in which she exposed the shortcomings of the islamist groups towards women. According to al-Mulham, « islamist groups have mobilized women only to confine their activities to religious classes and charity bazaars directed at women and children » (al-Mulham, 1998:37). Not even within the university, she writes, have islamist women been regarded other than merely as potential votes, lacking the right to make decisions prior to consulting the all-male leadership. Based on her own experience in the islamist movement, she maintains that:

« the highest position a woman could reach is that of the head of the women’s committee, where she is even deprived of the right to make independent decisions or draw up policy agendas for such a body » (1998:37).

  • 4  Interview with Khawlah al-‘Atîqî, Islam Online, 30 November 2000,
  • 5  Interview with ‘Urûb al-Rifâ‘y, Al-Watan,Kuwait, 22 February 2006.
  • 6  Interview with Asra’ Al-Ma‘tûq, Al-Haraka, Kuwait, 19 December 2005

16Similarly, Khawlah al-‘Atîqî has publicly voiced her frustration with the continuing exclusion of women from decision making positions within the islamist organizations. In an interview with a local newspaper, she pointed out that the major obstacles facing a female activist inside the islamist organization is her position as « follower of men ». According to al-‘Atîqî, the islamist woman activist is an « executor of orders » and not an active participant in decision-making and planning: « When men meet, she is not present and her views are rarely taken into consideration ». And until when, she asks, « shall we remain in the shadow? »4. These views are echoed by ‘Urûb al-Rifâ‘y who asserts that « islamist groups are not serious in positioning women as real partners »5.Asra’ Al-Ma‘tûq, a lawyer and an islamist women activist, has called on islamist women to launch a joint « struggle » to convince the leaders of the islamist groups that they are not followers but real and effective partners6.

  • 7  Interview with ‘Urûb al-Rifâ‘y, Al-Watan, Op.cit.

17As elsewhere, a small and yet an increasing number of islamist women activists in Kuwait want to be recognized as potential leaders and not simply as dedicated organizational foot soldiers (Abdellatif & Ottaway 2007). Not only do these women activists feel betrayed by their own organizations, they also feel demoralized by a movement that has failed to reward their contributions. Islamist women activists have indeed devoted endless time and efforts to the islamic cause; yet, as al-Rifâ‘y points out: « While they have benefitted from the devout women, islamist groups have given women less than what women had given them » and « their publications and statements (on women’s issue) have been demoralizing for women ». According to al-Rifâ‘y, what it is needed is an « islamist movement which treats women with a modern spirit and take into account their demands »7.

  • 8  See Haydar Khalîl, « Al- Mar’ah al Kuwaitîya wa al Harakah al-Islamîya » (The Kuwaiti Woman and th (...)

18The protesting voices of islamist women made headlines in almost all the print media, leading some reporters to ponder whether this was « a sign of maturity or mere rebellion »8. There is no doubt that islamist women activists have grown in political maturity and experience. ‘Urûb al-Rifâ‘y was 15 years of age when she joined Bayâdir al-Salâm in the early 1980s. Like many others, she acquired organizational skills, benefited from networking with international islamic women’s organizations, and gained a deeper knowledge of islamic scriptures. The study of the islamic sharîah and hadîth (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) brought a new understanding of gender relations. As al-Mulham remarks:

« I was astonished by many hadîth related to the relations between men and women in all areas of life, that were both practical and applicable. The reason for my astonishment was that they differ greatly from what I understood and practiced, and from what the various islamist groups, that I dealt with, understood and practiced » (1998: 35)

19Islamist groups have failed to perceive or even acknowledge the intellectual and spiritual transformations of islamist women activists. They have continued to uphold traditional views of women’s role in society and to resist the empowerment of women. The issue of women’s rights has rarely occupied a central place in the islamist agenda. On the contrary, they fought hard to keep women out of public life, pressing for their early retirement to make jobs available for Kuwait men. They also led long and vigorous campaigns, both inside and outside the Parliament, to keep women out of the ballot box.

20As elsewhere, the demand among islamist women for a greater recognition of their role in the service of the islamic cause is translating into activism in the cause of women’s rights (Abdellatif & Ottaway, 2007). By the mid-1990s, despite the anger and criticisms of their male leaders, many islamist women activists announced their public support for the suffrage struggle and went to form alliances with liberal women activists. Such unexpected coalition strengthened the suffrage movement. It gave it greater credibility which eventually led to the enfranchisement of Kuwaiti women in 2005.

Bridging the Islamist-Liberal Divide: the Struggle for Women’s Suffrage

21For almost three decades, Kuwaiti women had campaigned for equal political rights, using every opportunity to bring their demands to the attention of the Parliament. The suffrage movement was spearheaded by the liberal women’s groups; and while it was certainly vocal and visible, it reached a stalemate in the 1980s as a result of state intervention and divisions among women. Following the first Gulf war in 1991, the suffrage movement regained its strength and vitality, and many islamist women activists, who previously opposed the right to political participation, joined the struggle alongside liberal women’s activists.

22During the period of the islamization of society, the women’s demands for equal rights were silenced and marginalized. The Arab Women’s Development Society (AWDS) which led the suffrage movement in the 1970s was disbanded, leaving the liberal Women’s Cultural and Social Society (WCSS) struggling on its own to campaign for political rights. Early islamist women activists did not support the enfranchisement of women. Siding with their male counterparts, they too claimed that female suffrage was a Western agenda aiming to destroy the country’s traditions and culture. Recalling these early days, al-Mulham noted in her book:

« The secular movement called for the dignity of and respect for my gender but packaged in a Western content » (1998: 27).

23It was not until the early 1990s that islamist women began to endorse female suffrage, coalescing with liberal women activists in a way that transcended the dualism imposed by formal politics between Islam and secularism.

24The shift in the islamist women’s position towards political participation was largely the result of their war experiences. During the 1990-91 Iraqi occupation of Kuwait period, many Kuwaiti women were involved in resistance activities and assumed responsibility for the survival of their besieged community (Badran, 1998). The occupation strengthened women’s political consciousness and gender solidarity. In an interview with a local magazine, al-Rifâ‘y, gave an interesting account of the way the occupation transformed her perception of gender relations:

  • 9  Interview with Urûb al-Rifâ‘y, Abwab magazine, n° 34, Kuwait, January 2007.

« The occupation taught me that men and women can be partners in political life. Since then, the right to political participation became one of my top priorities. In 1999, when the late Emir of Kuwait, Shaykh Jâbir Al-Ậhmad Al-Jâbir Al-Sabâh, issued the decree granting women full political rights, I considered this as a green light to make this issue my first priority. Two days later, I went on air in the program “Good Evening Kuwait” to implore everyone to act in response of the amîri decree and to support the right of women to political participation »9.

25After the war the Kuwaiti government made public assurances that women would play a greater role in liberated Kuwait for their noble contributions to their country that they had valiantly helped to defend, but it was not until May 1999, that the late Emir of Kuwait, Shaykh Jâbir Al-Ậhmad Al-Jâbir Al-Sabâh, promulgated a decree granting women the right to run for office and to vote in parliamentary and municipal elections. In November 1999, the islamist-dominated parliament voted down the decree. A week later, an identical bill drafted by members of parliament suffered similar fate. In fact, all the legislative initiatives for women’s suffrage introduced in Parliament since 1981 failed to win the majority of votes as islamist parliamentarians and their conservative allies coalesced to defeat the bills both in committee and on the floor. Opponents of women’s right to vote claimed that Islam restricted al-wilâyah al-‘âmmah (leadership of the Muslim community) to men. This is because women do not possess the same qualities and emotional capabilities as men.

26Despite the rejection of the bill, Kuwaiti women continued to struggle for political rights. Prominent islamist women activists, such as Khadîjah al-Mahmît, Khawlah al-‘Atîqî and ‘Urûb al-Rifâ‘y, joined the suffrage movement. They were active, visible and outspoken. They appeared on national television thanking the government for its support for women’s political rights and joined forces with liberal women activists, a move which gave greater visibility and strength to the suffrage movement. Al-‘Atîqî and al-Mahmît created the « Voluntary Working Group » to coordinate pro-suffrage activities among the numerous groups that emerged after the issuance of the amîri decree. They lobbied members of Parliament for support and organized numerous public debates in which both opponents and supporters of women’s right to vote were invited.

27Liberal women activists benefited from the involvement of islamist women. They could now deploy a religious argument in addition to the arguments based on the country’s Constitution and international human rights declarations. Liberal women activists had previously framed their demand around the Constitution and Kuwait’s democratic principles. Their chief argument was that the 1962 election law by denying women the right to vote violated the country’s Constitution which upholds the principle of equality between men and women in all spheres, including politics. Islamist women activists helped to open up the debate on women’s rights within an islamic frame of reference. Suffragists were now able to invoke the islamic sharîah and challenge the male interpretation of islamic sources. They argued that Islam does not prohibit women from engaging in political activities. They also claimed that the amiri decree was consistent with the teachings of the islamic sharîah which confirms that « women are responsible like men in reforms and decision making processes » (al-Mughni, 2001: 182).

28Al-Mahmît redefined the concept of al-wilâyah al-‘âmmah in ways that served women's interests. She argued that the exercise of political rights was one way of assuming the responsibilities of al amr bil-ma‘ruf wa al-nahy ‘an al-munkar (enjoining good and forbidding evil) in a consultative and unified way with men, without this role conflicting with men's qawâma (authority) over women in spheres of public life (al-Mughni, 2001). In 2005, Iqbâl al-Mutawwa‘ published « Al-fiqh al- siyâsi lil mar’ah al-Muslima » (Mutawwa‘, 2005), a book which dealt with women’s political rights from an islamic perspective. In her introduction, al-Mutawwa‘ criticizes the opponents of women’s political rights, arguing that while they claim that women cannot participate in the political sphere, they do not provide sufficient evidence to support their claim. Such opposition, she writes, stems from traditions and customs, and the fear of women competing with men for the same public positions. Using various religious sources, al-Mutawwa‘ concludes that Islam does not prohibit women from participating in the election process or from holding ministerial posts, provided they adhere to the islamic norms and values regarding veiling and mixing with men. The same conclusion is reached by al-Mahmît in her doctoral thesis, The Position of Women in the Political System, in which she demonstrates that historically Muslim women had played an important and active role in public life.

  • 10  Interview in Kuwaiti Women Website,

29The demand for the vote soon became a popular movement as increasing numbers of women were drawn into the battle for the ballot. The vote became viewed as an important tool by which women could achieve equal citizenship rights. Despite significant advances, Kuwaiti women still face discrimination in many areas of life. Laws regulating social security and housing treat men and women differently and unequally. Many women activists believed that the enfranchisement of women would help to redress some of the social inequalities based on gender. As al-‘Atîqî noted, « No one can speak on behalf of women’s issues better than women »10.

30By the mid-2000s, divisions within the islamist groups began to emerge. The Islamic Constitutional Movement (ICM) announced its support for granting women the right to vote but not to run for office, arguing that it was necessary to proceed slowly on the issue of women’s political participation (Brown, 2007). In 2005, the newly formed hizb al-ummah (the Nation Party), a controversial Salafi group, declared its full support for women’s political rights, further weakening the legal authority upon which the religious forces had framed their opposition (Al-Mekaimi, 2008). During the same year, the islamist-dominated parliament approved the amendment of  the 1962 Election Law to allow women to vote and run for office in national and municipal elections. The bill was passed by a vote of 35 in favor, 23 against and one abstention.

31According to Al-Mekaimi, the Muslim Brotherhood organization in Kuwait was subject to a great deal of criticisms from the mother branches in Egypt and Jordan because the former did not recognize women’s political rights (2008: 57). It is very likely that outside pressure compelled Sunni islamists to reconsider their stance towards women’s political rights; however, this does not fully account for the unprecedented shift in their position. In my view, the active participation of islamist women in the suffrage movement was instrumental in softening the islamists’ position towards the enfranchisement of women. Added to this, the coalition with liberal women activists was an issue of concern for the islamists, as it highlighted internal disunity and disagreements which risked weakening the islamist movement if they were left untreated. Furthermore, Kuwaiti women were once again united around a common cause; and many conservatives feared that if such unity would prevail it might pose a threat to the society’s entrenched patriarchal values that they had fought so hard to protect.

32Nonetheless, even after the passage of the bill, islamist and liberal women activists continued to work together to further the integration of women in the political arena. Resistance to women’s participation in the political sphere was pervasive. Islamists, in particular, remained wary about sharing political power with women. It was largely due to their pressure that a new clause was added to the election law requiring women, both voters and candidates, to « adhere » to the principles and rules of sharî‘ah.  The implications that this provision may have for women’s participation in political life are still difficult to gauge; until recently, wearing the hijâb was not required for women to vote in local and national elections, but segregated polling stations were maintained.

33In 2008, the Parliament’s legal and legislative committee threatened two female ministers with dismissal after finding them in violation of the election law for their refusal to wear the hijâb, raising the possibility that female voters and candidates may be required to do the same in any future elections. Moreover, as noted earlier, none of the islamist groups fielded any female candidates, even though there are no shortages of educated and outspoken islamist female leaders. During the 2009 parliamentary elections, the Salafi groups called on voters to refrain from voting for female candidates on the ground that political office was a form of al-wilâyah al-‘âmmah. They also claimed that it was « sinful » to vote for a woman. But, on 16 May 2009, of the 16 women candidates who contested the parliamentary elections, 4 won seats in the new Parliament. Two of them wear the hijâb.

34The success of women in parliamentary elections exceeded all expectations. In the 2006 and 2008 parliamentary elections, none of the female candidates had been elected, even though Kuwaiti women make up 55 percent of the electorate. Several factors contributed to the success of female candidates. One of these factors was increased discontent with the performance of the male-dominated Parliament and the persistent political crisis, all of which mounted to a strong public desire for a change. Another important factor was the intensification of women’s campaigns to sway public opinion towards voting for female candidates. In 2008, Khadîjah al-Mahmît and Khawlah al-‘Atîqî teamed up with Nûrîyah Al-Sadâni, a leading liberal woman activist, to create the first women's political group which they called Tanâmî. The stated aim of the group was to promote the role of women in both appointed and elective offices. The group met with leaders of the major political groups to seek their endorsement of female candidates. Furthermore, along with other women’s groups, they initiated public education and advocacy campaigns on the importance of electing the right candidates, regardless of their gender, to meet the challenges of the future and bring political stability. These concerted efforts finally paid off.

The Public vs. Private Spheres

35The debate about women’s participation in public life has been greatly affected by the issue of the separation between the public and private spheres which has dominated the islamic discourse since the 1980s. Islamists have often claimed that women’s primary responsibility is to take care of her family. Islamist women activists support claims such as this and have urged women to protect their family. However, they have also opened up the debate about women’s needs for wage earning activities and have proposed new alternatives for women to earn a living while staying at home.

36Since the mid-1990s, islamist women have been engaged in redefining women’s paid work in an effort to reconcile the demands of modern life with women’s familial responsibilities. The islamist groups have blamed the rise in child delinquency and divorce on women’s participation in the labor force. In 1995, a draft law was introduced in Parliament proposing the amendment of the Social Security Law to allow working mothers to retire after fifteen years of service. This was justified in terms of the interests of the family and society whereby a mother can devote herself to childcare. Islamist women activists welcomed the amendment, but at the same time, they raised concerns about the loss of income-generating activities for women.

37The rising cost of living has forced many Kuwaiti women to seek paid employment to supplement their family income. Paid employment has also other benefits. As ‘Urûb al-Rifâ‘y points out,

  • 11  Interview with Urûb al-Rifâ‘y, Al-Watan, op.cit.

« A working woman has a salary which gives her a bargaining power with her husband, more choices in buying what she needs, and more alternatives in the event of a divorce because of a steady income »11.

38Consequently, islamist women activists looked for alternative ways to reconcile women’s family responsibilities with income-generating activities. They put forward the notion of « home-based jobs » and urged the government to implement legislation that would allow the hiring of women as independent home-workers. They also lobbied for a revision of the labor law to allow for part-time employment for women and extended paid child-care leave.

39 In 2006 a draft bill dealing with women’s maternity leave, social security, housing benefits, and work leave was put on the agenda of the Parliament. The bill, which was later withdrawn for further revisions, incorporated many of the demands raised by islamist women activists. Under the new bill, stay-at-home mothers would be entitled to a monthly allowance, while working mothers would be able to work part-time for half their wages, and take prolonged child-care leave that could be extended to three years at quarter pay. Liberal women activists objected to the bill fearing that the prolonged leave would encourage women to stay at home, depriving the labor market of their productivity while discouraging the private sector from recruiting women due to the financial burden it would impose on employers.

40It should be noted, however, that not all islamist women activists support the idea that women’s work should be confined to the household. Kawâkib Al-Mulham advocates the involvement of women in all kinds of job and calls for opening up new educational opportunities for women to allow them to develop their own personalities, increase their self-confidence, and achieve personal growth.

41Nevertheless, the opening up of the debate on women’s domestic responsibilities to include women’s need for income-generating activities, whether in the form of home-based or part-time jobs, represents new and challenging demands aiming to increase women’s independence and control over family affairs.

Claiming the Right to ijtihâd

42In 1994 the liberal women’s organization, the Women’s Cultural and Social Society (WCSS) organized a conference on women’s roles in social and economic development. Islamist women activists were invited, among them was Khadîjah al-Mahmît who presented a paper entitled « The Mission of the Muslim Woman ». Al-Mahmit was the first islamist women activist to forge ties with liberal women’s groups and campaign for women’s citizenship rights.

43Al-Mahmît advocates the involvement of women in the interpretation process to achieve a just Muslim society in line with the early islamic teachings and practices that contain evidence of women’s participation in political, economic and social life. For al-Mahmît, it is only through ijtihâd, the re-interpretation of the sources of religion, and liberation from traditional values dating from the pre-islamic era, that Muslim women can obtain their rights. In her own words:

« The current estrangement of women from their islamic role in the society does not reflect a true commitment to the teachings and enjoins of Islam. As a matter of fact, the whole islamic nation is estranged from its active role, and therefore is suffering humiliation and backwardness. The reasons for this are many. One of these reasons is the discontinuation of the islamic practice of ijtihâd »(1994: 21).

44For al-Mahmît, what is needed is a « nahdah fîkrîah »; that is a cognitive renaissance of the islamic position on women’s role in society, which recognizes women as autonomous human beings as well as members of society.

45Al-Mahmît’s vision of an islamic state is one in which human rights and individual choices are respected and protected. She envisions the islamic state as a constitutional and civil state committed to protecting and defending all the human and social rights of its citizens, including personal freedom and religious freedom. According to al-Mahmît, Islam does not specify a fixed form of government, but it does specify its values and essence based on human rights, tolerance and justice (2006: 77).

  • 12  Author’s interview with Khadîjah Al-Mahmît, Kuwait, 25 January 2010.

46Al-Mahmît has been greatly influenced by the writings of Amîna al-Sadr, also known as Bint al-Huda, a renowned Iraqi Shi‘ah cleric who advocated women’s rights. Throughout her writings and activism, al-Mahmît has defended women’s rights. She has rallied to the cause of the Kuwaiti women married to foreign men whose families are marginalized and has lobbied members of Parliament to improve the conditions of these women whose foreign husbands and children are treated as guest workers. She is also an active member of Kuwait’s Human Rights Society12.

47Al-Mahmît has been an inspiration for many islamist women activists, not only in building dialogue with liberal women activists but also in developing a modernist islamic discourse. Although Sunni women activists do not openly call for ijtihâd, they have written and published extensively on women’s issues from an islamic framework. In so doing, they too have become active in the political struggle over the right to make their religion work for them. This is an important struggle which seeks to transform society from within by challenging the perceptions of those who claim to hold the power and right to control female destiny and to define the norms of women’s lives.

Conclusion

48It is too premature to claim the existence of an organized islamic feminist movement in Kuwait. What we are witnessing is the rise of a small yet increasing number of islamist women who are redefining the role of women in Muslim society. There is no doubt that these women have been inspired by the writings and actions of the transnational islamist women’s movement. They have read the works of Heba Ra’uf Ezzat, Bint al-Huda, and many other contemporary islamic scholars. As elsewhere, these activists are challenging the traditional views of women’s place in society. As we have seen, they want to be recognized as partners in power structure within their respective organizations. They also want increased female representation in government and elected offices, better conditions for working mothers, and the recognition of housework as paid work. They have lobbied the Parliament for policy changes and have rallied to the cause of Kuwaiti women married to non-citizens.

49The alliance with liberal women activists over the struggle for suffrage has shown that when the discourse of women’s rights is grounded within an islamic framework it can produce significant results. As Archer noted, islamist women voices can be « powerful agent of change » in the on-going debate on women’s rights issues in the Muslim world (2007: 56). This is because these women have the power to redefine women’s status within an islamic framework and the power to challenge the prevailing interpretations, eventually transforming the traditional perceptions of gender relations, « without risking being stigmatized as Western stooges or rendered social outcasts » (Abdellatif and Ottaway, 2007: 5).

50The coalition between islamist and liberal women activists has the potential for improving women’s lives and realizing more rights for Kuwaiti women, such as the right to transmit their citizenship to their children and enjoy equal opportunities in education, employment and welfare benefits. However, such a coalition should be based on the recognition of differences as well as the respect of the choices that women make, including the right to sufûr (unveiling) which has become a contentious issue in the debate over women’s participation in political life.

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Notes

1  Although the Cultural Social Society was disbanded in 1989 and it was not reinstated until recently, the Shi‘ah have played a very important part in Kuwait’s political and social life.

2  Kuwaiti liberals are the former Arab nationalists, representing the traditional merchant community. The islamists call them ‘almânîyîn (secularists).

3  Women make up 60 % of the students at Kuwait University.

4  Interview with Khawlah al-‘Atîqî, Islam Online, 30 November 2000,

http://www.islamonline.net/servlet/Satellite?c=ArticleA_C&cid=1173695094962&pagename=Zone-Arabic-AdamEve%2FAEALayout

5  Interview with ‘Urûb al-Rifâ‘y, Al-Watan,Kuwait, 22 February 2006.

6  Interview with Asra’ Al-Ma‘tûq, Al-Haraka, Kuwait, 19 December 2005

http://www.al-haraka.com/node/3694

7  Interview with ‘Urûb al-Rifâ‘y, Al-Watan, Op.cit.

8  See Haydar Khalîl, « Al- Mar’ah al Kuwaitîya wa al Harakah al-Islamîya » (The Kuwaiti Woman and the Islamic movement), Qurtas magazine, Kuwait, April 1998, p.8.

9  Interview with Urûb al-Rifâ‘y, Abwab magazine, n° 34, Kuwait, January 2007.

10  Interview in Kuwaiti Women Website,

http://www.kwomen.com/default.asp?browser=View&CREATIVE=653&LANGUAGE

11  Interview with Urûb al-Rifâ‘y, Al-Watan, op.cit.

12  Author’s interview with Khadîjah Al-Mahmît, Kuwait, 25 January 2010.

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Haya al-Mughni, « The Rise of Islamic Feminism in Kuwait », Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée [En ligne], 128 | décembre 2010, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2010, consulté le 02 septembre 2014. URL : http://remmm.revues.org/6899

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