Women’s rights changing in Kuwait

2 November 2009

Written by: Kelly Theobald

On the front page of the Kuwait Times the other day, a veiled woman smiles confidently and shows two thumbs up to the camera. Today, the Kuwaiti constitutional court declared that women in parliament no longer have to wear the hijab, the traditional Muslim headwear for women. MP Salwa Al-Jassar is thrilled.

Since arriving in Kuwait a week ago, I have spoken to women about wearing the veil and enjoying the same rights as men. Women in Kuwait have more rights than many other Middle Eastern countries and they are quick to point out that they’re very lucky. Kuwait is a leader in women’s liberation in the Middle East.

However, it was not until 2005 that women were given the right to vote in Kuwait. Also, women could not apply for a passport without their husband’s permission until this year.  Nevertheless, four women have been elected into parliament this year and today’s events cemented the revolutionary move to abandon the hijab in parliament.

One Kuwaiti woman tells me that when women were granted the right to vote she felt “very happy, very glad, and very proud”. As she doesn’t like the look of the veil, her long, dark hair falls across her shoulders. “In Kuwait we are lucky. Here, it depends on the girl, she can wear the veil if she wants,” she says.

Under Secretary of The Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs, Dr. Adel-Al-Falah, thinks that the parliamentary decision was right. “In Islam the lady has to wear the hijab. But, that doesn’t mean that when she doesn’t wear it she cannot do her job. That was the basis of the decision,” he says.

But at Kuwait University, a 20-year-old student says that she likes wearing a veil because it honours the religion of Islam. Her beautiful, heavily made-up eyes and red lipstick stand out against the black fabric of her hijab. She talks about her decision to wear the veil, her recent marriage and a woman’s place in society.

Unlike most Gulf countries, Kuwaiti women play a large part in business, education and the community. “Men are leaders in their home, not outside,” she says.

“Women are in policy, in investment, you can find women everywhere. Women have more ambition than men.”

All of the young women that I spoke to at Kuwait University are very certain of their dreams. One wants to start her own advertising business, another hosts her own television news show and one mature-age student juggles four children as well as her studies. They are all very passionate about their nationality.

“Kuwaiti families teach their children that you should respect your country and that you should love it,” says one student.

“When I see what my country does for us, as a government and as a people, I respect that.”  I am told that when Kuwait was invaded by Iraq in 1990, many people refused to flee or even returned home – despite the danger – to protect their country.

After seven months of occupation, it was the United States that helped liberate Kuwait. Some of the young women say that the western influence on their culture has influenced the way they’re able to participate in society. But, some men are still against the freedom of women.

“Not many,” says another student, “but yes, some. It depends on the family. It is not good.”

Despite the opinion of these men, the young Kuwaiti women I spoke to are empowered, passionate and strong. They are setting an example of consolidating their religious identity with their desire for sexual equality. Today’s decision to abandon the hijab in Parliament is an example that they hope the rest of the Middle East will follow.

Kelly Theobald is a graduating journalism student at La Trobe University. She is on a journalism study tour of Kuwait with Erdem Koc and Tom Cowie.