A Battle for Women's Rights in Kuwait

28 February 2022

Kuwaiti officials recently canceled a yoga trip for women advertised by a teacher of the exercise form.

Lawmakers and Muslim leaders were upset over the danger of women doing yoga exercises. The incident this month was the latest cultural dispute over what women can do in the Arab nation.

Some observers say the power of tribes and Islamists in Kuwait is growing. They say politicians are opposing a growing feminist movement. These politicians, some rights activists say, consider women's issues destructive to traditional values. At the same time, the government is struggling to deal with difficult economic issues.

Mashael al-Shuwaihan, who sits on the board of Kuwait's Women's Cultural Society, speaks during an interview, at a protest outside Kuwait's National Assembly, in Kuwait City, Monday, Feb. 7, 2022. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)
Mashael al-Shuwaihan, who sits on the board of Kuwait's Women's Cultural Society, speaks during an interview, at a protest outside Kuwait's National Assembly, in Kuwait City, Monday, Feb. 7, 2022. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

"Our state is backsliding and regressing at a rate that we haven't seen before," said feminist activist Najeeba Hayat to The Associated Press. She spoke recently during a women's protest in front of the Kuwaiti parliament. The activists were calling for freedoms they say officials have limited.

The country was once considered progressive compared to its Arab neighbors.

In recent years, however, women have made gains in other parts of the Arabian Peninsula. In Saudi Arabia, women have won greater freedoms under leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The "movement against women in Kuwait was always insidious and invisible but now it's risen to the surface," said Alanoud Alsharekh. She is a women's rights activist who helped start Abolish 153. It is a group that aims to end a law, called Article 153, which provides for weak punishments for so-called honor killings of women.

Just in the past few months, Kuwaiti officials shut down a popular center for belly dance classes. Clerics then demanded police arrest the organizers of a women's event called "The Divine Feminine."

A court in Kuwait will soon hear a case seeking to ban Netflix after the service produced an Arabic-language movie that some people found offensive.

Conservative Islamist Hamdan al-Azmi has led the fight against yoga. He says yoga damages Arab culture.

"If defending the daughters of Kuwait is backward, I am honored to be called it," he said.

These incidents have angered many Kuwaiti women at a time when there are no women in the elected parliament. There have also been several recent cases of violent honor killings.

In one case last year, a Kuwaiti woman named Farah Akbar was taken from her car and stabbed to death by a man. He was later released on bail and told to appear later in court.

The anger over Akbar's killing caused parliament to write a bill that would withdraw Article 153. The law says that a man who catches his wife committing adultery or his female relative in "illicit" sex and kills her faces, at most, three years in prison.

Kuwait's parliamentary committee, however, did not vote on the issue. It asked the state's Islamic clerics for a fatwa, or religious ruling, about the law.

The clerics ruled last month that the law be upheld.

"Most of these members of parliament come from a system in which honor killings are normal," said Sundus Hussein. She is another founding member of the Abolish 153 group.

After Kuwait's 2020 elections, there was a large increase in the influence of conservative Islamists and tribal members, Hussein added.

Officials also called on clerics to decide whether women should be permitted to join the military.

The Defense Ministry had declared they could join last fall. But clerics added requirements. Last month, they decided women may only join in non-combat groups if they wear Islamic head coverings and get permission from a male guardian.

The decision upset many Kuwaitis who are used to government not making rules on head coverings.

Issues affecting women appear to be the only issue on which social conservatives can agree. Kuwait's ruler-appointed cabinet and its elected parliament cannot agree on the economy. A divided parliament has failed to fix the country's record high deficit or pass economic reforms.

Two years ago, parliament passed a domestic violence protection law. But there are no government women's shelters or services for victims. Observers say violence against women has only increased during restrictions linked to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Activist Hayat has little hope the government will change anything for Kuwait's women. But she said that is no reason to give up.

"If there's a protest, I'm going to show up. If there's someone who needs convincing, I'm going to try," she said.

I'm Dan Novak.

And I'm Jill Robbins.

Dan Novak adapted this story for VOA Learning English based on reporting by The Associated Press.


Words in This Story

yoga n. a system of exercises for mental and physical health

regress v. to return to an earlier and usually worse or less developed condition or state

insidious adj. causing harm in a way that is gradual or not easily noticed

invisible adj. impossible to see; not visible

bail n. an amount of money given to a court to allow a prisoner to leave jail and return later for a trial

adultery n. sex between a married person and someone who is not that person's wife or husband

domestic –adj. relating to or involving someone's home or family

convincev. to cause (someone) to believe that something is true; to persuade