Women in Kuwait
|Gender Inequality Index|
|Rank||47th out of 148|
|Maternal mortality (per 100,000)||14 (2010)|
|Women in parliament||7.7% (2012)|
|Women in labour force||47% (2012)|
|Global Gender Gap Index|
|Rank||116th out of 136|
|Part of a series on|
|Human rights in Kuwait|
Freedom of religion
|Women in society|
Women in Kuwait are considered to be among the most emancipated women in the Middle East region. In 2011, Kuwait was ranked highest of all Middle East countries in gender equality in the Human Development Report's Gender Inequality Index. Kuwait was ranked the second highest Middle East country in gender equality in the 2012 Global Gender Gap Report. In 2013, 46.7% of Kuwaiti women participated in the labor force. The participation of Kuwaiti women in the labor force is much higher than the regional GCC average, Kuwait has the highest percentage of working female citizens in the GCC.
Women in Kuwait have experienced many changes since the discovery of oil. In the 1950s their access to education and employment increased dramatically. Today they are judges, police officers, royal guards, special forces officers, immigration officers, ministers and parliamentarians. Kuwaiti women played a prominent role in the resistance against the Iraqi invasion. They have a long history of official political and social activism which started in the 1960s and continues today.
Women in the pre-oil era
From the 17th century until the discovery of oil in the 1950s, the economy of Kuwait was largely dependent on maritime trade and pearl-diving. While men were sea-faring, Kuwait’s women managed their homes, and controlled family affairs and finances. For those families that could afford it, houses were built with a courtyard and a harem where women spent most of their time. This structure, along with high windows and doors that faced into the house rather than the street, removed women from public vision. Urban, upper-class women’s participation in the public sphere was limited. However, women from less fortunate circumstances had a much less secluded experience; they went to the suq on a daily basis, fetched drinking water and washed their families’ clothes on the beach.
Kuwaiti girls began learning scripture in 1916 when the first Quran school was established. After this many women of modest means began working as religious instructors. The first private school opened in 1926; it taught reading, writing, and embroidery. Public schooling began in 1937 though enrollment in it was low for some time; however, by the 1940s many young Kuwaiti women were enrolled in primary school. It was often women themselves who pushed for these educational advances and opportunities and in 1956 a group of young women burned their abayyas to protest their right to go abroad to study.
The women's suffrage campaign started in 1971 when a group led by Noureya Al-Saddani took a proposal to parliament to grant women political rights. The proposal was overwhelmingly rejected. In the early 1990s women campaigned heavily for the vote; they held protests outside of election headquarters and between 2000 and 2005 a number of women filed court cases against the Minister of Interior for his refusal to include women in election tables. In 2004 women demonstrated inside the parliament hall for the vote, and a year later they held one of the largest demonstrations in Kuwait’s history.
In 1999, the Emir Sheikh Jaber Al-Sabah promulgated a decree granting women suffrage, however, it was overturned by parliament just months later. Kuwaiti women were finally granted the right to vote on May 18, 2005. Women voted for the first time in June 2006, and in these elections 28 women ran out of a pool of 250 candidates though none won. The 2008 elections also failed to bring women into parliament.
Almost exactly four years after women were given full political rights, four were elected into parliament for the first time. The winners in the 2009 elections were: Massouma Al Mubarak (the first Kuwaiti woman appointed to the cabinet), Aseel Al Awadhi, Rola Dashti, and Salwa Al Jassar. In February 2012, women lost their seats in parliament. December 2012’s elections saw Masooma Al Mubarak return to parliament along with newcomers Safaa Al Hashem and Thekra Al-Rashidi.
Organizations and activism
Women’s activism in Kuwait began in the 1950s. The first women’s organization, the Arab Women’s Renaissance Association (later changed to the Family Renaissance Association), was established by Noureya Al-Saddani in 1962 and was soon followed by the Women’s Cultural and Social Society in February 1963. The Girls Club (Nadi Alfatat) was established in 1975, its initial focus was on women in sport. In 1981 Bayader As-Salam, a religious group whose objective was cultural awareness, was formed. The same year Sheikha Latifa Al-Sabah’s Islamic Care Association was established, it sought to spread Islam and an Islamic lifestyle and conduct.
Kuwaiti women played a large role in resisting the Iraqi invasion in 1990. They mobilized the opposition, started an underground resistance paper called “al-Kuwaitiya”, passed weapons and ammunition through Iraqi checkpoints, transported and planted explosives using their abayas, collected and distributed food and medicine, and ran shelters for the sick and disabled. During the invasion they also organized a large demonstration in defiance of the invasion, which cost some of them their lives.
Women became active in Islamist groups in the 1980s when Islamism was on the rise in Kuwait. They became members of the Islamic Constitutional Movement and the Social Reform Society, as these groups both made moves to accommodate and include women in their activities. Women’s branches of these groups are charged with mobilizing women to vote for group candidates. They provide educational courses and training for women, as well as childcare for working mothers. Through their early activity in these groups, many women acquired organizational skills which they were able to utilize in the campaign for suffrage.
Women in the arts
Kuwait’s long tradition of artistic expression has been spearheaded and organized by women. Women’s involvement in the fine arts dates back to at least 1969 when Najat Sultan along with her brother Ghazi established the Sultan Gallery, which served as a propagator for contemporary and secular movements in Arab art. The gallery was shut after the Iraqi invasion and reopened in 2006 by Farida Sultan. It currently focuses on contemporary photography. Sheikha Hussah Al Sabah established Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah in 1983, which showcases the Kuwaiti royal family’s valuable collection of Islamic art, and Dar al-Funoon gallery for contemporary art in 1992.
Contemporary artists include: Thuraya al Baqsami, who trained in Cairo and Moscow whose works can be found in museums worldwide; Shurooq Amin, whose subversive art pieces aim to challenge perceptions of society in the Gulf; Fatima Al Qadiri, an artist, musician and composer whose work is inspired by her experience in the Gulf War; and Monira Al Qadiri whose art explores gender and religious and cultural identities.
Notable Kuwaiti women
- Noureya Al-Saddani: An author, historian, broadcaster and director, Al-Saddani started the first women’s organization in Kuwait. In 1971 she proposed to the National Assembly to grant women's political rights. During the invasion she worked in charity and mobilized the diaspora; upon her return to Kuwait she put together radio biographies of all the female martyrs in the invasion.
- Lulwa Al-Qitami: Al-Qitami was one of the first women to study abroad. Upon her return, she and a few other Kuwaiti women founded the Women's Cultural and Social Society in 1963. She and the group have been instrumentally active in advancements for women since the 1960s; they work on mobilizing women, raising awareness and philanthropy.
- Sarah Akbar: Akbar is Kuwait’s first Petroleum Engineer in the field. During the invasion, Akbar led a group of oil employees to maintain machinery and electricity and after the Iraqi troops left and set several oil fields on fire, Akbar set up a team to control and extinguish the fires, earning her the nickname “firefighter”.
- Asrar Al-Qabandi: Al-Qabandi was a martyr of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. During the occupation she helped people flee to safety, smuggled weapons and money into Kuwait as well as disks from the Ministry of Civil Information to safety, cared for many wounded by the war, and destroyed monitoring devices used by the Iraqi troops. She was captured and subsequently killed by Iraqi troops in January 1991.
- Laila al-Othman is one of Kuwait's most famous authors and columnists. She has written a number of short stories and novels and covers themes, which often challenge traditional norms. She has faced conservative resistance to her work.
Kuwait has a very high percentage of expatriates, nearly double the number of nationals. Many Egyptian, Palestinian, Filipino and Southeast Asian women live in Kuwait. Palestinian women have worked in Kuwait since the 1950s, historically as teachers in girls’ schools.
Nearly 90% of Kuwaiti households employ a foreigner worker, most often a South Asian woman. These women's labor is crucial to the social reproduction of Kuwait, though they occupy a marginal status and are not granted state protection or oversight. Non-Nationals are subject to residence and labor laws, which prevent them from permanently settling in Kuwait; they cannot own real estate or permanent assets. Under the kafala system, whereby all migrants must have a citizen who sponsors their residence in Kuwait, many migrant workers cannot leave or enter the country without their employer’s permission and are often exploited.
Stateless ‘Bidoon’ women
The stateless status of many people in Kuwait goes back to a 1959 law which restricted the Kuwaiti nationality to families who had settled in Kuwait before 1920. Many bidoon were unable to provide documented proof they had settled in Kuwait. The Bidoon are barred from employment in the government sector and are often forced to take intermittent, low-paying jobs in the private sector. They live in housing projects and are provided with minimal and inferior municipal services. While the stateless community at large faces many obstacles to a sustainable lifestyle, Bidoon women are in a particularly vulnerable situation. They have very few opportunities for employment, are restricted to very low-paying jobs, and earn a fraction what a Kuwaiti woman would earn in the same position. Bidoon men and women do not have the necessary paperwork to register their marriages and thus are unable to obtain marriage certificates; this limits their access to medical care when giving birth. Bidoon women have participated in protests and lent their support in calling for the Bidoon's right to citizenship.
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