Women in Kuwait

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Women in Kuwait
Kuwait women's football team 2012.jpg
Kuwaiti women's football team (2012)
General Statistics
Maternal mortality (per 100,000)12 (2020)[1]
Women in parliament4.8% (2020)[1]
Women over 25 with secondary education56.8% (2019)[2]
Women in labour force68.4% (2020)[1]
Gender Inequality Index[2] (2019)
Rank57 out of 189
Global Gender Gap Index[1] (2020)
Rank122 out of 153

The women of Kuwait have experienced many progressive changes since the early 20th century. Since then, women have become more educated, gained political and economic rights, and power. However, women in Kuwait still struggle against a traditional patriarchal culture which discriminates against them in various fields. Kuwait's stateless Bedoon women are at risk of significant human rights abuses and persecution,[3] Kuwait has the largest number of stateless people in the entire region.[4]

Demographics and statistics[edit]

Population statistics according to the United Nations Development Programme 2019 Human Development Report[2]
Statistic Female Male
Life expectancy (from birth) 76.5 74.7
Adult mortality rate[i] 56% 92%
Expected future education (years)[ii] 14.3 12.9
Average current education (years) 8.0 6.9
Some secondary education (% of pop.) 56.8% 49.3%
Adolescent birth rate (per 1000 women, 15-19) 8.2 n/a
Gross income per capita (2011 PPP, USD) $49,075 $85,615
Rate of participation in labor force 57.5% 85.3%

International rankings[edit]

Kuwait's position in international rankings has varied over the years. In 2021, Kuwait was ranked 143 of 156 globally in the Global Gender Gap Report.[5] Regarding the GGGR subindex, Kuwait ranked 153 of 156 on political empowerment, 94 of 156 on health and survival, 137 of 156 on economic opportunity, and 59 of 156 on educational attainment.[6]

In 2020, Kuwait was ranked 122 of 153 globally in the Global Gender Gap Report. Regarding the GGGR subindex, Kuwait ranked 142 of 152 on political empowerment 143 of 153 on health and survival, 120 of 153 on economic opportunity, and 57 of 153 on educational attainment.[1]

In 2014, Kuwait was ranked 113 of 142 globally in the Global Gender Gap Report,[7][8] the country improved its ranking due to significant increases in the overall income indicator. In 2015, Kuwait was ranked 117 of 145 globally in the Global Gender Index.[9]

History prior to mid-20th century[edit]

From the 17th century until the discovery of oil in the early-mid 20th century, the economy of Kuwait was largely dependent on maritime trade. While men worked at sea, women were homemakers. Among affluent families, houses had a courtyard and harem where women spent most of their time secluded from public view. For women of these families, participation in the public sphere was limited.[10] However, for women of less affluent families, public chores resulted in less seclusion; often daily going to a market (suq), fetching drinking water, and washing family laundry in the ocean.[11]

Legal statutes and cultural discrimination[edit]

Family law and rights[edit]

The Kuwaiti Personal Status Act of 1984 (a.k.a. Family Law Act), based in Sunni Islam (Maliki), governs family law in the country. Additionally, Sharia applies to Muslim residents,[iii] with different courts and rules for Sunni and Shi’a, a notable difference being Ja’fari applying to the latter group.[13][14][15][iv] Non-Muslims in Kuwait have their own secular court.[13][16]


Muslim women are not permitted to marry without the permission of a wali, a male guardian,[v] or marry non-Muslim men.[vi] Only men are allowed as legal witnesses for a marriage.[13][14][16] Child marriage is permissible beginning at 15, the minimum age for a woman to marry, provided approved by the wali.[13][14][16] Polygyny is legally permissible and a man may up to four wives, of which any existing wife(s) have no say in, however the practice is uncommon.[14][16] Forced marriages (ijbar) may also occur without consent of the bride, with attempts at annulment by the bride often met with heavy coercion or threats of prosecution.[14]


Both husband and wife may seek divorce—the husband may divorce her at will (talaq),[vii] while wife may only seek legal divorce (fasakh) under specific conditions such as lack of financial support, exceptional absence, criminality, husband's deconversion from Islam, or chronic/terminal illness. With permission of her husband, women may also divorce through khul', returning her dowry or the equivalent.[13][14][16]

Child custody[edit]

Legal guardianship of Muslim children is possessed by the husband of their mother (presumed father) in most cases. In the case of divorce, legal custody remains with the father and physical custody remains with the mother until the children reach a certain age.[viii] Any women who remarry or are divorced for adultery typically lose all child custody rights of previous children.[13][16][ix] Women who are divorced, widowed, or married to a foreigner may be considered to lead the household.[13]

Family planning and abortion[edit]

Abortion is heavily restricted in Kuwait and can only be sought up to 17 weeks of pregnancy for reasons of the mother's health (physical or mental) or fetal deformity/unviability only. Sexual assault, incest, economic needs, and social needs are not valid reasons. Abortion outside of the few allowed is criminalized, carrying between 3 and 15 years incarceration.[13]


Men are entitled to inherit twice as much as women, provided they are on similar relation level to the deceased (such as siblings). Widowed wives do not receive the same inheritance compared to widower husbands.[13]

Employment and property rights[edit]

According to the International Monetary Fund in 2013, the portion of Kuwaiti women in the workforce was 53 percent which is significantly higher than the MENA average of 21 percent and slightly higher than the world average of 51 percent.[17] Kuwaiti women outnumber men in the workforce and Kuwait has the highest rate of female citizen workforce participation in the GCC.[18][17] However, working women are at a much higher risk of unemployment than men overall, at a ratio of 5.11:1.[2][19] Most women working in Kuwait work in public sector service industry positions.[13][19] Education and modernization policies have given Kuwaiti women more opportunities in the workforce, but they still grapple with a patriarchal culture which primarily expects them to prioritize homemaking and child-rearing.[13]

The Kuwait Constitution prohibits slavery and discrimination--except in the case of "national necessity". Legally, women and men are supposed to receive equal pay for equal work, yet a sizeable gender pay gap remains. Muslim women are forbidden to work at night (10 p.m to 7 a.m.),[x] at anything considered immoral for women, or at the discretion of a husband if he feels his wife working would negatively impact "family interests".[13][16] On August 25, 2019, the Ja'fari Personal Status Law was codified, preventing Shi'a husbands from forcing their wife to quit working if she worked before their marriage began.[15]

Legally, women and men can own property and exercise rights to their property equally, especially in the case of women who are divorced, widowed, or married to foreigners. Women have legal right to banking and contract without male consent. However, women often still experience de facto restriction of economic rights and freedoms as exercise often requires consent of men and Kuwaiti culture is biased against independent women, who are traditionally and sometimes legally classified as dependant to men, which is seen in the Kuwaiti Social Security Act and Housing Assistance Act, which typically regard only men as beneficiaries.[13]

The Kuwait government subsidizes certain types of finances for divorced or widowed women provided they have children to care for. The Kuwait Labour Code provides maternity leave for women, who can receive 70 day of paid leave[xi] and up to four months of optional unpaid leave, during which employment termination is illegal. Additionally, employers with more than 50 women employed are supposed to provide infant childcare facilities, however this rarely is enforced. The Civil Service Committee Decree of 1993 discriminates between women married to Kuwaiti men versus non-Kuwaiti men. Those married to Kuwaiti men are given four months of paid (half typical pay) after their maternity leave, however those married to non-Kuwaiti men are not.[13]


The Nationality Act (1959) grants Kuwaiti men and women equal right to retain their citizenship, however citizenship is only automatically inherited by children if the father is Kuwaiti. Women's citizenship is not typically inherited and only becomes so under exceptional circumstances, such as unknown father, divorce, or widowing. Kuwaiti women's citizenship does not transfer to non-Kuwaiti husbands, who must apply for residency, unlike non-Kuwaiti wives of Kuwaiti men who are granted automatic residency and a pathway to citizenship after 15-18 years. As a result, both a non-Kuwaiti husband and any children a Kuwaiti wife has with him experience significant disadvantage— a lack of occupational, familial, and other rights.[13][16][20]

Legal voice[edit]

Women's legal witnessing is either discounted or disallowed, depending on the legal context in question.[20][verification needed] In 2012, a lawsuit against the Ministry of Justice was resolved enabling women to hold positions in the judicial system.[21][verification needed] In 2014, 22 women were appointed to serve as prosecutors.[22] On 30 June 2020, Kuwaiti Attorney General, Dirar Al-Asousi, approved the promotion of eight female prosecutors to become judges.[23][verification needed] On 3 September 2020, the eight judges were sworn in to become first female judges in Kuwait's history.[24][verification needed]

Domestic, sexual, and cultural violence[edit]

Until January 2021, there had been no laws regarding domestic violence and marital rape. On August 19 2020, the National Assembly passed the Law on Protection from Domestic Violence criminalizing "physical, psychological, sexual, or financial mistreatment, whether in words or actions" between family members, going into effect the following year of 2021. The act provides for protective orders, shelters, a victim hotline, legal aid, and counseling.[25][26]

However, the new law is not comprehensive, only setting penalties for violating victim-sought protective orders and not the actual acts of abuse or violence, and only applying to current legal family relationships, not former partners, those dating or courting, those engaged, or those in unofficial marriages (such as common-law marriage and domestic partnership). Prior to this, a husband's sexual actions with an unconsenting wife were only illegal if they were "unnatural acts".[25][26]

The Kuwaiti Penal Code provides reduced or fine-only punishment for a man honor killing his female relative finds her committing adultery (zina),[xii] a law which conflicts with not only the Constitution but Shariah law as well. A 2016 survey of the Arab states of the Persian Gulf found most weren't aware of this law and 63% rejected its existence.[13][14][26] The Code also states if a man kidnaps a woman intending to abuse, rape, pimp, murder, or extort her, he will not receive punishment if he marries the woman with her guardian's (wali) approval, the woman has no say in the matter.[13][14][16] Additionally, age of consent does not exist, as sexual acts outside legal marriage are illegal.[13][14]

Frequency of occurrence

It is believed that domestic violence is both common and under-reported despite the country slowly moving towards reducing the problem.[13] A 2019 survey by Orange Kuwait, a non-governmental organization focusing on violence against women, found 82.16 percent of those surveyed believed domestic violence was a significant problem in Kuwait, and 62.91 percent had experienced abuse themselves. Those surveyed were 83.5 percent women.[27] A 2011 study by Kuwait University found 40 percent of women reported at least one instance of physical abuse from their husband. A 2011 survey by the Kuwait Minister of Justice found 35 percent of women reported abuse.[14]

Political activism and participation[edit]

Women's rights activism began in Kuwait in the 1950s with the establishment of many women's groups (lijân nisâ’iah). Noureya Al-Saddani established the first of these groups, the Arab Women's Renaissance Association (later, Family Renaissance Association), in 1962. The Women's Cultural and Social Society followed a year later in February 1963. In 1975, The Girls Club (Nadi Alfatat) was established, advocating for women's sports. In 1971, Al-Saddani as head of the Arab Women's Development Society, began a national campaign for women's suffrage. Her initial proposal was rejected by the National Assembly.[18][28][29]

In 1978, the Government of Kuwait announced official Islamization policies and laws. Islamist women were very influential during this period, especially in public, as burqa adoption was a very visible symbol of the Islamist movement. A fatwa was issued in 1985 by the Kuwait Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs, declaring female involvement in the legislature to be contrary to Islamic law. In 1981, Bayader As-Salam, a religious group focusing on cultural awareness, formed. The same year Sheikha Latifa Al-Sabah, then-wife[30] of Emir Saad Al-Salim Al-Sabah, established the Islamic Care Association, seeking to spread Islam along with the associated lifestyle and conduct of Muslim life.[31][28][29]

During the Gulf War in Kuwait from 1990 to 1991, women played a significant part of resisting the Iraqi invasion, occupation, and supporting the offensive which liberated Kuwait from Iraqi control. This period of conflict also solidified Kuwaiti women from different backgrounds and raised their political awareness. After the war, demonstrations and protests for women's rights continued throughout the decade. A shift began, as more political figures supported the Kuwaiti women's rights proposals, most notably Emir Al-Sabah, whom in May 1999 attempted to institute women's suffrage by decree during a period of parliamentary dissolution, however this decree was reversed by the newly-elected National Assembly in November 1999.[31][32]

Protests and activism continued and escalated into the 2000s alongside renewed proposals before the legislature, ultimately culminating in a 2004 protest inside the National Assembly building. The following year in 2005, Kuwaiti women held some of the largest demonstrations in their history, and in May 2005, the Assembly voted to give women full political rights to vote and hold office. The first elections Kuwaiti women ran for office and voted in were in June 2006. In 2009, four women were elected to parliament, Massouma A-Mubarak (the female minister appointed), Aseel Al-Awadhi, Rola Dashti, and Salwa Al-Jassar.[33][34][35] In 2018, the Kuwait Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs changed its policies to allow women in senior positions.[36] In December 2019, three women were appointed to cabinet positions,[37] including the first female Minister of Finance in the Persian Gulf region.[38]

Arts and creativity[edit]

Museums and galleries

In 1969, sister and brother Najat and Ghazi Sultan established The Sultan Gallery, one of Kuwait's oldest art galleries, providing access to both public and professionals, and promoting art and secular understanding. During the Gulf War, it was closed, reopening in 2006 under the direction of Farida Sultan. Currently the Gallery focuses on a wide range of mediums, but especially photography.[39]

Sheikha Hussa Al-Sabah, wife of Sheikh Nasser Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, served as the director of Kuwait National Museum for three decades, establishing Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah (lit. transl. House of Islamic Antiquities) in 1983 focusing on antique Islamic artifacts. During the Gulf War, the museum was thoroughly looted by Iraqi forces, returning most of the valuables, though often damaged, after intervention of the United Nations. Following the war in 1992, Sheikha Hussah created the Dar al-Funoon (lit. transl. House of Arts) for contemporary art.[40][41][42] Sheikha Lulu Al-Sabah, daughter of Sheikha Paula Al-Sabah and wife of Sheikh Ahmad Al-Sabah (son of Emir Nawaf Al-Sabah), has continued the art advocacy into a new generation, establishing an annual art auction called JAMM in 2010 focusing on contemporary art.[40][43][44]

Notable Kuwaiti female artists

Notable Kuwaiti women[edit]

  • 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.[51]
  • Loulwa Abdulwahab Essa Al-Qatami: Al-Qatami the first woman to study abroad, she left Kuwait on 12/6/1955 for a degree in Education. 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.[52]
  • Khadîjah al-Mahmît - Suffrage and women's rights activist, author, and public figure. Her works redefined the intellectual perspective for Kuwaiti women regarding suffrage and other rights.[29]
  • 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”.[53]
  • 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.[54]
  • Laila al-Othman is one of Kuwait's most famous authors and columnists. She has written a number of short stories and novels and often deals with themes that challenge traditional norms. She has faced conservative resistance to her work.[55]

Stateless Bedoon women of Kuwait[edit]

Stateless Bedoon women of Kuwait are at risk of significant human rights abuses.[3][56][57][58][59][60][61] According to Human Rights Watch, Kuwait has produced 300,000 stateless Bedoon.[62] Kuwait has the largest number of stateless people in the entire region.[63][4] The stateless Bedoon are at risk of persecution and abuse more than the citizens and expats in Kuwait.[64]

Non-national women[edit]

Kuwait has a very high percentage of migrant workers. 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.[65] Nearly 90% of Kuwaiti households employ a foreigner worker, most often a South Asian woman.[66] 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.[67] Non-Nationals are subject to residence and labor laws, which prevent them from permanently settling in Kuwait.[68] 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.[69] The system has long been controversial and has "been criticized as a form of bonded labor or even slavery." A United Nations expert even urged Kuwait to abolish this system.[70][71]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The probability in percentage that a 15 year old person will die before they reach 60 years old.
  2. ^ What would be expected if born today and current trends told throughout until adulthood.
  3. ^ 2013 estimates indicate 76.7% of the country's population is Muslim.[12]
  4. ^ Previously, Ja'fari statutes and proceedings were not codified, but still used in Shi'a family courts. On August 25, 2019, these statues were officially codified.
  5. ^ Typically a close relative of the woman, such as father or eldest brother.
  6. ^ Men are not bound by this restriction and are allowed to marry non-Muslim women.
  7. ^ For Sunni men, no witness is required for divorce. For Shi'a men, two male witnesses are required.
  8. ^ For Sunni women, until the child comes of age at 15. For Shi'ite women, until a daughter is 9 or son is 2. For non-Muslim women, until a child is 7.
  9. ^ This is not the case for men.
  10. ^ Except for hospitals and other healthcare institutions.
  11. ^ Provided delivery occurs during leave.
  12. ^ The crime of adultery (zina) itself has a higher sentencing standard than the honor killing, typically 5-15 years incarceration or a higher fine.


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External links[edit]