Kuwaiti women politicians ignore headscarf debate
“To cover or not to cover?” – that is the question now gripping Islamist politicians in Kuwait.
It is a debate that has become increasingly heated in this Arab Gulf state since the parliamentary elections on May 16, which saw the country’s first ever female deputies elected. However, it is not a question that the women themselves want to get sidetracked by.
Two of the four women elected choose not to wear the traditional Islamic female headscarf.
In response, some Islamist parliamentarians have announced a boycott of the swearing-in ceremony in protest at such liberalism.
“So what, let them walk out. Even better if they don’t come back – they won’t be missed,” replies one Kuwaiti feminist.
Hessa Majed al-Shaheen, from the Union of Kuwaiti Womens’ Associations, is annoyed there is even a debate about the headscarf.
“Why are they wasting their time with such trivia?” she demands. Al-Shaheen herself is uncovered, citing the spring heat, and wears a white blouse over three-quarters-length trousers.
In the meeting room of the Women’s Union, her fellow feminists gather to discuss the results of the parliamentary elections, some of the dressed in head scarves and full-length black robes, others in more Western attire.
“We Kuwaitis believe in tolerance, so here there is no dress code,” says al-Shaheen. She does not directly criticize Saudi Arabia, where women are not allowed to drive and must wear full-length robes – but she does not need to, everyone knows what she means.
“I had hoped that this election might see a breakthrough, but to see four women elected really surprised me,” Kuwait’s ruler, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah, reportedly said when he met the new intake of parliamentarians after their win.
The emir would have liked to have given women the vote earlier in Kuwait, but the entirely male parliament was for a long-time opposed to such a move.
That is why it took until 2005 to give women full suffrage, the right to both stand and vote in elections.
However, not all women used their votes in the subsequent 2006 and 2008 elections. Moreover, whilst the women who stood for election tended to be liberal, women tended to vote for more conservative candidates.
Thus the four elected females, all academics, have probably been elected thanks to the help of male votes.
“The four women are all outstanding,” says one Kuwaiti businessman. “Their success is a message from the street, that they want some calm in the parliament.”
He blames the past three years, which has seen a rapid succession of short-lived governments, as the main reason his country has started to lag behind other oil-rich Arab states in terms of industry and services.
Afaf Kabasard, another of the women sipping bitter coffee in the air-conditioned Women’s Union offices, is determined not to miss any of the new opportunities. She points to the Iraqi invasion of 1990, and the sufferings of the Kuwaiti people, for the strengthening of the role of women in both society and politics.
“Many women then joined the resistance,” she recounts, proudly telling of how her and her husband smuggled guns, grenades and money in their car at that time. “I was still quite skinny – because I could easily smuggle all the money under my burka,” she jokes, to knowing laughter from her female friends.
However, the Islamic headscarf does not come up for discussion. That topic is still too taboo. And many of the women who turn up for their education classes to learn the Koran are both elderly and veiled.
Instead, they hope that the new parliament in Kuwait City will discuss the issues most close to their hearts – the question of the nationality of children from binational marriages, for example, or the fate of several large industrial projects which have now been put on ice.
Meanwhile, one of the four female parliamentarians, Masuma al- Mubarak, has already declared her next goal – to become deputy president.
Kuwait has elected its first ever women MPs in a milestone for the politically and socially conservative societies of the Gulf.
Four of 16 female candidates standing for the 50-seat parliament won seats in Saturday’s vote, including leading activists for women’s rights and the woman who became the kingdom’s first minister four years ago.
Their gains and those of other liberal and independent candidates came at the expense of Sunni Islamist parties, who were expected to lose ground but suffered even greater losses than predicted.