For decades, conservative and Islamist politicians denied Kuwaiti women the right to vote or to run for public office.

They decried women who campaigned for these rights and used selective religious texts and tailored fatwas to argue that they should not hold any position of power or even leave their homes.

After the Kuwaiti parliament in 2005 voted in favour of allowing women to vote, the Islamists, eyeing potential constituents, swiftly flipped their stance, urging them to leave their homes to exercise their right to vote.

Kuwait, the world’s fourth-largest oil exporter, has no political parties but parliaments tend to be dominated by conservative Islamists and tribal figures opposed to promoting female-friendly legislation.

Women failed to win any seats in 2006 and 2008 elections but in 2009, four were elected to the 50-member parliament.

Yet to the disappointment of many, females failed to take any seats in the assembly elected in February 2012, with a sweeping Islamist majority fuelling fears that parliament would curtail their rights.

They made a comeback in last December’s poll, which was boycotted by the opposition in protest at a change in election laws decreed by Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, the emir, that cut the number of votes per citizen to one from four.

The new parliament, in which members of the country’s Shia Muslim minority won a record 17 of the seats, is likely to be more female-friendly.

Some of the fiercest opposition to women’s public work comes from conservative women who dutifully attend public lectures or workshops organised by groups to dispute women’s voting and other rights.

“The most challenging problem are fatwas against women politicians. It will take years to fight radicalism,’’ says Thekra Al-Rashidi, minister of social affairs and labour, and an MP who beat male competitors in a conservative tribal area.

“But, in general, Gulf societies still look down on women and think they should not compete for men’s jobs.”

Activists say female candidates face a tougher time because the country does not allow political parties that can support and vet potential candidates. This forces women to rely on their own finances or the backing of their families or tribes.

So when inexperienced candidates win, the prejudices and media scrutiny facing women mean their performance in parliament can play into the hands of radicals and cynics.

“The public and personal attacks make women very reluctant to get involved in politics,” says Fayza Al-Awadhi, a prominent activist. “But it is more important to have a competent MP who can help amend the bad laws, regardless of gender. Men have played a crucial rule in advancing women’s causes.”

Compared with other Gulf states, Kuwaiti women are more emancipated. They make up 70 per cent of university students and represent 40 per cent of the workforce. In 2009, the constitutional court granted women the right to obtain their own passports without the consent of their husbands and guardians.

Activists say they are still fighting for equal access to government housing and the right to pass their citizenship to their children.

Though the government likes to emphasise that Islamist members are responsible for blocking women’s progress, activists say the government is responsible for the radicalisation of society.

In the 1980s, the government allied itself with an Islamic political current, allowing unhelpful changes to school curriculums, which increased the number of theology classes and emphasised texts derogatory to women. Women are often depicted as serving food for the family with their hair covered, promoting the Islamic head-cover.

“When we were at school, we used to have the Islamic text that promoted respect for mothers, universal values of cooperation and love,” says Ms Al-Awadhi. “Now it is very different.”

Changing the laws is not the only difficulty. Ghada al-Ghanim, an activist, says that many women do not even realise that they have rights that have been granted in the laws or the constitution.

Lack of communication between government bodies delays the implementation of laws.

Though the constitutional court allowed women to have their own passports, many complain that when they go to get one, they are often told they need an official notice from the government.

“Men and women are not aware of their rights,” says Ms al-Ghanim.

“It is not enough to change the laws, it is very important to engage the society and explain that equal rights are not anti-Islamic.”

Get alerts on Middle East protests when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article