There has been increased interest in the importance of empowering women in Kuwait. This has included designating a national day to celebrate the achievements of Kuwaiti women (May 16), and greater visibility for programs concerned with ensuring that women are better represented in the labor market, with the long-awaited SME Fund also focusing on aspects of female entrepreneurship.
While this momentum is both welcome and necessary to continue the development of Kuwait on both the economic and social fronts, what is equally, or even more important, is to tackle the issues that disempower Kuwaiti women on a daily basis. There is an entrenched tradition of ignoring many of the damaging legal and social practices that exist on the institutional, and the more insidious personal level, which make it difficult to implement any serious measures to change the gender inequality status in Kuwait.
Many of these practices are defended in the name of tradition, and many of them threaten the very fabric of this society and its inherent humane values. These practices exist within a vacuum of legal assistance, medical aid and the support infrastructure necessary to protect the most vulnerable women and children, a vacuum that has enabled those who would physically and emotionally harm them in the name of guardianship. Domestic abuse and the psychological scars that women and children bear as a result of it is not a pleasant subject; it is difficult, divisive and highly charged because it cannot be eradicated without real political will to punish those who would use violence to control others.
Sadly, there are laws that exist within our penal code that encourage this type of physical tyranny, laws that violate our constitution, our Islamic values and the basic tenets of human rights. In late 2014, a small group of dedicated women decided to take a stand against this conspiracy of silence around violent legalization and around the taboo nature of opposing “disciplinary violence” against women and children as the traditional right of a male guardian.
These women formed a campaign to ‘Abolish Article 153’ from Kuwait’s penal code, an “honor” killing law that would treat these murders as a misdemeanor and punish them with a maximum of a 3-year prison sentence or a 3,000 rupee (KD 225) fine. There are other laws that encourage violence by not punishing perpetrators, such as allowing kidnappers who rape their victims to marry them as an alternative to jail time.
The consequences of the continued existence of these legislations, and the lack of government backed networks to enable, protect and ultimately empower the most vulnerable demographic in Kuwait (such as shelters, helplines and a trained police force that treats the male aggressor as a criminal rather than a “disciplinarian”), means that we will continue to see violence escalate in our community, and little progress in terms of female economic and political integration. The fact that there are no women MPs in National Assembly eleven years after Kuwaiti women gained full political rights is a testament to that.
We need to rediscover our national pride, and within that the respect for ourselves that would not allow such shameful and inhuman actions to continue unchecked for fear of transgressing on the public/private divide. The state has an obligation to protect its citizens, and to provide the basic needs for them in terms of trauma care in hospitals, and trained and sympathetic police officers who will side with the victims first and foremost.
Kuwait’s government has taken some small steps in that direction, with the inauguration of the so-called “Social Police” and a weekday helpline that aims to arbitrate more than resolve the issue or provide safe passage for victims of domestic violence from their abusers. We as a civil society need to do our part as well, and lobby our representatives to make this issue a priority, and to raise awareness around these harmful practices without fearing the backlash, because it is this culture of fear, and of social embarrassment, that has allowed this unnecessary evil to flourish.
By Alanoud Al-Sharekh
Dr Alanoud Al Sharekh is an academic, activist and researcher on Arab youth and women’s issues. She is a Research Associate at the London Middle East Institute at the School for Oriental and African Studies and a published author.