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Kuwaitis doing feminism their own way Women not enthused by Western precepts of female empowerment

THE issue of women’s rights continues to be an important debate in Kuwaiti society. While the granting of female suffrage in 2005 might be perceived as the climax of the women’s movement, feminist discourse continues to thrive in civil and cultural circles. The Kuwaiti brand of ‘feminism’ having been forged in a traditional and conservative climate is entirely different from what we usually identify and recognize it to be. Alessandra Gonzalez, author of ‘Islamic Feminism in Kuwait: The Politics and Paradoxes’, describes these fundamental differences and discusses the nature of Islamic feminism prevalent in Kuwait today.

Question: How did you come to study the topic Islamic Feminism in Kuwait?
Answer: I was fortunate that my parents had the opportunity to move to Kuwait at the time I started graduate school for my Ph.D. in Sociology at Baylor University. Hearing them speak so highly about the people and culture in Kuwait piqued my interest in visiting for the first time in 2006. Luckily for me, I had become introduced to Kuwait at a very exciting moment in Kuwait’s history. Women were granted their political right to vote and run for political office in 2005. It seemed like the perfect place to come and study the sociological impact of the entrance of Kuwaiti women into politics and the compatibility of Islamic belief and tradition with this  new phenomena. Everyone was excited about the new possibilities for Kuwait’s future now that women could participate in the political and legislative process as never before.

Q: How did you go about researching for this? How many visits to Kuwait did you make? How many people did you speak to? Were there any barriers?
A: On my first visit to Kuwait, I had the opportunity to meet with university professors as well as local women’s rights activists, and their hospitality and generosity convinced me to make women’s entry into politics in Kuwait, a traditional and majority Muslim country, the subject of my dissertation.  After my initial visit in 2006, I came back the following summer in 2007 to conduct the greater part of the research for my book. I met with and interviewed over 30 activists, both Liberal and Islamist, from academics to parliamentarians, men and women, very experienced and up and coming activists, to get as well rounded of a picture of the topic as I could. I was really impressed with the generosity and hospitality of the Kuwaitis who helped me get a better understanding of the situation in Kuwait, and their hopes as well as reservations about the future.
At first, coming to study the topic of Islam and women’s rights in Kuwait as an outsider, I expected there to be many barriers and obstacles for me to gain access to those whose voices I really felt needed to be heard, namely from Islamist men and women who did not at first support women’s political rights. But again, my experience in Kuwait taught me that Kuwaitis are a people with honor and who are marked by their generosity and hospitality to their guests. I felt treated with respect by all who gave of their time to participate in my study.

Q: Do you think it is an often neglected or misunderstood topic?
A: What I came to understand when I was writing the book based on my dissertation research was that there was a real lack of understanding from Western audiences about the social changes that were happening in the Middle East. I felt that through my research, I could provide some new insights into topics that seem paradoxical, or difficult to understand, for readers from non-Muslim countries. Some of the findings from my research that I frame as chapters in the book are that: Western feminism has not taken root in Muslim hearts and minds; Islamists are winning elections even when they opposed women’s political rights; veiled women are leading in business, education, and now politics; men are enablers of Islamic feminism; and that Arab youth are both modern and traditional. Each of these concepts may seem normal to Kuwaitis, but are incompatible ideas to some Westerners.

Q: How would you describe the relationship between Kuwaiti women and the State?
A: One of the first things I was surprised to find out and to realize was that in Kuwait, women have historically had the support of the State authority. This is very unique in a region where political authority can be very unstable. But Kuwait has given its women access to local college education since the 1960s, which has made one of the biggest differences in terms of the sophistication of its population. Not only have women benefited from equal access to university education for a generation, but in my research I found that today’s young Kuwaiti men whose mothers had at least some university education were more likely to say they supported women’s equality as compatible with their faith and tradition. One of the lessons that Kuwait offers the world is the importance of state sponsorship for women’s education and political rights.

Q: Kuwaiti women were granted political rights in 2005. How far have political rights succeeded in guaranteeing true equality?
A: Since 2005 we have seen Kuwaiti women become more and more experienced in the political scene, both as voters and as parliamentary candidates. They have also changed the nature of previously all-male run campaigns and political parties. Even the most conservative Salafists have had to present women voters with an argument for why they will work in their best interest. All of these developments elevate women’s status as equal partners to men in Kuwait’s political process.

Q: What is the fundamental difference between how feminism is understood in the West and its existence here? What does it really mean to be an Islamic feminist? Why did Western precepts of Feminism not appeal to Kuwaiti women?
A: One of the most important findings from my study is that Arab and majority Muslim countries are doing feminism their own way. Kuwaitis have shown the world that what feminism looks like in any country should be up to its own people to decide, as partners in a household, where men and women make decisions that will affect future generations together out of mutual respect. What I call “Islamic Feminism” is a search for women’s rights from within Islam. Both men and women, Liberals and Islamists in Kuwait appeal to what unites them as people of faith and a love for their country to fight injustice in their society.  Giving women their political rights became the catalyst for all groups to come together and find a way to include women as partners in decision making.

Kuwait’s experience of Islamic feminism critiques Western feminism in that it incorporates the communitarian values of Muslim and Arab culture by not setting aside its deeply help traditions and family values. Much of the West’s experience with feminism was through early suffrage movements that started similarly to Kuwait’s struggle. But in the midst of larger sociological upheaval in the 1960s, feminism took a more individualized meaning, aligning itself with individual rights and expressions.

While much of that benefited the United States because it accompanied civil rights for other underrepresented minorities, it also alienated a large number of women, particularly religious and traditional women’s voices, and even now American women are struggling to find a balance between the equal opportunities they are given in their professional lives and the sacrifices demanded of them in their personal lives. There are many reasons I outline in the book why Western feminism did not fully sink into Muslim hearts and minds, but a large part of it was the hesitation to adopt a version of feminism that disregarded a more holistic sense of happiness. An Islamic feminism, as demonstrated by Kuwaitis, is one that offers an indigenous path to women’s rights, balancing personal choice with a sense of obligation to the greater society.
What a Kuwaiti, or Islamic feminism offers is a way to legitimate women’s choices if they choose a more traditional path to happiness, staying at home to raise their children even if they have a college education, as well as running for political office — with the support of their family and community.

Q: Where does Islamic feminism fall in the spectrum of ideology? Does it lean more towards liberal ideals or Islamic ones?
A: As I describe in the book, I found that all Kuwaiti activists, whether conservative Islamists or Liberals, appealed to their identity as Muslims and as Kuwaitis to argue for their point of view regarding women’s rights. The main difference is that political Islamists believe faith should accompany political activism while political Liberals believe matters of faith should not alienate otherwise necessary partnerships in politics. Both speak a bit of the truth, and yet often misunderstand each other and are divided. Islamic feminism as an approach and ideology brings otherwise different political backgrounds to work together towards common goals. Some of the common goals of Islamic feminists in Kuwait, whether political Liberals or Islamists, were to fight for women’s economic independence, reform of women’s personal status laws, political participation, increased educational and professional opportunities, healthcare, and personal security.

Q: What moments of history have contributed to this development?
A: As I mentioned, the important role that the Kuwait government has had to enable its women to succeed by providing them access to university education since the 1960s is a critical component to the story. The children of that first generation of women with college education will lead Kuwait into the future. Also, Kuwait’s balance of parliamentary representation along with the tradition of the ruling Amir and his advisors makes the evolution of women’s political rights in Kuwait so important. The fact that when Kuwaitis vote they believe they can make a difference and be represented in their government underlies the integrity of Kuwait’s entire political process. It also elevates the power granted to women voters and parliamentary candidates.

Q: What are some of the paradoxes surrounding this idea?
A: Interestingly, the findings from my research highlighted many important phenomena that found a way to co-exist in Kuwait that seemed like paradoxes to Western scholars and readers: a feminism found within Islam, young people holding on to old traditions, men supporting Islamic feminism in the private and public spheres, women voting for Islamists, while some political Liberals questioned whether women’s right to vote was a good idea at all — all were ideas that didn’t seem to go together at first, but made more sense the more I understood it from the Kuwaiti example.

Q: Are there any frontrunners in this movement, any identifiable leaders?
A: Honestly, I found that a strength of Islamic feminism as a concept is that it holds in co-existence the importance of the individual as well as the community. I believe there are more leaders behind the scenes, meaning they do the difficult work of living out their religious and political convictions on a daily basis, than some of the leaders that gain attention in more visible spaces. Every man who supported his wife, sister, or daughter’s political campaign, or woman who drafted up ideas and presented them to her parliamentary representative, is moving Islamic feminism forward in Kuwait.

Q: Do Kuwaiti women consider themselves feminists? How do they define themselves and articulate this idea?
A: Interestingly, the first Kuwaiti I met called herself a feminist and handed me a book by Haya Al-Mughni, Women in Kuwait. Once I came to Kuwait I realized that though Kuwaiti women are strong and intelligent and articulate, not all of them consider themselves feminists, largely because it seems like a foreign concept. I think Kuwaitis are challenging the West’s idea of feminism in a healthy way, by selectively arguing for their rights from within their faith and tradition. They don’t need to call themselves Islamic feminists to still do the hard work of moving forward with women’s rights from within their Islamic ideals.

Q: Does the Kuwaiti brand of feminism differ from that found elsewhere in the Middle East?
A: Actually, I was able to travel elsewhere in the region and realized that Kuwait’s experience with Islamic feminism is in fact unique for many reasons. Its oil wealth has enabled many conversations to take place that would not be a priority if they had to take care of some more basic survival needs like many women in other countries in the region. However, I am taking the next step in my research to explore the idea of Islamic feminism in countries which have undergone significant social upheaval in the last few years, during what is popularly called “The Arab Spring.” I believe the findings from my research in Kuwait will inform the discussion, although I expect to find many differences as well.

Q: What role are Kuwaiti men playing in all of this?
A: Again, there are many wrong assumptions that men would automatically be against women’s rights, especially in politics, because it would challenge their authority in a patriarchal society. However, one of the most interesting findings in my book is that in fact it is men who are enabling Islamic feminism in Kuwait. Men who uphold the women in their lives out of the teachings of their Islamic faith to respect women and treat them with justice enable women to succeed both at home and in the workplace. Of course, in any society where men are the gatekeepers of power, their support is a critical step for women to gain a standing as equal partners in doing good for the society in public spaces, such as in politics and business, where women were not allowed before.

Q: How does this idea factor in with the bigger picture of the Arab Spring?
A: A lot has happened in the world since Kuwaiti women were first granted their political rights in 2005. Although I don’t believe the situation in Kuwait can be completely replicated, I believe the ideas that are in tension and co-existent in the brand of Islamic feminism I found in Kuwait can inform some of the debates about the compatibility of democracy and women’s rights in the Middle East. The debates going on now in countries such as Egypt and Tunisia will affect their people for future generations. I will dedicate myself next year to looking at this very question of Islamic feminism in the Arab Spring and hope to understand the ways that women are influencing the situation as leaders and activists. I think many women who are politically active in the Arab Spring are hopeful they can come out of the political negotiations more optimistic about the prospects for their future and the future for their children. It is a question we will all need to pay attention to and take an interest in because as the world is so inter-connected, our children, Western and Eastern will share this future together.

Q: Do you see religion as an empowering tool? What larger lessons are to be learnt from this?
A: From the research I conducted in Kuwait, I found that religion has many layers, both at the societal level and the individual level. At the macro-sociological level, religion can be practiced in a way that reinforces ancient practices and cultural traditions. At this societal level, Islam can be used as a way to justify practices that were used to keep women from their true and equal place in Kuwaiti society. On the other hand, at the individual level, I found that Islam is a real source of strength and empowerment to motivate men and women to fight the injustice in their society and take the risks, such as voting, or running for office, that spring from their religious convictions. Religion also provides a unifying basis to consider opposing viewpoints with mutual respect. In this way, Islamic feminism in Kuwait can be a bridge of understanding in the present and a light for the future.


Alessandra L. González is a Post-Doctoral Research Associate at John Jay College, CUNY and a Research Fellow at the Institute for the Studies of Religion (ISR) at Baylor University. She is the principal investigator of the Islamic Social Attitudes Survey Project (ISAS), a study conducted in conjunction with ISR on Islamic religiosity and social attitudes, including women’s rights attitudes in the Arab Gulf Region.

She received her Ph.D. and M.A. degrees in Sociology from Baylor University and received a B.A. in Sociology and Policy Studies from Rice University. Dr. González has publications in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, the Annual Review of the Sociology of Religion, and an op-ed on Islamic Feminism in the Dallas Morning News.

She has presented her research at the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy’s Conference on “The Rights of Women in Islam,” the American Council for the Study of Islamic Societies, the Dialogue of Civilizations Conference hosted by the Institute for Interfaith Dialogue in Houston, the Gulf Research Conference at the University of Exeter, and various other academic settings.

By Cinatra Fernandes
Arab Times Staff

By: Alessandra L. González

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