Once again, Kuwait finds itself ensnared in a mounting conflict between two opposing forces. On one side, a conservative religious movement strives to impose "Sharia law" – as it only interprets it – across all facets of life. On the opposing front, there's a faction staunchly defending the nation's historical legacy of openness and moderation, firmly rejecting endeavors to transform Kuwait into a "Gulf Kandahar," a reference to the years of religious oppression witnessed in Afghanistan's capital during the rule of the fundamentalist Taliban.
This schism, though evident among the populace, is fundamentally rooted in the National Assembly, the country's parliament, which itself stands divided. In recent legislative cycles, Islamists have notably gained influence, while encountering resistance from a significant cohort of deputies aligned with the progressive reformist movement. It's noteworthy that a relatively substantial proportion of the candidates contending in the 2022 parliamentary elections (48 candidates, constituting 12%) preemptively endorsed what was then dubbed the "Values Document." This document encompassed a commitment by potential candidates to enforce Islamic Sharia law in various domains should they secure a parliamentary seat.
As the National Assembly took shape, with its formidable agenda of weighty issues and contentious matters awaiting resolution, numerous members seemed more inclined to concentrate on topics perceived by activists and public figures as "trivial" and "inconsistent with the constitution." This diversion deflected attention away from heeding the concerns of citizens and addressing their demands. This pattern recurred with the establishment of the new Assembly in June 2023, eliciting widespread criticism and accusations of attempts to divert from "shortcomings" in addressing core issues and cases that could exacerbate strife and divisions in society. This is particularly concerning given that a substantial segment of Kuwaiti society, predominantly conservative, aligns with anything promoted "in the name of religion" and "as an application of Sharia."
Kuwait is ensnared in a burgeoning conflict between a conservative religious movement striving to impose "Sharia law" – as it only interprets it, and a faction defending the nation's legacy of openness and image as the most liberal country in the Gulf region
The 'values document' even before the elections
In September 2022, religious figures and public figures from the conservative camp launched and endorsed the so-called "values document". They urged the candidates contending for the National Assembly at that time to sign it, aiming to secure the votes of supporters aligned with the document's purported content, which aimed to strengthen "adherence to Islamic values and their preservation." Several candidates signed the document and proudly embraced its provisions, which called for "modest dress", the cessation of "pagan practices", and the criminalization of "visible body tattoos", among other points.
In the recent elections, several candidates who endorsed the 'values document' achieved success. However, another faction rallied against what they perceived as an "attempt to impose guardianship" over Kuwaiti citizens, extending beyond the role of a parliamentary deputy and encroaching upon personal freedoms protected by the constitution, steering them toward "demonization" and persecution. This dissenting faction argued that these actions fell within the realm of personal freedom, as guaranteed by the constitution, and went beyond the role of a parliamentarian.
The longevity of this assembly was not guaranteed. Another assembly followed, in which Islamists, particularly those from the Salafi movement and the Muslim Brotherhood, gained significant influence. Within a short span, it became evident that the "Values Document" was undergoing a revival through 13 parliamentary proposals aimed at imposing "communal and moral guardianship."
At the forefront of these proposals is: the prohibition of men working in the judiciary, the disqualification of unveiled women from running for and voting in the National Assembly, the implementation of gender segregation in the education sector, the banning of festivals, increased dress code restrictions for university students, the reinstatement of prior censorship on books, the prohibition of energy activities and yoga, and stricter controls on social media platforms.
Ban on plastic and gender reassignment surgeries
In late July 2023, five Kuwaiti deputies, led by the chairman of the Values Promotion Committee in the National Assembly, Mohammad Hayif, proposed a bill that bans plastic surgery unless approved by a "special committee" at the Ministry of Health, created for this purpose. The proposal also includes "the prohibition of gender reassignment surgeries and changes to gender identity on official documents, tattoo operations, promotional advertisements for cosmetic surgeries, and the performance of cosmetic surgeries in clinics and health centers" without exception.
Under the proposed law, violations of its provisions could lead to penalties of "imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years, a fine of not less than a thousand Kuwaiti dinars (approximately 3,200 US dollars), or one of these two penalties." Despite the widespread ridicule of many Kuwaitis regarding the proposed law, it sparked a heated debate between supporters "in the name of religion and Sharia" and critics who viewed it as a "regression and backwardness," accusing deputies of diverting from the "people's priorities."
Sharia regulations as a prerequisite for voting and candidacy
In early August 2023, Kuwait's National Assembly passed Article 16 of the "General Commission for Elections Law" in its controversial amended form. This article stipulates that "compliance with the provisions of the Constitution, the law, and Islamic Sharia is a prerequisite for exercising the right to vote and run for office," with the majority vote. Despite widespread public opposition to this article, it has been seen as targeting "the exclusion of women from political participation" and imposing greater control over them "in the name of religion and Sharia."
The initial proposal for this article required women to adhere to what was referred to as "Sharia Regulations" – wearing the veil and dressing "modestly" – in order to exercise their constitutional right to vote and run for office. The text was later revised to appear gender-neutral, but the controversy and public division over this problematic article continued even after its passage. Janan Boushahri, the sole female member in the current Kuwaiti parliament, pledged to continue her parliamentary efforts against this text, which she considered a "political compromise" and a "political absurdity."
Restricting the judiciary to males
Several deputies affiliated with Islamist movements proposed that judicial positions be exclusively reserved for men, arguing that "according to Sharia, women should not serve as judges because the judiciary is a general authority that should be exclusively held by men."
This proposal received support from religious conservatives but widespread criticism from other segments of Kuwaiti society. Prominent Kuwaiti writer and banker, Ahmad Al-Sarraf, commented on this proposal in an article in Al-Qabas newspaper, stating: "I, like others concerned with public affairs, feel the great responsibility placed on the head and members of the Supreme Judicial Council and the almost mythical scale of the cases handled by the courts, especially in the 'Court of Cassation.' This is a matter of concern. I recently received notifications from the judiciary that some cases involving me will be considered by a first-instance court after two years!"
While he acknowledged that the "judicial situation is almost out of control" and that "the suffering of citizens and residents due to delayed judgments has become a disturbing concern, requiring the collaboration of the three branches of government to find suitable solutions," he found it "ludicrous, even heartrending, to read the proposal put forth by a group of deputies, demanding that judges must be men only."
Separating males and females in universities
In the most recent proposal aimed at stirring controversy and division in Kuwait, on September 12 of this year, Haif announced that the Values Promotion Committee in the National Assembly, which he chairs, discussed issues related to gender mixing and resembling the opposite sex during a meeting with the Minister of Education and Higher Education, Adel Al-Manea, and officials from Kuwait University.
The Kuwaiti deputy pointed out that the participants in the meeting reached a consensus on segregating male and female students at the university and prohibiting gender mixing in accordance with Law No. 24 of 1996, which he claimed is "still in effect." He added, "Before the law, there are the morals of the Kuwaiti people and Islamic Sharia, which established standards and regulations to preserve the morals of Kuwaiti youth in the face of temptation or anything else that contradicts Sharia."
In contrast to Haif's statement, the Kuwaiti Constitutional Court issued a ruling in 2015 affirming that it's sufficient to allocate separate areas for males and females within the same building and halls, permitting both genders to convene in the same premises.
Within hours of the deputy's announcement, Kuwait University appeared to align with this political stance and declared its intention to segregate "mixed-gender classes" as much as possible. This decision triggered widespread anger among the vast majority of students, who voiced their dissatisfaction, fearing that this move would disrupt their education, which was set to commence within days.
Furthermore, the recent parliamentary proposal has generated significant divisions within Kuwaiti society and the legislative landscape, divisions that persist even as these lines are being written. On one side, Islamist deputies and conservative societal segments find common ground, while on the other side, students, their professors, enlightened intellectuals, and advocates for rights and freedoms stand united.
"This increased religiosity in Kuwait doesn't genuinely indicate a commitment to protecting societal ethics, instead signifying a loss of political and social development, and using religious populism to make sectarian gains at the expense of the democratic state"
On Monday, September 18, a group of students, both male and female, staged a protest at the university, expressing their opposition to interference in their university affairs, potential harm to their futures, and the segregation of genders. This protest occurred alongside reports of legal and parliamentary actions being taken against the decision.
Critics of the decision expressed their bewilderment at the Kuwaiti Ministry of Education and an educational institution of Kuwait University's stature shifting their focus away from the crises within the education sector and its deteriorating standards to concentrate on the matter of "prohibiting gender mixing". Among these critics was Kuwaiti physician Fatima Khaja, who took to Twitter, stating, "Instead of delving into the reasons behind the decline in the quality of education and the phenomenon of students easily obtaining high grades in secondary education, rather than investigating the substantial number of medical students failing this year, and instead of exploring avenues to enhance education through technological advancements and emphasizing the importance of knowledge in nation-building, we find ourselves mired in discussions about gender separation on campus!"
Opponents of the decision also lambasted the university for what they saw as it "yielding to political pressures at the expense of students' best interest and well-being." They pointed out that Kuwait University, since its establishment in the 1960s, had never enforced gender segregation. They questioned why this segregation was being imposed within the university when interaction between genders remained permissible in public spaces, the job market, educational scholarships, and even within the National Assembly. They cautioned against maintaining silence in the face of such decisions and the potential future developments of this extremist discourse. A protest petition against the decision was launched, garnering 855 signatures out of the targeted 1000 at the time of writing.
Kuwaiti writer Jaafar Rajab provided a sarcastic comment, saying, "The first one is battling against gender mixing, the second against obesity, the third against witchcraft, the fourth against 'freemasonry', and the fifth against Barbie. I say, let them have their chance because after they're done with these issues, they'll start waging a war against King Kong, Monopoly (board game), tea leaf reading, and reciting the Fatiha for the souls of the assembly's mother and sister…"
"Some of the mistakes civil movements have repeatedly made, unfortunately aiding fundamentalist extremists, are: lack of organization, haphazard actions, internal divisions, a fear of advocating liberal values as they are, inconsistency and conflicting stances"
Why this rising tide of extremism?
Interpretations vary concerning the origins and framing of the fundamentalist wave in Kuwait. Beyond the apparent strong desire to exclude women from the political and public sphere, some Kuwaitis view these divisive policies as part of a "shadowy wave engulfing the country, exploiting values as a political tool."
Kuwaiti writer and activist Abdulaziz Al-Qanaei contends that "the religious competition and extremism in Kuwait are not genuine indicators of protecting society from moral decline but rather signs of obstructing reformist priorities, a loss of direction in political, social, and economic development, and arousing popular religious sentiments to achieve sectarian gains at the expense of constitutional democracy." In addition, it includes "stirring the emotions and sentiments... of a herd with similar colors, and rusty minds susceptible to extremism, psychological deviance, and societal terrorism."
According to Al-Qanaei, "the shift towards a more conservative religious outlook in Kuwait" is not a recent development but rather "a result of long-standing efforts to curtail freedoms of expression and stifling diverse opinions, bolstering religious conservatism, and resorting to psychological and legal intimidation to quash any opposition to religious authority. This has been enabled by a prolonged period of political leniency and complacency." He suggests that efforts to "Islamize Kuwait" began "in the period following Kuwait's liberation" in 1991.
On the other hand, Ahmed Al-Sarraf believes that the reason for the current situation in Kuwait is the dominance of the inept in the political scene: "A number of semi-educated, inexperienced, and envious individuals who despise our way of life have plunged us into a vortex of chaos that no one knows how to escape from!"
Fatima Khaja, however, places part of the blame on civil movements for Kuwait's current state. She states, "One of the unfortunate mistakes that civil movements have repeatedly made, contributing to the empowerment of fundamentalist extremists, is their lack of organization and the haphazard nature of their actions, divisions, politeness and favoritism, and a fear of firmly advocating for liberal and secular values as they are, along with inconsistency and conflicting stances".
She further adds that "some of them (civil movements) sometimes supported candidates with extremely fundamentalist ideologies in parliamentary elections!" Moreover, they "stood by fundamentalists in certain situations under the pretext of national participation, fully aware of their true objectives and goals."
In conclusion, Kuwaitis are rallying behind the slogan "We want it Kuwait, and they want it Kandahar," affirming their commitment to all the achievements they've gained in terms of rights and freedoms in the face of a growing religious trend within one of the country's most important power institutions, the National Assembly. It remains unclear whether this trend will continue to infiltrate various aspects of life or if it will be a mere passing political trend that ends in failure.
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