The purpose of this paper is to evaluate the role of women in Kuwait. The paper aims to establish a foundation regarding several aspects of the role of women in Kuwait, which encompass social, economic, political and economic roles. Furthermore, the paper will also discuss how roles played by women have changed overtime in the context of the modern Kuwaiti society. This assessment is conducted with respect to three distinct time periods in Kuwaiti history that is the Pre-Oil Kuwait, the Post-Independence Kuwait and Modern Kuwait.
The Traditional Role of Women in Kuwait
Before the discovery of oil in Kuwait, the country’s economic situation was at its worse. This is reflected in the fact that during the Pre-Oil period, the nation was classified as one of the poorest countries in the world (Shelash, 1985).
The traditional Kuwaiti society was essentially diversified in its sustenance, with dependency upon several industries such as fishing, while, agriculture did not play a significant role in the country’s GDP. In this simple setup, gender roles were highly stereotypical, where the male member of the house acted as the head of the family as well as the provider and economic caretaker of the house. Shelash (1985) noted that the man of the house also enjoyed complete authority over other members of the family, especially women in matters relating to marriage and other important decisions pertaining to the affairs of the household.
Therefore, in the traditional Kuwaiti society, women had no participation whatsoever in the arrangements and affairs of the family either economically or socially. Moreover, male dominance in the attribution of roles was so stringent that any woman who was caught violating the rules faced serious and severe repercussions.
Shelash (1985) concluded that such practices reflected the existence of immense discrepancies and inequalities between the rights of men and women. Men, in traditional Kuwaiti society enjoyed freedom to choose their wives while, women had no say in matters relating to marriage. This further stems the notion that the role of Kuwaiti women has traditionally been limited to accommodating to the needs and wants of the men of the society which for commentators such as Shelash (1985) is reflective of the submissive role of women in pre-independence Kuwait.
Several commentators have sought to explore the relationship between the roles of women in countries of the Arabian Peninsula such as Kuwait, the cultural implications of their status in their countries and Islam. Shelash (1985) concludes that the seemingly passive role that Kuwaiti women were traditional expected to abide by in the Pre-Oil era of the country was a result of culture rather than the teachings of Islam.
The Kuwaiti culture expected women to be docile and submissive citizens, whose roles were limited to that of mother, wife, daughter and sister (Keedie and Beck, 1978:26).
Educational opportunities in traditional Kuwait were also limited and highly restricted for girls; it was not until three years before the country’s independence in June 1961 that the female population was able to go to school, significant discrepancy in the gender-based percentage of students attending school in Kuwait remained till the period of 1961-1962, as male attendance in educational institutions greatly surpassed the percentage of female students in the classroom (Shelash, 1985).
Rizzo (2005) asserts that in the case of Kuwait, the role of women has been traditionally associated with her family along with the cultural and religious values of the country. This view postulates that despite of the progress that Kuwait has experienced as a consequence of the discovery of its oil-reserves and even with its subsequent transformation into an industrialized and modern society, past, present and previous Kuwaiti governments have strongly expressed their stance regarding the segregation of the roles that should be played by men and women in society (Rizzo, 2005:8).
According to Al-Kazi (2011), NGOs and similar organizations have faced several hurdles in promoting gender equality in Kuwait, mostly, due to opposition from various groups within the government. This statement supports the argument which has been put forward by Rizzo (2005) who observed that the political role of women in Kuwait is very weak and subject to oppositions from governments who have strongly advocated the establishment of a patriarchal rule within the country which does not support the representation of women within the political and judicial setup of Kuwait.
The following part of the paper however, will examine the emerging trends in the role of women in Kuwait, which portray a positive, hopeful and optimistic picture of the changing status, position and role of women in Kuwaiti society by assessing various economic, political and social implications.
The Changing Role of Women in Kuwait
Shelash (1985) concluded that the evolving economic setting of Kuwait was an outcome of two drastic changes that were experienced by the nation; the first of which was the declaration of the country as a sovereign and independent nation in June of 1961and second was the discovery of oil reserves in the country.
In 1965 the labor force participation of women in comparison with men had been 1.8% of the total percentage of the Kuwaiti labor force, in 1980 however, the female participation in the total labor force increased to an impressive 10.3% (Shelash, 1985). Another contrast of the changes that were brought about by early economic development is reflective in the statistics which show that in 1975 54.3% of women held professional jobs, when 18 years ago this percentage stood at a mere 6.9% (Al-Shallal, 1980).
The aforementioned statistics show the extent of the impact that economic development has had in encouraging females to enter the labor force, this suggests that the changing role of Kuwaiti women from homemakers to professionals is greatly dependent upon the evolution of Kuwaiti society into an industrialized and modernized state.
According to Nasser et al. (2012) a research conducted on a sample of Kuwaiti women who had attained there degrees or were in the process of receiving their degrees, regarding the factors which influence their decision to become entrepreneurs or choose self-employment reported that even though, traditional factors such as cultural norms, customs, family pressure and religion did control their decision to choose entrepreneurship or self-employment, modern Kuwaiti women preferred to attach greater preference to factors which personally contributed to their decision of selecting entrepreneurship or self-employment rather than giving in to pressure from external forces in shaping their careers. Respondents felt that being the owners of their own businesses would empower them, allow them to make their own decisions and also improve their socioeconomic standing in society. Other personal aspects were related to the availability of a viable and innovative business idea along with sufficient capital to start a business.
The significance of the research conducted by Nasser et al. (2012) is that it reflects the transformation of Kuwaiti women from passive members of society to active citizens of their country who are willing to question their traditional roles in society and the forces that bind them to abide by limited roles and duties. The interpretation of the respondents’ answers to the question posed by the researchers is indicative of a modern mindset that has developed amongst Kuwaiti women in recent times.
Al-Kazi (2011) observes that despite of the opposition that the emergence of women’s roles in non-governmental organizations has faced, relentless efforts by women in lobbying members of the government have garnered successful results. This has allowed women to attain a more active role in voicing their concerns, opinions and issues through various platforms in Kuwait.
Furthermore, bodies governed and managed by women have proved to be instrumental in raising awareness about women’s rights in the country, the initiatives by NGOs have spearheaded efforts to liberate females in Kuwait by providing them with education through various programs and also promoting the provision of civil rights to women (Al-Kazi, 2011).
Even though, the establishment of such organizations by women has greatly shaped the course of women’s rights in Kuwait and also enhanced their roles and status in society for the better, it should be noted that all of these outcomes have been a consequence of individual efforts rather than the actions of a formally regulated body established by the government. Regardless, of a this fact the movements to assist the changing role of women in Kuwait are being driven by a desire to break free from traditional and long-established customs that have governed the role of women in the country. Al-Kazi (2011) concludes that the effectiveness of such NGO initiatives and programs is highly critical in bridging the gap between the Kuwaiti women as a group and the government of the nation.
While, commentators such as Rizzo (2005) have been critical of political advancements in Kuwait to encourage greater female participation in the affairs of the state, recent developments in the country on the political front have been very promising.
In May of 2005, for the first time in the nation’s history, Kuwaiti women were granted the right to choose their leaders and to run for office (ndi.org/kuwait, April 24, 2013). This historic moment in the nation’s history reflects the changing dimension of Kuwaiti society, that is willing to empower its female citizens to allow them greater liberty, independence and autonomy as citizens of their country. The National Democratic Institute reports that in the elections of 2009, four Kuwaiti women received the honor of becoming parliamentarians which is indeed a positive step towards the progress of Kuwaiti society (ndi.org/kuwait, April 24, 2013).
The objective of this paper was to assess and evaluate the role of women in Kuwait and how these roles changed overtime with the socioeconomic development of the nation. The paper discussed the role of women in Kuwait with respect to distinct time periods as identified by Shelash (1985). The first time period discussed is before the discovery of oil in the nation (Pre-Oil Kuwait), the second time period assessed in the paper is that of post-independence from 1961 (Post-Oil Kuwait) and the third time period discussed is with respect to the current society of Kuwait, which is a modern and industrialized state.
It should be noted that traditional roles of women in Kuwait have been highly influenced by factors such as customs, culture and religion (Rizzo, 2005). This view postulates that Kuwaiti society has been marred with patriarchal values and male-dominated customs that have degraded and disregarded women for a long time. Traditionally, women’s involvement in the economic makeup of Kuwait was limited or inexistent as men played the roles of being caretakers and providers of the family; moreover, female participation in household decision-making was also frowned upon.
The discovery of oil in the nation led to an economic revolution in the country due to which female labor participation in the workforce experienced a tremendous boost up till the 1980s. Furthermore, educational opportunities for girls also began to emerge. The socioeconomic improvement of women assisted the transition of women from mothers, wives, daughters and sisters to professionals, parliamentarians, entrepreneurs and activists.
Despite, of the recent improvement and betterment in the roles of women and attitude towards women in Kuwaiti society, it can be stated that the magnitude and scale of efforts to elevate the status of women in Kuwait needs to be widened.
For example, the historic moment of 2005 which the granted Kuwaiti women the right to vote and to run for office is yet to produce successful results in practice. The National Democratic Institute (2013) reports that after the promising feat which saw the election of four women into the Kuwait parliament in 2009, women candidates failed to secure parliament seats in subsequent elections. This indicates a lack of commitment to practically incorporate female representation in the government. It is suggested that the Kuwaiti government should introduce reserved seats for women in the parliament or inaugurate a quota system within the parliament to ensure women’s representation.
Lastly, the state must also assist the role of NGOs in encouraging gender equality in the country by listening to their views and concerns in order to initiate programs relating to the spread of awareness regarding women’s roles in society and promoting girls’ education.
Al-Kazi, L. 2011. Women and non-governmental organizations in Kuwait: a platform for human resource development and social change.Human Resource Development International,14(2), 167-181.
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Beck, L and Keddie, N. 1978. Women in the Muslim World. Massachussetts: Harvard University Press
Naser, K., Nuseibeh, R., & Al-Hussaini, A. 2012. Personal And External Factors Effect On Women Entrepreneurs: Evidence From Kuwait. Journal of Developmental Entrepreneurship, 17(02).
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