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The move to allow Kuwaiti women join the army should be applauded

Kuwaiti soldiers at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, march in formation on February 21, 2011 [Sgt. M. Benjamin Gable / US DoD]
Kuwaiti soldiers at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, march in formation on February 21, 2011 [Sgt. M. Benjamin Gable / US DoD]

Kuwaiti women can now join the country's army; in the medical and support military services at first, to be followed later by other roles. Thus the empowerment of women to join the military in all six Gulf Arab states is complete. The 2019 decision to allow Saudi women to join any branch of the armed forces began to be implemented this year. They were already allowed to join the police force and National Guard. After being allowed to work in administrative positions in the army, the Emir of Qatar decreed in 2018 that women could enlist in all branches of the armed forces. The UAE allowed its female citizens to join the military in 2014; Bahrain and Oman allowed this even earlier.

Observers have commented that Kuwait's decision is a bit late in the day, given that women have served for many years in state positions, including the police force, aviation and the judiciary, not to mention the diplomatic corps and ministerial positions. Women in Kuwait have been allowed to stand for election to the National Assembly since 2005.

It is reprehensible that some people resent the latest move toward equality, and received it with some sarcasm. The move should be applauded. According to activist Professor Ibtihal Al-Khatib, it is important for us all to support the female activists and intellectuals in Kuwait who say that allowing women to don a military uniform gives a renewed push to demands for radical revisions of several laws. This includes laws regarding personal status in the context of Kuwaiti women gaining all of their civil and citizenship rights in terms of housing and family care, for example.

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We should support such demands that could advance social modernisation and general upliftment in the State of Kuwait, which has been a pioneer in this field in the Gulf. It was one of the first Arab countries to enjoy remarkable vitality in politics and social debate, and was distinguished in the Arab public sphere. I regret the apparent regression in all of this with the seeming expansion of the spaces occupied by the reactionary forces moving in the opposite direction, often based on claims that religion, beliefs and traditions adapt to the whims and tendencies of their followers.

The government's announcement about Kuwaiti women joining the army, with the opportunities that this creates, coincided with a judgment from the Criminal Court imprisoning three brothers of a divorced woman, along with her ex-husband who held her in a cell-like room, in the basement of the family home for nine years. According to the media, the ex-husband is 15 years older than the woman and she had refused to continue living with him, even though she bore him a child, so the family punished her in this heinous way.

I accept that such crimes as committed against this woman are rare, and are the exception rather than the rule, but this particular case serves to illustrate the vulnerability of women in society, given the ease with which men violated her body and her rights. Courts in most Arab countries, not just Kuwait, have dealt with cases confirming that women are still subjected to various forms of domestic abuse and violence. The perpetrators often claim their "right" to behave in such a way to protect their own dignity, and cite religious justifications when doing so, with quotes from religious leaders.

Social media comments about the Ministry of Defence announcement to let women join the army have been made by Kuwaitis, including former MPs, who have ridiculed the decision. This has provoked anger and been condemned. They should have supported the government's approach given the Islamic heritage attesting to the participation of women in defending the Muslim Ummah.

In any case, what is happening in Kuwait regarding the empowerment of women is, to me, natural. I believe it is more genuine in its essence than the fake conversations we see in those countries which beat Kuwait and others in terms of their modernisation of society.

This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Araby Al-Jadeed on 23 October 2021

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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