The strict Islamic nation of Kuwait has moved to modernise its armed forces by allowing women to sign up for combat roles, however they will be required to wear hijab face coverings at all times and not be allowed to carry weapons into battle.
In a move that has prompted widespread criticism from feminist activists, Kuwait’s government now allows women to serve but due to pressure from Islamic conservatives, they will not be allowed to carry firearms, and they will have to wear a hijab even though it is not a legal requirement for civilian Kuwaiti women to do so.
Lulwa Saleh al-Mulla, head of the Kuwaiti Women’s Cultural and Social Society has branded the restrictions unconstitutional and suggested she will be taking legal action against the government to change the policy.
“We are a Muslim country, that is true, but we demand the laws not be subject to fatwas [Islamic legal doctrine]. Personal freedom is guaranteed in the constitution, on which the country’s laws are based”, al-Mulla said, France 24 reports.
Women register to join the Kuwaiti army at the Defence Ministry in Kuwait City on December 22, 2021. Kuwait’s ministry of defence started receiving applications for the first batch of female non-commissioned officers and personnel from women who want to join the Kuwaiti army. (YASSER AL-ZAYYAT/AFP via Getty Images)
Ghadeer al-Khashti, a sports teacher and member of Kuwait Football Association’s women committee, has also criticised the the policy as she highlighted that women in Kuwait already serve in the police where they are allowed to carry firearms.
“I don’t know why there are these restrictions to join the army, we have all kinds of women working in all fields, including the police force”, al-Khashti said.
While Kuwaiti women obtained the right to vote in 2005, there are currently no female representatives in Kuwait’s government, with the only female MP losing her seat in December 2020.
The decision to allow women to enlist in the Kuwaiti armed forces – including in combat and officer roles – was announced by Defence Minister Hamad Jaber Al Sabah in October 2021 but was met with widespread condemnation by conservative factions within the Kuwait government, who claimed it violated Sharia Law.
Consequently, Sabah – who is a member of Kuwait’s ruling royal family – was forced to defend his decision after the Kuwaiti parliament moved to trigger a vote of no confidence against him, which he ultimately survived on the 26th of January.
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When addressing Parliament during the vote of no confidence Sabah initially backed his decision to allow women to enter the armed forces, by highlighting that 34 Islamic nations including the “great Kingdom of Saudi Arabia” – where “Muslims pray toward every day” – enlist women and rhetorically asked whether the parliament believed they were all violating Sharia Law.
In a move to appease the Islamic conservatives Sabah also declared he “never said that woman will take up arms”, leading Kuwaiti feminist activists to brand the move as “one step forward, two steps back”.
Sabah continued his decision “did not bring anything new”, as women joining the army would still be “limited to working in the medical, administrative and support services units, which are the specialities that women currently work in the Ministry of Defence”.
The Defence Minister also met with a council of Islamic religious scholars and sheikhs on the 15th of January, which may also impact his decision.
Following the vote of no confidence and the subsequent grilling in Parliament, Sabah resigned from his position as Minister of Defence on the 16th of February, a move that could see women once again denied entry into the military.