Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Kuwaiti Liberals Criticize Islamist Demand That Women MPs Wear Veil


In May 2009, four women were elected to the Kuwaiti parliament, for the first time in this country's history. Two of these women – Dr. Asil Al-'Awadi and Dr. Rola Dashti – do not wear the veil, and since their election, Islamists in the country have been demanding that they be required to wear it.

MP Muhammad Hayef appealed to the Minister of Endowments and Minister of Justice, Rashed Al-Hammad, with a demand to give a formal expression to the Kuwaiti law which states that "a condition for women to vote and be elected is to abide by the rules and terms of shari'a law."

In response, the Religious Endowments Ministry issued a fatwa stipulating that the MPs must wear a veil like all other Muslim women. The fatwa stated that "when appearing in front of men not related to her, a Muslim woman must abide by the shari'a requirement to wear a veil hiding her entire body, except for the face and hands. [Furthermore], the veil must not be sheer so as to reveal any part of the body, must not be narrow so as to reveal her figure, and must not attract men's looks in any way."[1]

Islamist MPs treated the fatwa as binding, stating that "the veil is [both] a legal and a religious duty."[2] Liberals, on the other hand, including the women MPs themselves, argued that the fatwa contravenes Kuwait's democratic character, and that fatwas like these threaten to turn Kuwait into a Taliban state. They also pointed out that the fatwa is at odds with Kuwait's constitution, which upholds individual freedoms, and therefore cannot be binding, since the constitution is the supreme legal source of authority.[3]

On October 11, 2009, woman MP Dr. Rola Dashti proposed abolishing the clause in the Election Law requiring parliamentary candidates to abide by shari'a.[4]

On October 28, 2009, the Constitution Court rejected a lawsuit filed by attorney Hamad Al-Nashi against the two women MPs who do not don the veil, in which he demanded to revoke their membership in the parliament for violating the shari'a.

The court ruled that "the laws of the Islamic shari'a do not have a binding force like the basic laws [of the state], unless the legislator has intervened and so stipulated... The Kuwaiti constitution does not stipulate that the shari'a – that is, Islamic law – is the sole source of legislation, nor does it preclude the legislator from utilizing other sources [of legislation], out of consideration for the people's [needs]. Moreover, the constitution guarantees complete religious and personal freedom and forbids discrimination... based on [an individual's] religion or gender."[5]

MP Asil Al-'Awadi welcomed the court's ruling, stating that it represents a triumph for Kuwait's constitution and will end the debate on the veil which has been taking up parliament's time.

MP Rola Dashti said: "We four women MPs will continue to represent the Kuwaiti people in the best possible manner... This is not a triumph [only] for two women MPs or [even] for the Kuwaiti woman – it's a triumph for democracy."

She explained that even though the parliament is not a holy place or a house of worship, the women MPs would be careful to dress modestly and elegantly. She added that the court's ruling put an end to the attempts of "those who wish to bring Kuwait back [to an earlier era]." [6]

MP Muhammad Hayef, for his part, said that he planned to appeal again to the Constitutional Court in this matter, and called on MPs Dashti and 'Awadi to "abide by Allah's law... in order to turn over a new leaf and quell this storm that has pitched the country into a crisis [caused by] disobedience to Allah's laws."[7]

The Endowment Ministry's fatwa and the court ruling reignited the debate between two prominent camps in Kuwait, that is, the Islamists and the liberals, over the character of the Kuwaiti state and over which is the ultimate source of authority – shari'a law or the statutory laws.

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