Court rules hijab optional for MPs

The ruling counters conservatives' argument that Sharia compels women to wear headscarves.

Kuwaiti MP Acil al-Awadhi (R) speaks with voters in her electoral district during a meeting in Kuwait City on October 27, 2009. Kuwaiti Islamist lawmakers are pressing the authorities to force women to wear the hijab headscarf ahead of a court ruling on October 28 concerning two women MPs who refuse to wear it. The constitutional court, whose rulings are final, is set to issue its verdict on a complaint by a voter challenging the election of the two female MPs for not wearing the hijab. AFP PHOTO/YASSER AL-ZAYYAT *** Local Caption ***  117730-01-08.jpg

KUWAIT CITY // Kuwait's female MPs will not be forced to wear a hijab or have their parliamentary membership invalidated after the Constitutional Court, the country's highest legal authority, rejected a case by a Kuwaiti man who said they broke rules relating to Islamic dress.

The man, identified as Hamad al Nashi, urged the court to cancel the membership of the two female MPs - Aseel al Awadhi and Rola Dashti - who did not wear the hijab, thereby violating an article of the election law that states: "A condition for women to vote and be elected is to abide by the rules and terms of Sharia law". Islamists say the Sharia clearly states that women must wear the hijab. In its ruling, the court said the article of the election law was not specific and therefore could be interpreted in different ways. It said Sharia could apply to many things, including beliefs, morals and actions, and comes from many sources such as the Quran, the Sunna, and other traditions and customs.

If the court had ruled that the women were in violation of the election law when they were elected, their membership in parliament could have been cancelled, legal experts said. "I'm very happy it's been rejected," Ms al Awadhi, one of Kuwait's four female MPs, said after receiving the news of the court's decision. "So we're not going to wear the hijab in the Majlis," Ms al Awadhi said, using the first word of Majlis al Umma, the Arabic name for Kuwait's national assembly.

Speaking in her office in the national assembly, the MP said if the court had ruled that the women had to cover their heads, she would have considered resigning. "I doubted the court would say I have to wear it because it's unconstitutional," Ms al Awadhi added. The other MP, Ms Dashti, had said that the controversial sentence regarding women should be removed from the law. In a statement to the press, she said the article "was formulated in such broad terms that it could be interpreted in various ways and - it goes against the core principles in the constitution, mainly individual freedom".

However, not all of Kuwait's politicians were happy with the court's decision or agree that the article is unconstitutional. Ali al Omair, the acting secretary general of the Islamic Salafi Alliance, an Islamic political group, said Islamists would not be happy to withdraw the request for women to comply with Sharia because "the constitution itself states that Sharia should be the source of all laws".

Mr al Omair said he needed to understand why the case was rejected before he decided what action he would take next. He said there were two possibilities, changing the law to suit the Constitutional Court's ruling or filing another case. "If they [the court] rejected the case as a subject, then the election law no longer stands and we have to rephrase the law itself," Mr al Omair said. "But sometimes they reject the case because of the framework - the way the case has been put to the court". He said if this is the case, then "we will have to put the case to the court again".

Conferences, organised by liberals and conservatives to present their arguments on the issue, have highlighted divisions within Kuwaiti society that appear to have deepened since the election in May, when liberals strengthened their representation in parliament at the expense of Islamist candidates. At several conferences on the subject this month, Islamist politicians, academics and charity workers have said that all Islamic sects agree that Sharia law requires women to wear the hijab. Mohammed al Kandari, a Salafi MPs, who lost his seat in the last election, spoke at an event organised by the Salafi Movement on Tuesday. He said "some liberals are trying to delude people by creating a non existent conflict between a civil and Islamic country. In fact they are the same thing".

Kuwait's four female MPs were elected to the national assembly in May.