Kuwait women's forum fights for equality

Members of parliament join those at a Women's Day event who seek equality, including the right to raise children as citizens if they marry a foreigner.

KUWAIT CITY // Parliament's committee for women and family affairs will propose legislation this month in an effort to end discrimination against women, the MP Aseel al Awadhi said at a forum celebrating International Women's Day in Kuwait on Monday.

The bill will focus on changing laws that prevent Kuwaiti women who marry non-Kuwaitis from passing citizenship to their children and try to boost the number of women in top positions in the government and judiciary. "We're working on some changes to some laws that actually don't treat men and women equally in their civil rights, especially in promotions and getting positions of leadership within the government institutions," Ms al Awadhi said at the forum, adding that she expects a tough battle to get the measure through parliament.

She is one of four women elected last year who have since then won victories in the constitutional courts to enable women to get passports without their husband's permission and to ensure they can participate in parliament without wearing a hijab. If they can get the new bill through parliament, it would be their biggest success. About 50 people at the Marriott Courtyard's Al Raya Ballroom listened to speeches from the parliament's speaker, Jassem al Kharafi and Massouma al Mubarak, the committee for women and family affairs chairwoman. Ms al Mubarak said women are still not accepted as "genuine and effective partners" in the development process. She said some laws still discriminate against women or are unfairly applied.

She cited the law that prevents Kuwaiti women who marry foreigners from naturalising their husbands or raising Kuwaiti children as an example. Lina Zuter, 50, is a Kuwaiti part-time teacher who married a Libyan. When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, Ms Zuter's family moved to the United States, where her husband and three children all became American citizens. About 10 years ago, her husband's job brought the family back to Kuwait.

She said that when her oldest son turned 21, she was no longer able to sponsor him. Now 23, he has to apply for a temporary residency visa every year. She said because he has a "friendly" passport - from the United States - she has "been able to pull strings" to get him residency so far, but doubts that she will be able to do it again. He will have to find a job with sponsorship if he wants to remain in the country.

"I can sponsor a gardener or a driver, or someone else who I don't even know, and I can't even sponsor my son," Ms Zuter said. "They love this country because they are brought up here, but the older they get, the harder it is for them to feel Kuwaiti." She said her daughter is also over 21, but the authorities "are a little bit sympathetic" towards girls and usually renew their residency until they get married.

Some of her friends who married men from countries such as Syria are in a much worse position, she said, pointing out they have problems getting their adult sons into the country for a visit. Ms Zuter is not eligible for handouts of government land, a house allowance or a low-interest loan from a government bank, standard perks in Kuwait's generous social welfare system. Her boys miss out on benefits Kuwaiti friends get such as scholarships to overseas universities and full medical care.

The forum also focused on male dominance of upper positions in government and women's exclusion from the judiciary. Nahla bin Naji, a senior official at the civil service commission, said women occupy 17 senior posts in government compared while men hold 252 top positions. On the day of the forum, Rola Dashti, an MP, asked for the names and details of those who serve in the government's top bureaucratic positions and an explanation of the standards used to appoint them.

Although women in Kuwait might have a tough time getting an executive job, they have so far had no chance in the judiciary. In August, Shrooq al Failakawe's application to the ministry of justice for a job in the public prosecution - which can lead to the position of judge - was refused because of her gender. Alnoud al Hajiri, 25, a lawyer who attended the forum is fighting Ms al Failakawe's case in court. Ms al Hajiri said there is nothing in Kuwait's laws that prevent women from becoming judges, as they have done so in the UAE and Bahrain. She said it is Kuwaiti traditions that are standing in the way.

"Now that women have reached parliament, they create laws. What's the problem with women being judges?" she asked. She said parliament is higher than judges because it creates the laws, whereas judges just follow them. Ms al Hajiri said has already faced accusations of acting against religion, and she will no doubt face more pressure before the case is concluded. The MP Faisal al Duwaisan said yesterday the appointment of female judges in Kuwait would be a "fatal blow to man and society", the Al Watan news service reported.

But Ms al Hajiri said there are a lot of different opinions in Islam in this case and "there is nothing clear". Given that there are differences of opinion, she asked, "why should we stop our dream?" jcalderwood@thenational.ae