MPs cry foul over sports ban on women

In dispute over women's participation in the Olympics, conservatives argue a ban follows Sharia, but liberals say it is unconstitutional.

KUWAIT CITY // Kuwait's female MPs have condemned a call to bar women from international sport competitions as an attempt by an Islamist-dominated parliamentary committee to suppress women's rights.

The latest row between conservative and liberal members of Kuwait's National Assembly began after parliament's five-member Committee To Study Negative Phenomena Alien to Kuwaiti Society met with the minister of social affairs and labour, Mohammed al Afasi, to discuss women's participation in sport. On Thursday, one of the committee's members, Jamaan al Harbash, said they discussed Kuwait's intention for women to take part in the Olympics.

"We have sent out a clear message that such participation runs counter to Sharia provisions and we have called for their suspension," the Islamist MP said. But Aseel al Awadhi, one of the four women to win a seat in parliament last year, said last week: "This is a continuous and systematic attempt by the Islamist lobby within parliament to suppress women's right to participate in the public domain.

"The demand is unconstitutional and pries into the affairs of families that have deemed it fit for their daughters to participate in international sport." Another female MP, Salwa al Jassar said: "All world health reports confirm that the Kuwaiti people are suffering from obesity and this must be combatted through sport." Islamists were recently upset by Kuwaiti women representing their country in the West Asian Football Federation Championship held in Abu Dhabi in February. Parliament barred the women from playing football between 2001 and mid-2008.

Their participation was "against the nature and physique" of women, another member of the committee, Waleed al Tabtabae, commented at the time. About 16 members of Kuwait's 50-member parliament are associated with an Islamist ideology. Liberals hold half as many seats. The alien phenomena committee has upset less conservative members of society in the past by banning television shows and computer games, and closing late-night cafes. Last year, when liberals gained in the May election they asserted their strength by getting elected to the committee. Two Islamists resigned in protest.

Rola Dashti, the liberal MP who became the committee's spokesperson, said at the time the Islamists "were shocked" by her appointment. She said she moved the focus from "shallow issues that, to us, weren't as important" to phenomena that affect all of society such as Kuwaitis' duties as citizens, respecting the law and tolerance. When new committee elections were held in October after parliament's summer recess, Islamists regained full control.

Ms al Awadhi said she believes the committee is "trying to reassert its strength by focusing on issues that revolve around suppressing people's rights and do not give any added value to people's actual needs". Parliament's committees can initiate legislation, but the new laws will have to win the support of parliament to come into effect. Shamlan al Essa, a political scientist at Kuwait University, said the National Assembly "will stand against them".

"Don't take it seriously. As members of parliament, they say they want this every day, but nobody pays any attention to them," Mr al Essa said. "There are always struggles between liberals and fundamentalists in this country, and the result depends on the government's stance." The 16 cabinet members, who vote on legislation along with parliament, are the largest bloc in the assembly and they often have the weight to swing votes in their favour. Mr al Essa said because the government does not want to bar women from sport, there is little chance of this happening.

But MPs also have the right to question cabinet ministers in the chamber, which is a prolonged and uncomfortable experience. The committee could persuade ministers to act in its interests with the threat of a public "grilling". The statement from Mr al Harbash came just after Freedom House, a US-based non-governmental organisation that promotes human rights, published a report saying that despite resistance from religious and cultural elites, women's rights have improved in the Middle East and North Africa over the past five years, especially in the Gulf.

"The most significant achievement occurred in Kuwait, where women received the same political rights as men in 2005, enabling them to vote and run for office, and paving the way for the election of the country's first female members of parliament in 2009," the report said.