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Mary Ann Tétreault
The Oxford Encyclopedia of Islam and Women What is This? A single source for accurate overview articles covering the major topics of scholarly interest within the study of women and Islam.


Kuwait was settled early in the eighteenth century, probably by water-seeking nomads from the interior of the Arabian Peninsula; its first government was formed in the 1750s. Meager freshwater supplies and access to the sea made fishing, pearling, and long-distance trade main sources of family income. Wives of sailors and pearl fishers headed their families during the men's long absences. Given the minimal wages earned by their husbands, women who could do so also worked for money as petty traders, teachers, and household help.

Wealthy families sequestered their women in fortress-like houses with solid external walls and enclosed courtyards. Outsiders could not see in or even hear the voices of the household's women. Regardless of their social class, women venturing outside their houses had to cover their faces and bodies so that unrelated men could not see them.

Education for Kuwaitis of both sexes was limited until the 1930s, when a school for boys and then one for girls were established in the municipality. Oil was discovered in 1938 and exports began after World War II, bringing the state unprecedented income. Under Amir Abdullah al-Salim (r. 1950–1965), along with the provision of other services, public education for girls and boys was made mandatory.

As oil income and the resident foreigners generating and helping to spend it increased, Kuwaiti society became more cosmopolitan. Leading merchants sent their sons and even a few daughters abroad to be educated. Adela al-Sayer, who later became a leader of one of Kuwait's first women's organizations, was among the first Kuwaiti women to drive, taking the family car for a jaunt during one of her school vacations to the applause of men along the way.

Male graduates returning to Kuwait saw women as integral to their hopes for modernization. Young graduates encouraged their sisters and made spaces for them in the burgeoning Kuwaiti print media. “Woman's Corner” columns in Kuwaiti magazines carried their articles on values, especially the concepts of honor and modesty, sparking debate about women's roles in building a new Kuwait.

Kuwait's constitution was adopted in 1962. It promised equal rights to all Kuwaiti citizens but made the family the basic unit of Kuwaiti society. The constitution incorporated a wide array of civil rights and liberties, and provided for an elected representative assembly with real legislative authority. Women's political access was limited by the 1959 election law. Only men could vote and run for office, but women did benefit from other state policies. Family allowances, health care, and subsidies for basic foods improved Kuwaiti life chances greatly, and compulsory education gave girls both skills and ambitions to use them, at home and in the larger society.

As ambitious women found jobs in government and the economy, divisions among Kuwaitis regarding women's proper “place” became more prominent. Urban Kuwaitis, who saw themselves as autonomous citizens, tended to have inclusive attitudes towards women's rights to participate in society and politics. Rural Kuwaitis, concentrated in the new suburbs, were closer to tribal culture, which obligates the amir as tribal leader to provide for them. They preferred that women defer to men.

Women themselves are divided over the issue of women's rights. The most interesting divisions are among Islamist women. Like male Shīʿī Islamists, Shīʿī Islamist women tend to favor a limited range of women's rights, such as voting rights for women but not the right to run for office. Sunnī Islamists are more likely than Shīʿa to oppose women's rights, and there are differences among Sunnīs, too. Sunnī women are split by their location in Islamist families, with women from Salafī families (the Salafin resemble Wahhābīs from Saudi Arabia in their religious beliefs) arguing against even voting rights, while many women in the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwān) participated alongside liberal women in the successful May 2005 achievement of full political rights for Kuwaiti women.

Kuwaiti women are involved in public life. In addition to holding jobs, most in the public sector, activists participate in associational life and have been politically engaged for decades, even before they had obtained full rights. At first they were concentrated in same-sex organizations like the mostly upper-class Women's Cultural and Social Society and the middle-class Arab Women's Development Society, both founded in 1963 and each devoting some of their efforts to women's rights issues. As their public roles grew in prominence, women moved into political and professional organizations with mixed-sex membership. Rola Dashti, an economist, was the first woman to be elected head of the Economists’ Society, and she was one of the four “first” women elected to the parliament in 2009. The others are Massouma al-Mubarak, who had held two cabinet portfolios prior to her election, Aseel al-Awadhi, a philosopher, and education professor Salwa al-Jassar.

Kuwaiti female activists come from many backgrounds, and not only from the ruling family. Psychologist Buthaina al-Muqhawe and attorney Badria al-Awadhi led efforts to reform laws that discriminate against women. Sara Akbar, Kuwait's first female petroleum engineer, now heads a private international oil company and was the only woman to serve among those extinguishing the oil-well fires that choked Kuwait after liberation. During the occupation, women worked in the Resistance. Some, like Asrar al-Qabandy, were brutally tortured and murdered for their efforts.

Young women continue to move into public life. In 2008, then-education minister Nouria al-Subeih agreed under Islamist pressure to enforce the 1996 gender-segregation law more rigorously. Private university students who had not yet felt the full force of the law, and recent graduates from several institutions, organized to roll this decision back. Led by Hussa al-Humaidhi, Voice of Kuwait (Sawt al-Kuwait) embarked on a campaign to teach Kuwaitis about their rights. In addition to annual events highlighting the constitution, Sawt gathers information about laws that restrict civil liberties and publishes it alongside the names and photographs of MPs and how they voted on the bills.

Kuwaiti women have enviable academic and professional records and continue to make their way in the private and public sectors. Although their paths are sometimes obstructed by class conflict and male backlash, they have shown their ability to achieve professionally without losing their cultural and religious roots.



  • Al-Mughni, Haya. Women in Kuwait: The Politics of Gender. 2nd ed. London: Saqi Books, 2001.
  • Rizzo, Helen Mary. Islam, Democracy, and the Status of Women: The Case of Kuwait. New York: Routledge, 2005.
  • Tétreault, Mary Ann. “Women's Rights and the Meaning of Citizenship in Kuwait.” Middle East Reports Online, 10 February 2005, at www.merip.org/mero/mero021005.html.
  • Tétreault, Mary Ann, Katherine Meyer, and Helen Rizzo. “Women's Rights in the Middle East: A Longitudinal Study of Kuwait.” International Political Sociology 3 (2009): 218–237.
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