Kuwait's crackdown is followed by a fierce battle for women's rights

All this began with yoga.

Kuwait's crackdown is followed by a fierce battle for women's rights

Conservatives deemed it an attack on Islam when a Kuwaiti instructor advertised a desert yoga retreat. Clerics and lawmakers railed about the dangers and depravity of women performing the lotus position in public. Authorities eventually banned the trip.

The yoga ruckus was just one of many flashpoints in a long-running culture conflict over women's behavior within the sheikhdom. There, tribes and Islamists have a growing control over a divided society. Conservative politicians are increasingly resentful of a growing feminist movement and what they perceive as an unravelling of Kuwait's traditional values, amid deep governmental dysfunction on key issues.

Najeeba Hayat, a feminist activist, recently stated to The Associated Press that "our state is backsliding" and was "regressing at a pace that we haven’t seen before." She spoke from the grassy area near Kuwait's parliament. The park was filled with women, who chanted into the night for the freedoms they claim authorities have been stifling.

It's a disturbing trend for Kuwaitis in a country that used to be proud of its progressivism in comparison with its Gulf Arab neighbors.

However, women have made significant progress in the conservative Arabian Peninsula over recent years. Under the de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, women in long-insular Saudi Arabia have enjoyed greater freedoms.

Saudi Arabia hosted its first open air yoga festival last month. Kuwaitis noticed this irony via social media.

"The hostile movement against women of Kuwait was always insidious, invisible, but now it's rising to the surface," stated Alanoud Alsharekh. Abolish153 is a group that seeks to abolish a section of Kuwait's penal code that allows for lax punishments for so-called honor killings. It's affecting our personal freedoms."

In the last few months, Kuwaiti authorities have shut down a popular gym that offered belly dancing classes. Clerics demanded that police arrest the organizers of "The Divine Feminine," an alternative women's retreat, citing blasphemy. Kuwait's highest court will soon hear a case that argues the government should ban Netflix amid a commotion over the first Arabic-language movie the platform produced.

Hamdan al-Azmi is a conservative Islamist who has launched a tirade against yoga. He accuses outsiders of trampling Arab heritage and deplores the aerobic exercise as cultural travesty.

He said, "If defending Kuwait's daughters is backward, it is my honor to be called it."

A string of religiously motivated decisions have sparked outrage among Kuwaiti women, at a time when not one member of the elected parliament is present. Additionally, the public has been gripped by horrific cases of so-called honour killings.

A Kuwaiti woman named Farah Akbar, was dragged out of her car and stabbed to the death by a bail-free man against whom she had filed multiple police complaints.

After years of campaigning, parliament was forced to create a law to eliminate Article 153 after the outcry about Akbar's murder. A man who is caught with his wife in adultery or a female relative engaging in "illicit" sexual activity can be sentenced to three years imprisonment. You can also be fined $46.

When it was time to discuss the article's abrogation, Kuwait's all-male committee on women's issues made an extraordinary move. The state's Islamic clergy were asked by the committee to issue a fatwa (or non-binding religious ruling) about the article.

Last month, the clerics ruled that the law should be upheld.

Sundus Hussain, another founder member of the Abolish153 group, stated that "most of these members of parliament are from a system where honor killings were normal."

Hussein said that there was an increase in influence among conservative Islamists and members of the tribes after Kuwait's 2020 elections.

Before activists could absorb the impact, authorities asked clerics for a new question: Should women be allowed into the army?

According to a long-standing request, the Defense Ministry declared that they could enlist last autumn.

Clerics, however, disagreed. They decreed that women may not join non-combat roles last month unless they are covered in an Islamic head scarf and have permission from a male guardian.

Kuwaitis, who are used to indifferent government decisions about whether women cover their hair, were shocked and appalled by the decision.

"Why would the government consult religious authority? It's clear that the government wants to please parliament and appease conservatives in this way," stated Dalal al-Fares from Kuwait University, a gender studies expert. "Clamping down upon women's issues will make it seem like they are defending national honour."

Except for the defense of women's honor as social conservatives see it, Kuwait's elected parliament and Cabinet cannot agree on anything. Anguished infighting has stopped all attempts to fix the record-breaking budget deficit and implement badly needed economic reforms.

Two years ago, parliament passed a domestic violence protection bill. There are currently no government women's shelters for victims of abuse or services for them. During the pandemic lockdown, violence against women has only gotten worse.

Abdulaziz al-Saqabi (lawmaker) said that "we need a complete overhaul" to address the weaknesses of our legal system in protecting women. He's currently drafting Kuwait's first law on gender-based violence. "We have an unstable and irresponsible system that makes reform nearly impossible."

Advocates attribute the conservative backlash a feeling of panic about society's changing. was a pioneering #MeToo movement to denounce harassment and violence against females. It was launched one year ago. The campaign's Instagram account was filled with hundreds of stories containing horrendous accusations of assault. This created a shift in Kuwaiti discourse.

Recent months have seen organizers struggle to maintain momentum, as they have been subject to rape threats and death threats.

It was a huge toll. We were instantly clickbait. Hayat, who was instrumental in creating the movement last year, said that we couldn't go out without being stopped and harassed.

Hayat doesn't believe the government will do anything to improve Kuwait's women's lives. She said it's not a reason to lose heart.

"If there is a protest, then I will show up. She said that she would try to convince anyone who needed it, as women around her raised their fists in support and waved signs.