Kuwait recently concluded that women can serve as judges from September 2020 onwards. In early July, Kuwait’s Public Prosecutor, Dirar Al-Asousi, and the Supreme Judicial Council approved the promotion of eight women prosecutors to judges. After their appointment, Fatima Al-Farhan, Lulwa Al-Ghanim, Sanabel Al-Houti, Fatima Al-Kandari, Bashaer Al-Rakdan, Fatima Al-Sagheer, Rawaat Al-Tabtabae and Bashair Shah, all of whom have spent over five years in the prosecution service, will undergo a one and a half month training at the Kuwait Institute for Legal and Judicial Studies. It is a significant step, particularly considering that only eight years ago Kuwaiti parliamentarians were considering amending a law to ban women from becoming prosecutors or judges. However much has changed since then and the government seeks to make more senior positions in the judiciary accessible to Kuwaiti women, mirroring the region-wide trend of slowly changing socio-political norms. With this move, Kuwait became the fourth Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) country to allow female judges, after the UAE (2008), Qatar (2010) and Bahrain (2010).
Conflicting Responses to the Appointment
Many have embraced the step following years of pressure from activists, including Speaker of the National Assembly, Marzouq Ali Al-Ghanem, who said ‘the rise of Kuwaiti women to the judiciary platform is a long-awaited entitlement, and a step forward in the march of Kuwaiti women.’ In a similar tone, Kuwaiti lawyer and rights activist, Athraa Al-Refaie, highlighted that ‘Kuwaiti women have been on an unwavering path to take part in the judiciary, after reaching both the legislative as a parliamentary member, and the executive as a minister. We’ve been waiting for this decision a long time.’
Yet, not everyone welcomes the decision. Some ultraconservative voices in the Assembly denounced the idea. For instance, Mohammad Haif Al-Mutairi, Leader of the Salafi political group, Thawabit Al-Umma, expressed his disapproval on Twitter, arguing that it is not appropriate for women to hold such position nor in line with the Sharia law and it ‘would open the door to appeal against the rulings issued by female judges, and litigants may demand they be disqualified, which would disrupt the judicial system and embarrass the Judicial Council.’ Other parliamentarians have equally uttered their discontent; according to Khaled Al-Otaibi, ‘the judiciary is a branch of the Great Islamic Imamate, and it is not permissible for a woman to assume it.’
A Slow Progress towards Gender Equality
The appointment of female judges is part of a larger set of developments that has increased female participation in the public sphere. In 2005, Kuwaiti women were granted the right to vote and run for an elected office. When the decree was passed, the emir of Kuwait stated that ‘women are an essential part of democracy.’ Four years later, in May 2009, the first four female candidates were elected to the Parliament in the general election. In 2013, women received the right to apply as prosecutors, and, a year later, 22 women were appointed to this position. These measures align with the rise in the female participation rate in the Kuwaiti labour force, which has increased from 39 percent in 1990 to 50 percent in 2019.
However, despite the progress of women’s rights and Article 29 of the Constitution – which states that there shall be no discrimination based on gender – Kuwaiti women still face discrimination in numerous aspects of society. The Family and Personal Status Law, which governs legal procedures including marriage, divorce and child custody, is one such example. The law stipulates that, unlike their male counterparts, women are not given automatic legal guardianship over their child or the unilateral decision to divorce their partner. Instead, they must receive authorisation from the courts. Furthermore, Kuwaiti women married to non-Kuwaitis cannot pass their citizenship to their child or spouse. Another example is Article 153 of the Penal Code, which specifies that if a man catches his wife, mother, daughter or sister in an act of adultery and kills her, the punishment is a small fine or maximum three years imprisonment. Adultery and extramarital relations, on the other hand, are criminalised by a three to fifteen year prison sentence.
Nevertheless, the appointment of female judges is an important step in the country’s gradual transformation process, visible also in other GCC countries, which recognises the key importance of elevating women’s role and increasing their participation in the functioning of the state to ensure progress and development. Women voices bring new perspectives to the table and this move should serve as an opportunity to spur further reform towards women empowerment in Kuwait.
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