Islamic Feminism in Kuwait – The Politics and Paradoxes
Alessandra L. González
ISLAMIC FEMINISM IN KUWAIT
Many people, particularly since September 11, 2001, seem to think that Islam is inherently oppressive to women. But what do Muslim women in majority Muslim countries think about these issues?
Do they consider themselves oppressed by their religion? And why do so many of them still wear the veil?
This book tackles and untangles several commonly misunderstood paradoxes current in the majority of Muslim countries today. A case study of Kuwaiti elites and college students illustrates these paradoxes at the cutting edge of a contemporary women’s suffrage movement.
Using data from in-depth interviews with Kuwaiti cultural elites, we begin to unravel the logic that makes Islamic feminism a thriving approach to understanding the sociological importance of community, politics, and religion in majority Muslim countries. This book is a sociological window into Islamic feminism and serves as a model to understand social reform for women’s rights in other majority Muslim contexts.
It explores the subject of women’s political participation in Kuwait as a means to understanding larger social reform issues. It is an updated search for examples of a reconciliation between Islam and feminism that comes out of an in-depth look at the evolving political roles for women in Kuwait. 1
One of the distinctive theoretical contributions of this study is to highlight the idea of feminism rooted in sources of authority that are legitimate to the actors involved and to the societies with which they interact. In the case of politically active Kuwaiti Muslim women, the dynamics and boundaries for their version of an indigenous women’s rights movement are situated amongst a variety of schools of Islamic thought, particularly those of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafis, the Shia sources, and a variety of Liberal secular references from women’s political participation in the United States and Europe.
Through ethnographic interviews and survey research of Kuwaiti elites and college students, one finds several interesting paradoxes about Islam, women, and politics in Kuwait:
- · Muslim women are not jealous of Western feminists.
- Islamists are winning elections—with the help of women.
- Intelligent Muslim women are choosing to wear the veil.
- Veiled women are succeeding in fields of business, education, and politics.
- Men are not opposed to, but in fact enabling, Islamic feminism.
- Arab youth support both modern standards for gender equality and respect their traditional religious culture.
- Islamic feminists are finding ways to negotiate for progressive women’s rights within the conservative constraints of their culture.
Far from being standardized to an antiquated text or interpretation, Kuwaiti elites are reconciling feminism with Islam in a variety of ways.
Their ability to negotiate between traditional values and modern realities is a contextual process—and one that illustrates the possibilities for an indigenous resolution to global problems of gender inequality and economic disparity in the Middle East.
A key sociological approach presented in this book is to understand the sociological sources of legitimate authority within Islamic contexts, namely, religious texts, the community, and authority figures. Islamic feminists are most successful when they present their arguments for women’s rights as legitimately sanctioned from these indigenous and religious sources. The chapters in this book are divided to address each of these paradoxes in further detail.
A Sociological Theory of Legitimate Authority
The sociological theory of legitimate authority put forward in this book acknowledges the influence of authority figures to maintain social control and the logic of optimizing one’s benefit and minimizing negative sanctions. 2
An extensive history of the important sources of legitimate authority in Islamic tradition includes religious texts (including the Sharia and Hadith ), the Muslim community ( ummah ), and authority figures (including imam preachers, Islamic scholars, and the political head of state). However, a historical and juridical focus on legitimate sources of authority in Islam is not the main focus of this book.
Instead, a sociological theory of legitimate authority acknowledges the importance of multiple sources and dimensions of authority distilled into these three nodes of authority (texts, community, and religious or political leaders) but focuses on the logic and argument of Islamic feminists working within conservative cultural constraints to fight for progressive women’s social and political