Women’s groups, like all voluntary associations in Kuwait, are controlled and funded by the state. They have elected boards, written constitutions and paid memberships. Law 24 of 1962 governing the activity of associations — partially amended in 1965 and still in force — gives the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor full control and power over voluntary associations. The Ministry has the power to refuse to license an association, to dissolve its elected board or to terminate an association if it determines the group not to be beneficial to society as a whole or not to be abiding by its constitution.
As the only legitimate forum for Kuwaiti women to engage in public activity, women’s organizations, by and large, have inhibited the development of a feminist movement, in part by providing elite and upper-class women the power to control other women’s access to the public sphere. Their activities have conformed to official policies defining women’s role in society, stressing traditional practices and islah (reform) rather than social change. This is evident from the rise and subsequent collapse of the women’s movement for equal rights in the 1970s. The rise of Islamist women’s organizations in the 1980s led to their alliance with the state in promoting its model of ideal womanhood. In the brief period following the Gulf war, the agenda of the women’s movement has remained firmly under the control of the state and upper-class women opposed to any change in the status of women.
Today there are five licensed women’s organizations: the Women’s Cultural and Social Society, licensed in 1963; the Girls’ Club, in 1975; Bayadir al-Salam (Threshing Fields of Peace), in 1981; the Islamic Care Society (ICS), in 1982 and the Volunteer Women’s Association for Community Services, in 1991. Membership is overlapping (some women may join more than one group) and the majority of members are women, middle-aged and middle- to upper-class. The low level of membership in women’s organizations — 1,752 in 1988, about 3 percent of all women in Kuwait — is due to exclusivist policies carefully practiced by organizational leaders to maintain control over their particular organization.
In the 1950s, the development of the oil economy and the rise of the modern state necessitated the integration of Kuwaiti women into the national economy to increase Kuwaiti participation in the labor force and to reduce the country’s dependency on foreign labor. The departure from the traditional practice of female seclusion was facilitated by the nahda movement, which advocated a departure from rigid traditions and customs in the name of taqaddum (progress) and civilization. This movement was led by young upper-class men who had studied in Egypt.
1963 saw the formation of the Arab Women’s Development Society (AWDS), whose members were middle class women who focused on issues that the WCSS avoided addressing — namely, gender equality and women’s citizenship rights. The AWDS challenged official policies on women’s status, demanding the extension of political rights to women; equality in all fields of employment; the appointment of women as special attorneys to draft family law; the provision of child allowances to married women; and the restriction of polygamy. In 1973, ten years later, the AWDS succeeded in forcing the all-male National Assembly to discuss an equal rights bill, provoking the stormiest debates in the history of the assembly. Opponents of the bill, who formed a majority, demanded the preservation of the patriarchal integrity of the society, claiming that Islam gave men and women different responsibilities and made men superior to women. The bill’s supporters were the nationalists who also supported individual rights and democracy. The equal rights bill angered the male community and threatened political disarray. With support from the government, the assembly avoided voting on the bill by referring it to the assembly’s Legal Affairs Committee for further “study.”
The secular opposition and the women’s rights movement responded with persistent demands for civil liberties and individual rights. The Girls’ Club, formed by a group of upper-class women in 1975, sided with the AWDS to put further pressure on the government to include suffrage in the laws that benefited women. To reduce the influence of the secular opposition, the government closed the Istiqlal Club, the mouthpiece of the Arab nationalist movement, and dissolved the elected boards of most of the associations controlled by the left and nationalist groups and appointed new ones. In 1978, following accusations against AWDS of financial fraud that were never adequately proven or investigated, a female government official was appointed president of AWDS. Two years later, after members continued to refuse to collaborate with the newly appointed leader, the government disbanded the AWDS, marking the end of the women’s rights movements in Kuwait.