Islamic Feminism in Kuwait: The Politics and Paradoxes

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By: Alessandra L. Gonzalez

Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan

Islamic Feminism in Kuwait: The Politics and Paradoxes. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. 254 pp. $57.50. ISBN: 978-1137304735.

Volume: 1 Issue: 6

October 2013

Review by:

Michal L. Allon, PhD

Tel Aviv University

Israel

Gonzáles’s Islamic Feminism in Kuwait: The Politics and Paradoxes is a case study of the complex phenomenon of a non-western genre of feminism which is emerging in a majority Muslim society. The author, a research fellow at the Institute for the Studies of Religion at Baylor University and a Research Associate at John Jay College of Criminal Justice at CUNY, challenges the ubiquitous Western belief that Islam is inherently oppressive to women, through her research which consists of surveys and in-depth interviews.

Gonzáles is interested in her subjects’ own views about their status, their personal and political aspirations vis-à-vis their traditional religious culture, and their attitudes towards their Muslim religion and their male-dominated culture. Among the intriguing questions that the author focuses on are why so many Kuwaiti women choose to wear the veil, and why Islamists are winning elections with the help and support of women. The author observes that Kuwaiti women are not jealous of Western women and their achievements, but are rather critical of the emphasis that Western feminism places on individual rights at the expense of communal values, and of the disregard for religious sensibilities. Her main conclusion is that Kuwaiti feminists strive to further their agenda of empowering women, granting them political rights, and improving their social and economic status, within the boundaries and constraints of their Islamic culture and religion.

Central to her thesis is the theory of legitimate authority, which stipulates that Islamic feminists strive to achieve progressive women’s social and political rights by means of seeking sources of authority such as religious texts, the community, and religious or political leaders.

The rejection by Kuwaiti women of Western secular feminism is expressed in different forms throughout the book. The claim that Islamic feminism is an indigenous approach to women’s rights, which is culturally and religiously compatible with the patriarchal culture, is voiced in many interviews. The author concludes that Kuwaiti women acknowledge the difference between the “real” Islam and patriarchal social practices, and strive to advance their political, social, and economic status, thereby challenging social customs, traditions and practices, while respecting the core tenets of Islam. They generally accept the fact that social change takes time, and that women should be patient.

In the introduction, the author defines Islamic Feminism, outlines the sociological theory of legitimate authority, and summarizes the main contributions of her findings to the study of feminism in other conservative societies. She gives a brief history of social and political events since the emergence of Islam in the seventh century A.D., and their effect on the status of women in Kuwait, up to and after the election law of 2005, which granted women suffrage. She then proceeds to review the contemporary status of women’s rights in Kuwait, and their roots in both the Islamist context and in Western political liberal movements.

The book has five chapters. In Chapter one the author explains why the Western model of feminism has not become popular among Kuwaiti women. Chapter two is a look at the political Islamists’ resurgence and the rejection of the secular and individualistic model of Western feminism. Chapter three examines the intriguing phenomenon of the resurgence of the veil in the Muslim world, including Kuwait. Chapter four discusses the role of men in enabling what the author calls “Islamic Feminism”, and Chapter five is a discussion of Arab youth, who are both modern and traditional.

The majority of the subjects in the research are young college students, mostly female, who represent the future political social and economic elite of Kuwait. However, the author did not restrict her research to this group. She interviewed Salafist members of parliament, university professors, and religious leaders. Some Islamist conservatives were opposed to women’s suffrage altogether, while others agreed to granting women the right to vote, but were only opposed to women running for office in elections for the parliament. However, she observes that although Islamists had been originally more opposed to women suffrage than liberals, they were able to mobilize and attract more female candidates and voters once the election law was passed. Gonzáles quotes Salafist and other conservative Islamists who are generally opposed to women’s suffrage and other political rights for women as they explain their views and their rationale for limitations on women’s rights. According to some conservatives, these limitations are based on Islam, and on a sense of honor and respect towards women, and their biological, natural, and human abilities, which are different from those of men, and which should preclude them from running for political office.

The book contains several figures which summarize the popular surveys the author conducted, as well as sample interview responses to select interview questions. There is also a glossary of relevant Arabic religious and cultural terms, a selected bibliography, a much too short and incomplete index, and an appendix which describes the particular methodology which was used in the research. In the latter, the author explains and justifies her choice of sample. A survey of the particular subjects who are college students at a national university in an Islamic country, offers an opportunity to analyze the attitudes and behaviors of an elite in a majority Muslim context, which may become the next generation leaders of a society in the making, and are significant indicators of future social and political trends.

Gonzáles clearly empathizes with her subjects, their culture, and their choices, and her research highlights the similarities between the difficulties that are experienced by Islamic and western feminists. One of the interesting observations she makes is that of an analogy between the men-only diwaniyas (male social gatherings) and male-only Western power structures (such as golf clubs and bars) that are strongholds of men in the West. Such institutions, albeit often informal, exclude females from social and political networks and sources of information, and serve as obstacles to women’s advancement in society.

The book is replete with quotations from the author’s interviews with Kuwaiti men and women, which illustrate her insightful analyses and her conclusions. These quotations make the book animated and interesting, as well as accessible to a wider readership, and not only to academic scholars.

Gonzáles exhibits impressive scholarship and familiarity of both theory and subject matter. It is unfortunate that there are grammatical errors and occasional awkward English constructions in the text, which could have been avoided if the manuscript had been edited more professionally. This shortcoming, however, does nothing to diminish or obscure the substance and purport of the book.

The importance of this book is in its contribution to the study of Muslim and other conservative societies and their attitudes towards women’s rights and religion. The research outlined in this book can serve as a model for the understanding of women’s rights in other modern Muslim societies.

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