Isobel Coleman

Democracy in Development

Coleman maps the intersections between political reform, economic growth, and U.S. policy in the developing world.

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Is Kuwait Ready for a Female Judge?

by Guest Blogger for Isobel Coleman
December 18, 2013

A policewoman guides a female voter at a polling center during the 2012 parliamentary elections in Jahra, Kuwait, February 2, 2012 (Courtesy Reuters/Stephanie McGehee). A policewoman guides a female voter at a polling center during the 2012 parliamentary elections in Jahra, Kuwait, February 2, 2012 (Courtesy Reuters/Stephanie McGehee).

This guest post is by Alessandra L. González, a postdoctoral research associate in the Department of Politics at Princeton University and author of Islamic Feminism in Kuwait: The Politics and Paradoxes. Here she discusses the likelihood of women becoming judges in Kuwait.

It has been nearly a decade since women were granted the right to vote and run for political office in Kuwait, by decree of the Emir and parliamentary approval. Since then, the number of women in parliament has fluctuated: four women were elected to office in 2009, none in 2012, and two in 2013. Seats in parliament, however, are only one measure of women’s political participation. Since 2009, female politicians and government ministers have championed meaningful legislation that expands women’s ability to obtain passports, housing loans, and government assistance without the permission of a male guardian. Women can also now serve in the police and special forces.

The idea of women becoming judges is even more controversial. In Islamic societies, judges are traditionally male and are seen as moral leaders, responsible for interpreting religious law and doling out punishments. There is also cultural and societal resistance from both women and men, including the argument that women are too emotional to be objective judges. These beliefs are common in other conservative Muslim societies as well. Still, some Gulf Cooperation Council countries, such as Bahrain and Qatar, have overcome these barriers; they began appointing female judges in 2006.

There are signs of progress in Kuwait: women were recently permitted to serve as public prosecutors, a role seen as part of a career trajectory toward judgeship and therefore previously reserved for men. Sixteen out of the thirty-two applications for the position this year came from female lawyers. None, however, have been accepted yet.

If the Kuwaiti government began appointing female prosecutors and, later, female judges, this would have an important impact on neighboring countries that are also currently reinterpreting Sharia in a modern context and trying to balance legislative change from above and below. Kuwait’s constitution states that Sharia is one source of legislation, but not the country’s sole legal framework. This model leaves some room for Kuwait to consider the present needs of the society when interpreting Sharia and crafting legislation.

I recently gave a series of lectures to law students in Kuwait. In the subsequent discussion, female students debated whether the pathways to power women were given in 2005 improved their lives, or just further burdened them with professional pressures in addition to traditional social obligations in the home. Male students wondered whether feminism and democratic principles imposed from above could take root in Kuwait, or if it would be better to wait until society demanded more rights for women from the bottom up. The conversation was lively, but inconclusive. How soon will Kuwaitis accept a female judge? As with women’s rights in the region more generally, it seems that only time will tell.

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