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Kuwait women allowed into military as struggles for rights continue

Women are now allowed to enroll in Kuwait’s military, but will not participate in combat; they will be only working in support units, like medical, administrative, and technical departments.
Kuwait women

For the first time, the Kuwaiti army is accepting applications from women.

The decision was issued on Oct. 12 by Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defense, Sheikh Hamad Jaber Al Ali Al Sabah who said it was "an appreciation and gratitude for the great role played by Kuwaiti women."

He expressed his confidence in "the ability, and willingness of Kuwaiti women to bear the hardship of working in the army,” according to Kuwait news agency Kuna.

On Dec. 19, the first day of eligibility, a total of 137 Kuwaiti women registered their applications. Kuwaiti women holding a university diploma and secondary school degrees can apply for enrollment as non-commissioned officers and soldiers. Applicants must be age 18-26, in good health, have no criminal record and pass an interview. Registration will remain open until Jan. 2, 2022. After acceptance, the candidates will have to attend a three-month training course.

Some welcomed the change as a move to give women the same rights as men, while others considered it inappropriate to Kuwaiti culture.

Former member of parliament Muhammad Hayef told local media that the move is the worst decision taken by the defense minister, calling on parliament members "not to be silent and must object."

Though the army announcement did not mention that women will be part of combat units, Hayef said that letting women hold arms and defend men and the country is a "shame."

Speaking to Al-Monitor, former Brigadier General Mohammad Jassim Alsiri said women will not participate in combat, but will be only working in support units, like medical, administrative, and technical departments. Women already work in the military as civilians and employees, he said, but the optional enrollment will give them more financial and social rights as well as military ranks.

"Women have participated in defending our country during the Iraqi invasion to Kuwait in 1990, and their role in this difficult time was always a source of a national pride for all Kuwaitis," Alsiri said.

Other social and economic reforms have been sweeping the Gulf States, most notably Saudi Arabia, which allowed women to enroll on the military in February 2021.

However, Alsiri said that the changes in Kuwait have nothing to do with the developments in the region, but it’s related to the progress that the country is undergoing.

The new decision is significant to a country of 4.3 million people, of whom 70% are expats, according to World Population Review. Alsiri said that with only 1.5 million Kuwaiti nationals, it makes sense to give them more opportunities in non-combats unites to keep men on the front lines.   

Reem El-eid, a Kuwaiti lawyer, told Al-Monitor that the decision should have been taken long ago, as the country accepted women in the police force 20 years ago, and granted women the right to vote and stand for elections in 2005.

Similar objections were voiced in September 2020, after eight women were appointed judges for the first time, she said, "but after few months society accepted it and people realized that these kinds of objections are misplaced."

In 2016, 15 women ran for National Assembly elections, but only one won. In September 2020, a record number of Kuwaiti females (29 of 395 candidates) competed for the 50 parliamentary seats, but none of them won.

Kuwaiti women still struggle to get basic rights, including the nationality of their children if they marry a non-Kuwaiti; when a Kuwaiti man marries a foreign woman, his children can get the nationality easily. Also, when a woman married to a non-Kuwaiti dies, her children cannot inherit her wealth.

In 2016, a United Nations report said that Kuwait has made significant progress in women’s rights in education and the workforce but warned against  persistent barriers, both in law and in practice.

Writer and activist, Arwa Alwagayan said that Kuwait has not reached equality, but "some steps have been taken recently, and allowing women to serve the military is one of these steps."

She added that new rights for women often spark controversy in any Arab society in the beginning, but after that it subsides and becomes normal.

Alwagayan concluded that women in Kuwait need more leadership opportunities in all institutions, as “we still see only one woman in every sector at the leadership level, even in the government."

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