Telegraph…Two female Kuwaiti MPs, Rola Dashti and Aseel Al-Awadhi, are defying the country’s powerful Islamist movement by refusing to wear the hijab, or headscarf, in parliament.
The MPs, who were among the first four women to be elected to the country’s National Assembly in May, have angered their Islamist colleagues, who say they say they are flouting sharia, or Islamic law.
One of the two is going further by demanding the scrapping of an amendment to electoral regulations that says they have to observe sharia in parliament.
“You can’t force a woman going to the mall to wear a hijab and you can’t force a woman going to work to wear the hijab,” the MP, Rola Dashti, told The Daily Telegraph. “This is not Iran or Saudi Arabia.”
The MPs’ stand is part of a backlash against the fashion for stricter dress codes for women across the Arab world.
Last week, the rector of al-Azhar University in Cairo, traditionally the principal seat of Sunni Islamic learning, banned women students from wearing the face veil in women-only classes and student dormitories, and was followed by other academic institutions there.
Students at Khalifa University in Sharjah, the most conservative of the seven city-states that make up the United Arab Emirates, have also reportedly been told to stop wearing the veil, known in Arabic as the niqab.
In Kuwait, the issue has arisen as part of a campaign by Dr Dashti, one of the country’s leading economists as well as a women’s rights activist and politician, against what she regards as unconstitutional implementation of sharia. As with all four women MPs, she has a doctorate from the United States.
When electoral law was changed in 2005 to allow women in Kuwait to vote and stand for parliament, Islamists inserted a law-minute rider that “women as voters and MPs” would have to follow sharia. It did not specify precisely where or how.
Three Islamist MPs immediately protested when Dr Dashti and a second MP, Aseel Al-Awadhi, turned up at the Assembly without a hijab, the simple head-scarf that covers the hair and is compulsory for women in public in Saudi Arabia and Iran but optional across most Gulf nations.
One MP sought a ruling from the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, whose “fatwa department” last week decreed that hijab was an obligation for Muslim women, without referring directly to the electoral law.
“Non-compliance of a female MP or a voter with the edict is a violation of the Elections Law,” said another Islamist MP, Waleed Al-Tabtabaie.
As a result Dr Rashti tabled an amendment on Sunday demanding that the sharia rider be dropped.
She said Kuwait’s constitution stipulated freedom of choice and equality between the sexes and did not incorporate sharia.
“There’s a group of people who know they cannot Islamise the constitution so they try to Islamise every issue when it comes up,” she said. “I’m going to examine anything that violates the constitution, taking it law by law.”
The population at large is split on whether to support more rights for women. A private citizen has filed a private suit against Dr Dashti and Professor al-Awadhi for not wearing the hijab, which is due to be heard before the country’s constitutional court later this month.