May 15, 2007 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 352

Kuwaiti Education Minister Would Not Wear the Veil

May 15, 2007 | By I. Rapoport*
Kuwait, The Gulf | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 352

While the refusal by newly elected Kuwaiti Education Minister Dr. Nouriya Al-Subeeh to wear a veil in parliamentary sessions evoked the resentment of the Islamist MPs, the Kuwaiti press published many articles supporting Dr. Al-Subeeh's position. The papers argued that no one had the right to impose a dress code on her, and that there was no law requiring her to wear a veil.

This report will review the reactions to the affair in the Kuwaiti media:

Kuwaiti Education Minister: "The Belief of a Woman Who Does Not Want to Wear a Veil Must Be Respected"

Dr. Al-Subeeh explained her refusal to wear a veil in an interview with the Egyptian weekly Roz Al-Yousuf: "When His Excellency the Prime Minister appointed me minister, he obviously consented that I won't wear a veil... How I dress is a matter of principle, and it not fitting for someone to back down from his principles because of his job.

"A woman who wears a veil does so out of belief, and this belief must be respected – just as the belief of a woman who does not want to wear a veil must be respected. This is [the essence] of democracy, in my opinion, which is, inter alia, to respect and accept the opinion of the other..."[1]

On another occasion, Dr. Al-Subeeh said: "I am first of all a Muslim woman... the fear of Allah enriches me and protects me... But I refuse to call myself extremist, or fanatical."[2]

Unnamed MP: "… [The Parliamentary Chamber] is Not a Mosque Where, Before Entering, Men Take Odd Their Shoes And Women Put on a Veil"

Dr. Al-Subeeh's refusal to wear a veil sparked disagreement amongst the Kuwaiti MPs. The Islamist MPs criticized her decision, claiming that she was required by law to wear a veil. They based their statements on the amendment to Article 1 of the 2005 Election Law, which states that women had political rights but that women's submitting candidates and voting were contingent upon their commitment to the principles of Islamic law.

MP Dr. Dhaifallah Burmiya warned Dr. Al-Subeeh not to violate her commitments – that is, not to attend the inaugural session without respecting Islamic law. Burmiya added that the Women's Political Rights Law was contingent upon upholding Islamic religious law, and that members of the government had to respect this law – particularly after the prime minister had already told the press that we must implement the laws ourselves, before we call on others to implement them.

Islamist MP Dr. 'Ali Al-'Amir said that Dr. Al-Subeeh had sworn to uphold the constitution, which demanded that she undertake to uphold all its articles – including Article 2, which sets Islam as the religion of the country and Islamic law as the main source of legislation. He added: "According to my understanding and my personal opinion, the education minister should wear a veil in order to prevent any argument, constitutional problems, and disputes within the parliament."[3]

Islamist MP Abdallah 'Akash, speaking on behalf of the bloc of independent Islamist MPs, called on Dr. Al-Subeeh to be bound by the laws and customs of society, by internal regulations, and by the law passed by parliament. He stressed that the bloc of Islamist MPs respected Dr. Al-Subeeh's personal and private affairs, but that the issue was laws which had been passed in parliament by a majority of MPs.[4]

On the other hand, other MPs defended Dr. Al-Subeeh's position, arguing that she was not legally obligated to wear a veil in the parliamentary chamber, and that doing so was a personal decision to be made by every woman.

Kuwaiti Parliamentary Speaker Jassem Al-Kharafi said: "Parliament's internal regulations do not require anyone to wear a veil in the chamber. This is a personal matter, and matters of religion remain between a man and his Sovereign. If [wearing] the veil is a religious requirement, then it must be worn everywhere, not only in the [parliamentary] chamber."[5]

Another MP, who was not identified, said: "… [The parliamentary chamber] is not a mosque where, before entering, men take off their shoes and women put on a veil... Let us assume that one of the women candidates in the recent parliamentary elections managed to get elected not wearing a veil – what would the MPs do? Would they throw her out, when it was the people who elected her to parliament?... Nouriya Al-Subeeh and others owe an accounting to their Lord – and not to the MPs."[6]

Columnist in Al-Siyassa: "We Oppose the Regime of Custodianship and Terror"

Dr. Shamlan Yousuf Al-'Issa, political science lecturer at Kuwait University, criticized the religious groups' authoritarian interference in all areas, down to how the education minister chooses to dress. In an April 1, 2007 article titled "We Oppose the Regime of Custodianship and Terror," in the Kuwaiti daily Al-Siyassa, Dr. Al-'Issa wrote: "...Those who are raising the subject of the dress of the [education] minister lack the simplest moral principles. If the minister stood before His Excellency the Emir [of Kuwait], took an oath [before him], and shook his hand, unveiled or [without committing] to the so-called religious laws, why must she be bound by these laws when she meets with her fellow MPs? That is why the education minister must not let anyone, whoever they may be, force his opinion on her own personal affairs [and in the matter of how] she dresses...

"Why are the political Islam groups raising this pointless issue at this time? What is their purpose? Obviously, these groups are trying to test the ability of the state, and of society, to accept or reject their custodianship. In closed societies, concepts such as what is permitted and what is forbidden play a great negative role in the life of the society and in how society is run. Thus, these groups are trying, both within the parliament and outside it, [to act] tyrannically, and to interfere in the details of our day-to-day life, and are trying to force their authority on the lyrics of songs, theater, arts, culture, cinema, and all areas of life – down to how the [education] minister dresses. [They do this] sometimes in the name of the religion, and sometimes in the name of custom and tradition."[7]

Columnist in Al-Kabas: The Education Minister is Entitled to Dress As She Pleases

Columnist Hassan Al-'Issa attacked Islamist MP Burmiya: "Who does MP Burmiya think he is, that he should threaten and warn the education minister not to attend the inaugural session of the government without being bound by laws that are empty of content? What right does Burmiya have to dictate to Dr. Al-Subeeh what she should wear or not wear? On behalf of what authority and by force of what logic does he direct this shameful insult at the education minister, and [try to] teach her principles of education? He is not her father, her husband, or her relative – and even they have no right of custodianship over Nouriya Al-Subeeh or over any married or unmarried woman who lives in the shadow of this constitutional institution [i.e. parliament] – the activity of which this MP and his ilk are disrupting, by ruining the principles of membership in parliament and by filling the hearts of logical people with hatred for democracy...

"The hollow regulations that the government took upon itself in the Women's Rights Law contain nothing about Burmiya forcing female ministers to cover their heads..." [8]

Kuwaiti Sociologist Dr. Ali Al-Tarah: "…We Are Occupying Ourselves With Nonsense"

Kuwaiti Sociologist Dr. Ali Al-Tarah criticized the previous Education Minister: "Nouriya Al-Subeeh is a fine educator, well-versed in her work and possessing expertise enabling her to fill her position in a vital ministry – which was previously filled by a minister like Adel Al-Tabtabai, who brought it to a state of helplessness, and thought he was the great savior who would restore its glory. What happened to him in the end was that a woman who disagreed with him came, and took the ministry into her hands. This is a message to him and his ilk – let them learn their lesson!

"…We are occupying ourselves with nonsense and with controversial matters, especially when they are connected to politics and completely unconnected to religion. I don't know why we aren't dealing with the issues of corruption and morality, building humanity, and love of work and the homeland, and [why we aren't] respecting the human conscience and strengthening it as an authority directing [human] behavior. [Why aren't we] changing the way in which we see religion.

"We say to those who trade in religion: The veil does not reflect the personality of its wearer, and anyone who covers herself with a veil – it is her choice, and we must respect it... Today, everything is upside-down; morality has no status any more, and many are inclined towards external [manifestations of religion] – [but] covering the head is no proof of virtue or of walking in the right path... Anyone who seeks the good of Islam must stop the trading in religion."[9]

Egyptian Writer Naja Abd Al-Halim: Nouriya Al-Subeeh, The Iron Lady

In her op-ed in Al-Siyassa, Egyptian attorney and writer Naja Abd Al-Halim praised Dr. Al-Subeeh's courage in not submitting to dictates and pressures to don the veil. Under the headline "Nouriya... The Iron Lady," she wrote: "Madame Nouriya entered the parliamentary chamber with unusual courage, high confidence, and composure that was the envy of all, especially the women, and we hope that every women who has suffered from the tyranny, domination, arbitrariness, arrogance, and contempt of a man [will have these traits]...

"It is more appropriate to take an interest in what is in Madame Nouriya Al-Subeeh's head than in what she should have on her head. The preoccupation with women's clothing is just like the preoccupation with the exterior shell of things, instead of their content...

"The honorable Madame Nouriya Al-Subeeh reminds me of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, who was nicknamed the Iron Lady because of her powerful personality, her sound judgment, her organized thought, her genius, and her common sense... her successful, effective, and outstanding management, and her diplomacy... Most of these descriptions [also] fit the tireless Madame Nouriya Al-Subeeh... who never becomes weary, never despairs, and never shirks, and who is actualizing her political right by using all means of persuasion, argument, and authority, out of her belief in rights and obligations and in the need to separate religion from politics..."[10]

*I. Rapaport is a research fellow at MEMRI.


[1] Roz Al-Yousuf (Egypt), April 7, 2007.

[2] Al-Haqaiq (London), March 31, 2007.

[3] Al-Siyassa (Kuwait), April 1, 2007.

[4] Al-Rai (Kuwait), April 2, 2007.

[5] Al-Siyassa (Kuwait), March 29, 2007.

[6] Al-Siyassa (Kuwait), April 2, 2007.

[7] Al-Siyassa (Kuwait), April 1, 2007.

[8] Al-Kabas (Kuwait), April 1, 2007.

[9] Al-Siyassa (Kuwait), April 4, 2007.

[10] Al-Siyassa (Kuwait), April 10, 2007.

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