It all started with yoga. When a yoga instructor in Kuwait in early February 2022 advertised a wellness yoga retreat in the desert, conservative groups declared it an attack on Islam.
Many lawmakers and clerics expressed their anger. They called the event dangerous. They consider women doing a number of yoga positions, such as the lotus or dog facing downwards in public, as an act of depravity. They also demanded the authorities to ban the event.
The uproar over yoga is just the latest point of contention in the long-running culture war over women’s behavior in the royal nation, where Islamist tribes and groups hold growing sway over a divided society.
A growing number of conservative politicians are opposing the burgeoning feminist movement and what they see as the destruction of traditional Kuwaiti values amid the government’s difficulties in tackling key issues.
Feminist activist Najeeba Hayat, at a women’s demonstration in Kuwait’s parliament recently said, “Our country is experiencing setbacks and declines at a rate that we have never seen before.”
For many in Kuwait, this is a troubling trend. Kuwait, which once prided itself on being a more progressive country than its neighbors in the Arabian Gulf, is in fact backward in protecting women’s rights.
In Saudi Arabia, for example, women achieve greater freedom under leadership de facto Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Saudi Arabia even hosted its first open-air yoga festival last month.
Sundus Hussain, a founding member of Abolish 153, a group fighting for women’s rights said, “We are pawns. We are used by the government and parliament to settle their own political agendas. Most of these MPs come from a system that considers honor killings a crime. something natural, so they don’t want to remove it.”
Abolish 153 is a movement that questions Article 153 which imposes light sentences on perpetrators of killing women on the grounds of honor.
The article says that a man who finds his wife, or female relative, committing adultery or engaging in any kind of “illegal” sex, and then killing her, carries a maximum sentence of only three years in prison, and/or, a fine of only $46.
Not long ago, the Kuwaiti authorities also closed down gym popular who organizes belly dance classes. The country’s clerics have also demanded police arrest the organizers of a women’s retreat called “The Divine Feminine,” citing blasphemy against religion.
The Kuwaiti Supreme Court in the near future will also hear a case that may close the service operation stream Netflix videos there after the platform aired its first self-produced Arabic-language film.
Some women’s rights advocates attribute the reaction of these conservative groups to their panic over a changing society.
A year ago, activists launched the groundbreaking #MeToo movement to denounce harassment and violence against women. Hundreds of reports poured into the organizers of the movement’s Instagram account, with stories of great concern. But at the same time, many of these activists also face threats of rape and murder. [ab/uh]