Kuwaiti army allows women in combat roles – but without guns

Defence ministry says women joining military need permission of male guardian and must wear head covering

Kuwaiti women are angry after the military, having allowed female soldiers to take combat roles, decided they need the permission of a male guardian and banned them from carrying weapons.

Activists have decried the policy as “one step forward, two steps back” after the defence ministry also decided that women in the armed forces, unlike civilians, must wear head coverings.

“I don’t know why there are these restrictions to join the army,” said Ghadeer al-Khashti, a sports teacher and member of Kuwait Football Association’s women committee. “We have all kinds of women working in all fields, including the police force.”

She said her mother had helped the resistance when the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990 and occupied it for seven months before being pushed out by a US-led international coalition.

“My mum during the Iraqi invasion used to hide weapons under her abaya and transport them to members of Kuwait’s resistance, and my father encouraged it,” said Khashti. “I don’t understand on what basis they see women as weak.”

The ministry decided in October to allow women in combat roles but then imposed the restrictions after the defence minister was questioned by a conservative lawmaker Hamdan al-Azmi.

Azmi, emboldened by an Islamic religious edict, or fatwa, argued that having women in combat roles “does not fit with a woman’s nature”.

Lulwa Saleh al-Mulla, the head of the Kuwaiti Women’s Cultural and Social Society, said the ministry’s restrictions were discriminatory and unconstitutional and threatened legal action by the organisation.

“We have women martyrs who defended their country of their own volition,” she said. “No one ordered them to do that but the love for their country. We are a Muslim country, that is true, but we demand the laws not be subject to fatwas. Personal freedom is guaranteed in the constitution, on which the country’s laws are based.”

Kuwait is usually regarded as one of the most open societies in the Gulf. Kuwaiti women earned the right to vote in 2005 and have been active in the cabinet and parliament, though they are poorly represented in both.

This month dozens of Kuwaiti women staged a protest against the suspension of a women’s yoga retreat deemed “indecent” by conservatives. One of those conservatives was Azmi, who in Twitter posts denounced the retreat as “dangerous” and “alien to our conservative society”.

Protesters carried placards criticising the “exploitation of women’s issues” in politics, as well as the “regime of fatwas” and “guardianship of women”.

Ibtihal al-Khatib, a feminist academic at Kuwait University, said of the new military rules: “The army needs to integrate both women and men without discrimination. Danger does not differentiate between men and women, and neither does death during battle.”