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Women and Gender Studies at Kuwait University Stir Debates

Since its launch a few years ago, the women and gender studies unit at Kuwait University’s College of Arts has proved controversial. Most recently a Kuwaiti member of parliament stirred debate by submitting a question about the nature of its research, after Kuwaiti public figures and clerics had questioned the unit’s activities.

In response, the unit issued a statement  defining the concepts of women and gender studies and confirming that the ideas and issues raised in its courses “do not contradict Islam”.  The statement added that the unit has no ideological  indoctrination  and that it is open to all  members of society so long as they respect academic standards.

Women and Gender Studies

The history department established the women and gender studies unit three years ago. The founding statement said that it aims to provide  solutions to  social, political, and cultural problems facing women and society and to qualify students in women and gender studies as an important social sciences discipline and development.

Dalal Alfares, an assistant professor of women’s literature, is one of the unit’s researchers. She told Al-Fanar Media that the main goal of her research was to support and empower women, by gaining knowledge based on feminist research methods, by breaking the barriers of intellectual and academic marginalisation, and by understanding the importance of  gender  in achieving power and by learning about the structural forms of oppression and domination.

“The only way to confront those who falsely claim that the gender studies unit is ‘westernising’ the community is for the unit’s members to continue their research while being supported legally and morally.”

Ibrahim Al-Hamoud
Professor of law at Kuwait University.

Over two and a half years, the unit has organised symposia with titles like “Gender and Academic Studies” and “Women and Feminine Deities in Mesopotamian Civilizations”, and workshops on gender writing.

Slow Acceptance of Gender Studies

survey conducted by the Arab Barometer in August 2019 revealed that only half of Kuwaitis would accept having a woman running the government. The survey, which conducted interviews with over 26,000 people in a dozen Arab countries, revealed that Kuwaiti attitudes regarding women were more conservative and restrictive than those of any other Arab country. However, Kuwaiti women do enjoy some political rights, such as voting and running for Parliament.

Alfares, who obtained a bachelor’s degree from Kuwait University’s College of Arts, first discovered women and gender courses while doing graduate studies in the United States. There, she obtained a master’s degree in women’s studies from San Diego State University, and a Ph.D. in gender theories and feminist research from the University of California, Los Angeles.

Alfares thinks that accepting and understanding the importance of the discipline will take time in the Gulf. She said the discrimination against Arab scholars in these studies prompted most of them to write in English or French, and publish their work in journals abroad.

Resistance Among Some Students

Professors at the history department said that the campaign against the research unit made some students avoid lectures given by the unit’s teaching staff.

A student who asked to be identified only by his initials, S.A., said he was one of those who refused to attend  the research unit’s lectures. He said he thought the unit was trying to promote societal acceptance of “a new gender, other than the binary sexes.”

“The war on this kind of gender studies is not confined to the Gulf. It is there in many European countries, represented by a religious populist discourse that promotes misconceptions.”

Shaikha Al-Hashem
A researcher from Kuwait who studies women’s issues

“I reject that for religious and moral reasons,” S.A. said. “It makes me reluctant to accept their other teachings. Their importing of disciplines that promote Western ideas that do not conform to our societal and cultural context is unacceptable. It raises doubts about the goals of the unit and those in charge of it.”

Shaikha Al-Hashem, a scholar from Kuwait whose research areas include women’s issues, told Al-Fanar Media that the war on gender studies was not confined to the Gulf.

“It is there in many European countries, represented by a religious populist discourse that promotes misconceptions, and claims that gender is against biological sex.”

Al-Hashem, who is currently a Ph.D. candidate at the European Graduate School, attributes this rejection to the research unit’s work “to educate women about their social, economic and political rights, and raising issues that the authorities do not want to talk about because they pose a threat.”

She said the very establishment of a research unit was “a manifestation of women’s empowerment, in light of the discrimination against them. It also offers studies, research, and curricula based on critical thinking, unlike curricula that rely on indoctrination and memorisation.”

Academic and Legal Support

The university has supported the research unit’s teaching staff and said Kuwait’s Constitution guaranteed their academic freedom. The university administration quoted Article 36 of the constitution, which states: “Freedom of opinion and scientific research is guaranteed. Subject to the conditions and stipulations specified by law, every person shall have the right to express his opinion by speaking or writing or otherwise.”

Alfares said she believes that comments or insults  about professors’ research often occur outside the university, but that Kuwait University itself remained “a free hub to present ideas or research, and no one has the right to interfere with researchers’ academic work.”

Ibrahim Al-Hamoud, former head of the Association of Faculty Members at Kuwait University, told Al-Fanar Media: “We are aware of the necessity and importance of having such studies in our societies. The commitment of the university and the Ministry of Higher Education to defend such research and scholars working on them is a constitutional and legal obligation.”

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Al-Hamoud, who is also a professor of law at Kuwait University, said that “the only way to confront those who falsely claim that the gender studies unit is ‘westernising’ the community is for the unit’s members to continue their research while being supported legally and morally.”

Al-Hashem  also suggested establishing an alliance of women’s organisations and associations in Kuwait to correct misconceptions about women and gender studies through informative seminars or posting articles in the media.

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