Young and liberal in conservative Kuwait

Meet Fatemah Albader, the academic smashing the patriarchy one article at a time.


1 March 2021

It is late afternoon and I meet Fatemah at her dentist’s clinic in Kuwait City. As our phones connect, she lounges comfortably in one of the sleekly designed sofas in the middle of a brightly lit hall. Many things can be said about social interactions in times of corona, but I must admit I cherish the occasional intimate peek into other people’s lives. 

Fatemah is busy. Pandemic or not, busyness is a constant factor in the young human rights lawyer’s life. This might have something to do with the five academic articles that she published in 2020 alone – on topics ranging from honour killings to Sinophobia and online education. 

Next to her job as an Assistant Professor at Kuwait International Law School (KILAW), she coaches the university’s moot court team. Under Fatemah’s auspices, the team ranked in the top-10 of the prestigious Philip C. Jessup International Law Competition, in which teams from 700 law schools from across the globe participate.

2020 isn’t just the year in which Fatemah published five academic articles, but it was also the year in which Kuwait held general elections. I wish I could write that 2021 is the year in which Kuwait finds itself at the beginning of a new era. That the elections, held on December 5th, led to an unprecedented percentage of women in parliament. 

That dream will unfortunately remain a dream until the next parliamentary elections: Kuwait’s only woman MP lost her seat after four years in parliament.

But why does all this matter? 

Fatemah recalls the time she first started thinking about the position of women in Kuwait. Four years ago she was pursuing her degree at Emory University School of Law in the United States, when she saw from up close how Kuwaiti citizenship laws were interfering with her Kuwaiti (girl)friends’ love lives, even while they were living and studying in the US. One friend after the other were told by their respective families that they were not allowed to marry a foreigner, that is, a non-Kuwaiti citizen.

To understand why Kuwaiti families tell their daughters and not their sons to strictly marry Kuwaitis, we need to take a closer look at how citizenship rights can be obtained in Kuwait.

Not unlike other Arab Gulf countries, becoming a citizen is extremely difficult if your father isn’t one. Citizenship can only be transferred via paternal lineage, meaning that children with a Kuwaiti mother and a non-Kuwaiti father currently cannot become Kuwaiti citizens. 

The financial benefits attached to Kuwaiti citizenship are substantial, to say the least. But the issue of citizenship plays a role in a plethora of other situations. Imagine a Kuwaiti mother dies, her non-Kuwaiti child could only inherit the home she owned under stringent rules, one of them being that the child should have the nationality of an Arab country. 

If Fatemah’s Kuwaiti friends in the US were to marry their boyfriends, whom they met there, citizenship rights could become a real obstacle further down the line. Living in Kuwait as a non-Kuwaiti national, whether or not you are born and raised there, institutions constantly remind you that you don’t belong. 

However, Fatemah notes, even if the nationality law would be amended, a cultural shift is necessary to eradicate gender-based discrimination.

“Although we now have women judges and we’ve seen significant advances, culturally and socially, whether they like to admit it or not, women still take the back seat. Currently there’s no pushback when a woman says that she wants to stay at home and be a housewife. It’s sometimes even the expectation.” 

If women are never allowed to be independent, they won’t know how to be independent once the law is amended. She adds:

“To be a democratic society, everyone has to be able to voice their concerns and be heard. When women are afraid to voice their concerns, it makes them second-class citizens to men.”

Fatemah wrote her first (student) scholarly article on citizenship rights in 2017, arguing that Kuwait’s nationality laws not only violate international law, but also the country’s own Constitution. From then on, she was on a roll. 

I would be omitting an important part of the truth if I’d say that conservative Kuwait needs lawyers and scholars like Fatemah, because the mirror she is holding up reflects Western societies just equally clear. 

In one of the five articles I mentioned earlier, with the telling title Cultural Oppression Disguised as Religious Obligation: A Fatal Misrepresentation to the Advancement of Muslim Women’s Rights in the Context of the So-Called Honor Killings, Fatemah tells radical muslims and westerners that honour killings are un-Islamic, and that oppressive cultural practices should therefore not be conflated with religion. 

On the one hand, she provides the legal basis for legislation aimed at preventing women’s rights violations happening in the name of Islam. On the other hand, she clears misconceptions about often marginalised and/or ostracised Muslim communities in Western countries. Now, everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but I’d say that that’s exactly the kind of nuance our ever-divided post-911 world needs.

Fatemah hopes for her articles to have a real impact on civil society. The problem is, according to her, that civil society organisations are not using the law in their arguments. They sometimes cite the law, but then proceed to make a moral claim, rather than a legal one.

“What I hope is that civil society organisations will pick my articles up and use them to advocate for their causes, because as far as I am aware, there are no other Kuwaiti scholars who make these legal arguments.” 

Fatemah says she hasn’t experienced backlash for the controversial article about honour killings, which might be due to it being  written in English. Would it have been translated into Arabic, it most likely would have gained a lot more traction in the Middle East.

Yet the article about honour killings isn’t the most controversial article she has written so far. Her latest article, titled The Kuwaiti National Assembly: A De Facto Boys’ Club is due to be published in Hastings Women’s Law Journal later this year. “I don’t know what’s going to happen to me after the publication of that article,” she chuckles.

“Oh, I’m being called in early.” She carries me into the dental treatment room. We say goodbye, as I hope that the person wrapped in green and blue protective gear takes it easy on her teeth.

Acume has summarised the key findings from Fatemah’s research on the ‘Cultural Oppression Disguised as Religious Obligation’. The digest is available here.