Kuwait leads push to engage Muslim women in aid work

A draft declaration could pave the way for greater involvement of Muslim women in relief and development work: Kuwait conference 

A concerted push is needed to dispel cultural myths restricting women in Islamic countries from engaging in humanitarian work, a conference in Kuwait has heard.

The three-day meeting, hosted by the Amir of Kuwait and the International Islamic Charity Organisation (IICO), a Kuwait-based network of some 20 Islamic charity organisations working in 136 countries, challenged social and religious barriers to women’s participation in aid and charity initiatives.

The event also saw the launch of a draft declaration that could pave the way for greater involvement of Muslim women in relief and development work, offering religious, cultural and humanitarian support for their participation.

“[The aim of the declaration is that] no-one in the future will come and say Islam does not approve of women in charity work,” said Aroub al-Rifai, board member of IICO’s general assembly. “[It will address] social barriers. We have some traditions, they are not Islamic but some people think it is Islam, so we need to clarify those.”

Islamic scholars and IICO partners will be invited to pledge their support to the document, according to the IICO. A final framework will take around a year to complete.

“I hope the declaration will look at some of the issues that have hindered women in reaching decision-making powers and working internationally, and tackle them one by one,” said Muna AbuSulayman, Saudi philanthropist and media personality who sits on the board of IICO’s general assembly. “I am hopeful it will pinpoint a way forward, something everyone can agree on.”

Cultural and social barriers

Cultural barriers such as not being able to travel alone or to work with men have curbed women’s involvement in fieldwork, delegates said. Young women also lack role models, said Maali Alasousi, founder of Tamkeen for Development Initiative, an NGO that supports women in Yemen.

Alasousi knows this only too well. Born in Kuwait, she faced initial opposition from her family when she moved to Yemen nine years ago.

“I faced religious obstacles from people in the Gulf being a single woman travelling alone,” said Alasousi. “Some people in Yemen, Kuwait and the GCC said ‘Yes, you’re doing a good job, but you’re [alone without] a man. This is haram’. I believe if you are successful and are doing good projects, God’s blessing is with you.”

Tamkeen delivers education, training and university scholarships to women and youth in Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the Arab world. The foundation has reached 13,000 families to date and funded 420 girls’ scholarships.

One of the foundation’s projects, which helps 100 local families sell handicrafts to international buyers, had to suspend its operations when the recent conflict made it impossible to transport goods around the country.

Still, it is not just in the field where women face challenges. Cultural barriers against publicising donations to charity prevent wealthy women in the Gulf from giving significant funding to foundations, said AbuSulayman. Getting women in at the top level of humanitarian organisations is key to overcoming some of these obstacles.

“There aren’t enough women on the boards of Islamic philanthropic organisations,” said AbuSulayman. “In fact, there is only one such example in Islamic countries.” Governments can play a vital role in raising awareness of women’s added value to charitable works and should help society accept more women in decision-making roles, she added.

“There needs to be a lot more training for women and those responsible for media [in NGOs] to understand how to help push women to the forefront,” said AbuSulayman. “There need to be more programmes showcasing philanthropic works, not just helping the poor but actually innovative projects, too.”

At the Kuwait conference, the head of Arab States Broadcasting Union – an umbrella group of more than 20 broadcasters across MENA and the Gulf – pledged to support a strategy to flip this portrayal and to help implement it across their channels.

Change in the air

Discussions over a framework sanctioning women’s role in charity have been going on for decades in many different forums, with little to show for it, said Khadija Moufid, professor at Muhammad V University, Rabat, Morocco. This time IICO is hopeful the conference heralds a sea change.

“One thing is timing. When we discussed this issue, nobody said no,” explained IICO’s al-Rifai. “We are in a new era, a new time.”

Women are asking for these rights and clarifications she added; and, crucially, the initiative has top-level political support, backed by HH Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Jaber Al Sabah, the Amir of Kuwait. IICO’s chairman, Abdullah Al Matouq, is adviser to the Amir of Kuwait and Humanitarian Envoy to the UN.

At grassroots level, women are finding ways to overcome some of the religious and social obstacles, by involving the whole family – brothers, husbands and nephews – in humanitarian projects, said Alasousi.

“They might not be very religious, but they come from very religiously respected families,” she noted. “So there is a new trend where young couples do [development] projects together.”

Some prominent religious societies in MENA are opening up charitable projects to groups of young people and making travelling with a male companion optional, she added. “The young generation is forcing this kind of change,” said Alasousi. “It’s coming, but it’s not going to be very fast.”

Getting the IICO-backed declaration is just the first step, added al-Rifai. Next comes discussion of how to implement the provisions and track progress.

“As a result of this conference I want them to seriously understand the impact of women in this field,” said Alasousi. “Invest in women, give them a chance to be on [NGO] boards and set the rules, vision and aims. Give them a chance to implement their ideas not just in Kuwait, but in the Gulf countries, MENA and internationally.”

The IICO conference, Women’s Role in Charitable Work, was held between 15 and 17 December in Kuwait.