How the Muslim World Deals With the Rise of Islamism

Kuwait's constitutional court will decide whether rulings of religious leaders obligate the state.

The cries of joy from the four women elected to the parliament in Kuwait this past spring may yet turn into sobs. A religious edict published in that country last week states that any woman who wants to take parts in politics, either as a candidate or as a voter, must dress in accordance with Muslim religious law - with their head covered and "a long robe that hides all parts of the body and which is not so tight so that it would give prominence to any curves."

For two of the women elected to the parliament - the first women to be elected to the assembly since the law permitting the election of women was passed in 2005 - this is a threat to their continued presence there.

The two, Dr. Rola Dashti and Dr. Aseel al-Awadhi, come to work in the parliament wearing Western-style clothes, with nothing covering their heads, angering members of the Islamist bloc in the house, who grind their teeth at the very sight of women in the parliament.

Dashti was responsible for initiating the law permitting women to be elected and she invests a great deal of energy in furthering the status of women in her country, which is considered the most democratic in the Gulf. She completed her doctoral studies in economics at Johns Hopkins University in the United States and since then has held senior economic positions in Kuwait.

Among other posts, she was chairperson of the economic society of Kuwait, which had been male dominated since its inception in 1970.

She was also a senior banker in the Bank of Kuwait and served as an adviser to the heads of government on how to get out of last year's global economic crisis.

Al-Awadhi holds a doctorate in political philosophy from the University of Texas and belongs to one of the most important families in Kuwait. She unsuccessfully ran for parliament in 2006.

In May 2009, she was photographed wearing a long white T-shirt and jumping for joy at news of her election. That photograph was later bandied around in the opposition newspapers which explained to their readers why they demanded that female elected representatives dress modestly.

The struggle over women's dress is now before the constitutional court, which will have to decided on a much more substantive question than the way women MPs are clothed: Does the religious ruling of the religious leaders obligate the state, or is their status that of advisors whose decisions are not binding on the state?

The law does not stipulate clearly how women representatives have to dress and the MPs have said that Kuwait is not governed by religious law, even though Islam is the state religion.

This intriguing disagreement does not stop the religious heads and the leaders of other Arab countries. Religious law is first and foremost a matter of geography.

In Egypt, for example, Muhammed Sayed Tantawi, the head Imam of al-Azhar University, which is the most important Sunni religious center in the Middle East, and the authority for the Egyptian government on religious conduct, ruled that women with head scarves should not be allowed to enter the school's campus. When a girl studying in the junior high argued with him during a visit he paid to the school, he simply dismissed her with, "I know more about religion than you do."

In this way, Tantawi gave his complete support to the Egyptian minister for higher education, Hani Hilal, who had ruled that women wearing head scarves not be allowed to enter the university campus. If they insist on a head scarf, they will not be allowed to study or to live at the student residences, he said.

This is a struggle over the character of the country where the rulers are fearful that, if the use of veils spreads, an extremist religious atmosphere could prevail and strengthen the opposition religious movements and especially the Muslim Brotherhood.

"The veil is contagious," wrote one Egyptian analyst, and therein lies its danger, he said. Egypt is not awaiting a decision by the religious tribunals.

From its point of view, the head of al-Azhar is not merely a guide, he decides what "degree of religiosity" is suitable for the state.

However the sphere of his guidance is also dependent on the wishes of the president, who, after all, appoints the head of al-Azhar.

Taxing restrictions on refugees

It is no coincidence that Hezbollah's concern for the Palestinians does not reach as far as their lowly status in Lebanon. The organization's voice is never heard with regard to employment for the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.

The laws of the country that is "hosting" more than 350,000 refugees forbid the Palestinians from working in some 70 professions including medicine, journalism and law, and even from driving a public taxi.

According to the law, the only people who can work in these fields are those who have Lebanese citizenship or those whose homeland allows Lebanese citizens to work there.

Palestinian refugees can work in the "forbidden" professions only inside the refugee camps but there is no point to that since a Palestinian lawyer is not permitted to appear in a Lebanese court and a doctor is restricted to the clinics in the camps and cannot work in a government hospital.

The absurd thing is that Palestinians are allowed to get a license for a taxi, called a "red number" in Lebanon, but not to drive the cab.

That is because acquiring a license is like buying any public asset, but driving the taxi is limited to Lebanese citizens only.

The result is that there are only 200 legal Palestinian taxi drivers in Lebanon, who have either received the license because of family ties or because they managed to get citizenship.

Not a word about this has been heard from Hezbollah head Hassan Nassrallah. He understands that giving Palestinians a permit to drive a taxi does not mean that they are being resettled in Lebanon and would not change their national status as refugees.

But a permit of that type would cause direct harm to his Shi'ite supporters.