Neighbors / The Reforms Stopped at Her Inauguration

Two incidents unrelated to education may cost the Kuwaiti minister of education her job: a reported rape at a school in Ghardia and pornographic literature at a girls' school. This week the minister, Nuria al-Sabih, is to face the 50 members of the Kuwaiti parliament to address these questions.

However, it is possible that she will be spared this embarrassing situation, because, until now, when Kuwaiti government ministers were asked to address tough questions from parliament members, they preferred to resign their positions to avoid public political controversies. Three ministers have already resigned this year. This is what the Emir of Kuwait wants and so it is done.

If al-Sabih steps down, she will be the second woman minister to resign this year from a cabinet under pressure from Muslim fundamentalist parliament members. If that happens, the Kuwaiti cabinet will be made up entirely of men. The first woman to resign her post was Masuma al-Mubarak, the first woman in Kuwaiti history to hold the health portfolio. Al-Mubarak was forced to leave after a fire at a hospital in which two people were killed and 19 injured.

A member of the Shiite minority and a liberal, al-Mubarak was educated in the United States and advocated reform. She wrote in her letter of resignation to the prime minister that she left her job out of ministerial responsibility, but also "because of other reasons which you are surely aware of." She was referring to the huge pressure by Sunni Muslim fundamentalist members of parliament, who did not appreciate that a liberal Shiite woman was filling this important position.

Education Minister al-Sabih is also not in favor with fundamentalist members of parliament. She provided them with an excellent pretext for wanting her resignation at her swearing-in ceremony last April, when she refused to don a ra'ala as one parliament member asked her to do. The Muslim fundamentalist bloc in parliament marked al-Sabih while it waited for the first opportunity to attack her.

Finding the pornographic material in a classroom at a girls' school in November and the distribution of "profane literature," in the words of one Muslim fundamentalist parliament member, Saad al-Sharia, did indeed spark quite a storm. The incident wasn't enough to awaken a public controversy over the minister's continuing to remain in office. Even plans for a swim meet, with a mixed group of teenaged boys and girls, was stopped at the last minute when the minister ordered that the meet not be held because its managers did not receive a permit from the authorities.

The minister barely escaped from these incidents, but it seems that the last scandal she encountered will be harder to avoid: In early December, three children, students at the Abd al-Aziz Qassam elementary school, complained of being sexually assaulted by four foreign cleaning workers at the school. The education minister, who investigated the complaint with the school administration, rushed to deny the incident. According to her first statement on the matter, it was "assistance" one of the workers from Bangladesh provided the children, "who misinterpreted the worker's behavior."

However, within two days the minister was compelled to retract the denial and confirm the three children were indeed raped by the workers. It was a twofold reason for her opponents to complain against her: A serious case of rape that took place in the area under her responsibility, and she failed at an attempt to deny the incident.

The minister's apology was not enough, nor were the quick steps she took: dismissing the principal and suspending a few teachers. The minister, her opponents ruled, must go.

It gave her opponents a chance to place on the agenda the terrible state of education in the country, which invests around $4 billion of the annual budget (around 13 percent), in education, and to settle accounts within the entire school system.

"How is it possible," one of the questions submitted in parliament by al-Sharia asked, "that in the international reading test for grade four, Kuwait reached 43rd place out of 45? Is the minister taking care of our most important resource?"

They get married and drop out

Kuwait has around 2.5 million residents, only about half of whom are citizens; the rest are foreign workers who come to the Gulf mostly from Asia. The Kuwaiti education system is responsible for around 500,000 students and some 43,000 teachers. The country's investment per student amounts to around $8,000, almost double what it is in Israel, and according to a law initiated by the last minister, class sizes cannot exceed 25 students. Investment in learning aids, improved classroom conditions and construction of new schools are also among the minister's initiatives.

The illiteracy rate in the country is among the lowest in the Middle East, around 7 percent or so, but despite this, Kuwait is ranked on the bottom of international knowledge tests. As a result, foreign workers, especially from the West, prefer not to enroll their children in schools in Kuwait and leave them in their home countries to complete their studies. The education minister herself admitted it is a vicious cycle, where students do not try to learn and teachers lower the level of requirements to match the students, in an effort to prevent students from dropping out.

Kuwait requires foreign schools, such as the American, British, Pakistani and Indian international schools, to teach Arabic language and culture and to provide students with classes on Islam. These schools are supervised directly by the Ministry of Education, which also meticulously reviews the textbooks brought into the country. In an interview the education minister gave to the Kuwaiti paper, Al Wattan, she said the state bans the import of books that contain Evangelist content, books that offend the Islamic faith and "books that express support for world Zionism."

Until age 14, education in Kuwait is free. At later stages, the country helps its citizens acquire higher education, but not the children of the foreign workers. When the minister was asked about the failure and dropout rates in Kuwaiti schools, she attributed them to children of foreign workers leaving the country with their parents. In addition, the young age at which girls marry in Kuwait leads them to drop out.

Cancel school trips?

After the Festival of the Sacrifice, the education minister plans discussions on a parliamentary committee's request to review Kuwait's education system. The committee is largely made up of Islamic fundamentalists. Their primary goal is to make major changes in the education system, which include barring coed education, reviewing curricula and canceling school trips, where according to the committee members, "students are injected" with content that is contrary "to the spirit of the country"; In other words, religion, and primarily a favorable attitude toward Israel.

In a first response to the "threat of normalization" with Israel, the education minister responded that "in all matters concerning the Ministry of Education, normalization of ties with Israel is a step that is absolutely out of the question." Regarding her plan to remove from the curriculum those sections that deal with Islam's influence on Western culture, the minister responded: "We cling to our Islamic history and our Arab culture and it is incumbent on our children, in this and future generations, to know this history as it is."

More than anything else, these questions are indicative of the assault the minister is facing in a country that, on the one hand, has some kind of democratic infrastructure, in that it has parliamentary elections in which women can vote and be elected, and even be appointed to senior positions. On the other hand, Kuwait allows the parliament to be dissolved at any time by order of its ruler.

For now, it is still unclear whether the minister will have a chance to discuss the changes. First, she has to get through the hearing in parliament, which she may not see if the prime minister directs her to resign. If she fails, it's likely Kuwait's first female education minister will be remembered not for reforms, but for the monitoring cameras she had installed in schools after the rape, as well as teachers appointed to supervise during recesses and after classes.

For the Muslim fundamentalist parliament members, this will be another power struggle following two others earlier this year; they were successful in both. For liberals in Kuwait, this may be further proof that parliamentary democracy does not necessarily guarantee freedom and human rights.