Students protest over gender segregation in universities

Several student groups have been protesting at Kuwait University after the administration agreed to implement a government ban on mixed gender classes shortly before the start of the new academic semester.

The government decision to end mixed gender classes and to cancel registrations to attend mixed classes was announced on 13 September by Chair of the Parliamentary Values Enhancement Committee, MP Mohammed Hayef al-Mutair, after a meeting with Minister of Education and Higher Education Adel al-Manea and Kuwait University officials.

Hayef, who hails from the Salafi movement, said on X (formerly Twitter) that “preventing mixing comes from our oversight role to properly implement the law”. He added: “We are working to prevent mixing in studies unless there is an exceptional and specific need.”

Hayef also said: “The flimsy excuses [for allowing the mixing of genders] are invalidated by the overwhelming facts.”

He said the law prohibiting mixing “is already implemented in the largest faculty, which is education. There were 8,000 students in 600 non-mixed sections, and only 10 mixed-sections due to graduation conditions…

“As for the faculty of law, there are approximately 3,000 students with approximately 370 sections, of which 275 are mixed for the first time, even though they are in the same buildings as the faculty of education!”

Hayef indicated that the assistant dean at the Faculty of Law was responsible for the ‘mixed classes’ crisis. He had apparently already admitted to an incorrect implementation of the law and apologised for it in front of the Parliamentary Values Enhancement Committee.

Constitutional Court ruling

The ban is being opposed by several MPs who have indicated they will submit a draft law calling for the abolition of the 1996 law that enforced segregation of the sexes at Kuwait University.

They argue that the law has no legislative value in the face of a Constitutional Court ruling in 2015 which ruled that the law could be implemented through allocation of separate seating arrangements within the same classroom and there was hence no need for separate classes.

Some MPs have also criticised the Kuwait University administration for succumbing to political pressure at the cost of public interest given the fact that, they argue, the university has been correctly implementing the constitutional court ruling allowing mixed classes whenever necessary.

Some experts say the government has made several concessions to the bloc of conservative MPs in order to avoid a debilitating showdown between the legislative and executive powers, according to local news reports.

The Kuwaiti parliament, elected last June, is dominated by conservative Islamists, including Salafists and Muslim Brotherhood members, as well as tribal and Shia representatives.

Acting President of Kuwait University Professor Fayez Al-Dhafiri issued his own statement on 13 September indicating the university’s commitment to adhering to the gender segregation law within its classrooms.

“We are working so there is no mixing at studies unless [an] exceptional and actual need arises for this,” he said.

“The university is committed to reviewing academic sections and cancelling the mixed ones among them of which there is no actual need of them with a commitment to offer alternatives for male and female students so that their registration process is not harmed,” he added.

Al-Dhafiri said more than 95% of students had successfully registered their subjects for the new academic year. He said that more than 2,770 new seats had been added to the College of Law, allowing students to register easily.

Interference in university affairs

However, the Kuwait University Faculty Association has demanded that MPs and government “stop interfering in Kuwait University affairs” and maintain the university’s independence.

In its statement the association urged MPs to avoid interfering in the university’s affairs without coordination with officials there, saying that positive support is through coordination with the university administration, faculty association and student’s union.

The association also urged the government to “stop their unjustified political and media interventions” in Kuwait University’s affairs.

The association called on the acting director of Kuwait University to avoid falling under political and media pressure and to work on protecting the university’s independence.

“Kuwait University was, still is and always will be the flag-bearer of knowledge and values” away from outside influence, it said.

Student protest

The student protests on 18 September were organised by liberal and non-conservative students groups including Al-Mostaqilla student union that seeks the independence of the student movement, Taaluf (Student Harmony), and Al-Wasat Al-Demoqrati (Democratic Circle) in the Gulf University for Science and Technology.

During the sit-in students raised banners reading: “We will not allow outside interference in Kuwait University” and “The future of Kuwait University students is a red line”.

Earlier, on 14 September, a number of students at the Faculty of Law of Kuwait University staged their own protest outside the university against the decision to stop mixed classes. Students have been outraged by the timing of the decision, coming as it did when they had almost completed their registration of subjects for the new semester, which opened on 17 September.

While the liberal students group, the Democratic Students Forum, began collecting signatures in protest against the decision, the Law Faculty Students’ Society at Kuwait University indicated they plan to file a lawsuit asking the court to order the university administration to call off a decision banning mixed-gender classes at the faculty, citing it as unnecessary and disruptive, according to local news.

Lively debate

However, several students have welcomed the decision to scrap mixed classes saying the existence of such classes is contrary to Islamic law and the morals of Kuwaiti society.

The issue sparked debate on X, formerly Twitter, under the hashtags #mixed sections, #co-education, #Kuwait_University, #prevent_mixied-geneder sections, and #students sit-in protest.

The Islamist Students Coalition Group (ISCG), which has been leading the National Union of Kuwaiti Students – Kuwait University Branch for more than 40 years, surprisingly criticised the move, describing it as “ill advised” and called for implementation to be delayed until next year, “until it is studied and a mechanism is developed” according to a statement issued on 16 September.

The ISCG emphasised “the importance of involving all faculty members and student forces in the decision-making process and not taking the decision alone”.

It said: “The ISCG will strive in cooperation with the university administration and student forces to develop appropriate solutions to overcome this crisis, and the rest of the crises related to registration and academic sections.”

The following day, on 17 September, the ISCG issued a further statement confirming its “keenness to properly implement the law preventing mixing without prejudice to the students’ academic career”.