Al-Ahram Weekly Online   10 - 16 March 2005
Issue No. 733
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Kuwaiti women fight on

Promulgating a law for women's enfranchisement appears to be a tough task for the all-male Kuwaiti parliament, reports Sherine Bahaa

International Women's Day, 8 March, was marked by a show of strength by Kuwaiti women in their struggle for a more meaningful political role in the tiny oil-rich Gulf state. Women have attained considerable social status in Kuwait. They run their own business, have become university professors, hold diplomatic posts. Kuwaiti women have traditionally been better educated than their counterparts in other Gulf states. But so far they enjoy no political rights.

Kuwait had the first democratically elected all- male parliament. "Today, we lag far behind. We were in the lead and now we are at the bottom. This is shameful," said prominent Kuwaiti activist Lulwa Al-Mulla.

For the past 40 years, Kuwaiti society got used to the idea that elections were confined to men. In a country with a total population of around 950,000 -- eligible voters for the 50-seat parliament represent only 15 per cent of the population.

The next legislative elections is scheduled for July 2007. Nine previous attempts to grant women the right to vote and stand as candidates were aborted, mainly by Islamists and tribal MPs.

New momentum was generated last month with the publication of a column in the daily Al-Watan newspaper by Kuwaiti Prime Minister Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah in which he stressed the importance of granting women full political rights.

In his column, Al-Sabah wrote that it was "high time women gain full political right". A new bill, to give women the right to vote, was approved by the Kuwaiti cabinet last May which calls for amending the election law and is currently being debated in parliament.

The Kuwaiti government urged lawmakers to reach a quick conclusion.

Few days later, 10 Liberal, Shia and independent MPs filed a motion to refer the country's electoral law to the Constitution Court in a move aimed at granting Kuwaiti women the right to vote and stand for political office. The signatories wanted the court to rule on the legitimacy of Article One of the 1962 Constitution which limits voting rights and candidacy to male citizens above 21. In fact, this clause of the law is in contrast to another in the constitution which stipulates gender equality.

However, the motion required a simple majority vote in its favour. On Monday, a stormy session in the Kuwaiti parliament ended up with MPs withdrawing their motion believing that going to court could have prompted a constitutional crisis which might hamper the whole process.

In fact, the session was expected to assign a date for the House's official debate of the reform bill, but no date was fixed for the debate. However, Kuwaiti women took to the streets in protest.

Kuwaiti women spoke with one voice -- those who cover their face with the traditional burqa and those who wear a knee high Western skirt. Both were fighting for their political rights. Kuwaiti women marched into parliament to attend the session but after a few minutes they were dismissed.

Time was not ripe for change. Fundamentalists and tribal lawmakers still believe that women cannot become lawmakers or cabinet ministers under Sharia, or Islamic law. Though some might accept the idea of voting, all agreed that it is unacceptable for women to stand as candidates.

The whole scene turned to be a great disappointment for women who surrounded parliament in protest. "This is a half democracy and the situation must be rectified. Those who oppose women's rights cannot be supporters of justice and progress," former liberal MP Abdullah Nibari said.

To be fair, this time the government was taking the question of women's political rights seriously. A media campaign on state-run television and radio stations to win public support for the bill was launched. Opponents held daily public rallies.

"Today, the government is showing more goodwill," said Rola Dashti, a US-educated economist at the forefront of the fight for the vote. "It is clear from Sheikh Sabah's moves and the national campaign for public awareness," Dashti added.

The most widely known of earlier attempts to approve this bill came in an Emiri decree in November 1999 but was narrowly defeated by an Islamist-tribal alliance.

Hopes of women taking part in the municipal elections were dashed as MP's passed the municipal election law without the government- proposed amendments allowing women to vote.

But according to Arab observers, the Kuwaiti government gave the strongest indication this time to push for the bill. "The battle over women's right could be a means by the Kuwaiti government to divert attention from issues such as terrorism," one Arab observer said.

One solution, as Kuwaiti newspapers noted, would be to carry out Prime Minister Sheikh Sabah's threat to dissolve the parliament if it failed to approve the bill.

Another round is expected to take place next week. The government called both the interior and defence committee in parliament to discuss the bill. This will put the ball in the government's court. Either they will be serious enough to ensure the approval of the law or else the government will cave in to the conditions of the tribes and the Islamists who also have their own electoral's interests, it is yet to be seen.

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