Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
9 - 15 December 1999
Issue No. 459
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Women's rights bargained away

By Sherine Bahaa

After months of high expectations and intensive lobbying following the Emir of Kuwait's granting of political rights to women in a decree last June, Kuwaiti women found themselves back at square one last week when the emirate's lawmakers voted against ratifying the decree. Thirty-two members voted against the measure and 30 for, with two members abstaining. The bill needed 33 votes to become law.

Nevertheless, though the bill was not passed, the vote marked a change from previous ones on the issue. Only last month, Kuwait's lawmakers had rejected the measure by 41 votes to 22 in a first round of voting, and, according to Ahmed Al-Baghdadi, head of the Political Science Department at Kuwait University, in an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly, "ten years ago the total number of those voting for women's rights was 7; today the number is 30".

Analysts believe that the vote, which had it gone in favour of women's participation in Kuwaiti political life would have more than doubled the Emirate's current small electorate of 113,000 men, was a protest by the generally liberal lawmakers -- who support women's rights -- against the Emir's issuing of the original decree. Published at a time when the legislature was in recess and with elections still to be held, the move was seen as being an attempt to undermine the legislature's authority.

According to Al-Baghdadi, the legislature had wanted to reinstate a crucial principle in rejecting the decree, namely that "in the absence of Parliament, no legislation should be undertaken unless in cases of national emergency, such as invasion or major economic problems. Otherwise, the National Assembly is the chief legislative authority, and this is stated in Article 71 of the Kuwaiti constitution".

However, whatever the motives of the members of the legislature who voted against the bill, its rejection came as a shock to many Kuwaiti women.

"It was a complete disappointment," said Lolwa Al-Mola, head of the Women's Cultural and Sociological Society in Kuwait to the Weekly.

"Lectures and seminars had been buzzing all over Kuwait explaining all aspects of women's political rights. We had conducted a legal study that answered all possible questions related to that topic, and we had hosted the head of the Shari'a University in Qatar, who spoke about the religious side of the issue," she said.

Opposition to women's political rights is basically a function of tribal, rather than religious considerations, according to Al-Baghdadi. "The right of women to have an independent point of view does not contradict religious concepts as much as it opposes tribal beliefs," he said.

Al-Mola was also of the view that political bargaining and not principle lay behind much of the voting. "Many of those who voted against women's political rights did not do so out of conviction," she said. As an illustration, she cited the case of Jassem Al-Kharafi, whose sister is president of Kuwait University. Upon the formation of the new parliament last July, Al-Kharafi was elected as new House Speaker, in what was regarded by observers as a good sign for cooperation between parliament and the government. Totally unexpectedly, however, he voted against the law, while another MP, Abdullah Al-Raoumi, who is often seen as a liberal enjoying Islamist backing, also voted against.

Ahmed Al-Saadoun, House Speaker for the last three parliaments abstained, as did the Shi'ite clergyman MP Hussein Al-Qallaf to the surprise of many analysts since he had supported women's rights in the long debate that preceded the vote.

The Government Minister Eid Hazal Al-Rasheedi, who had been expected to support the law as a member of the government, did not attend the session, raising questions as to the enthusiasm of the Kuwaiti government for the draft law.

"Why did the government allow one of its members to step out of collective decision making without being asked to resign?" asked Al-Baghdadi, who went on to comment that the government could have also won tribal votes -- which would have otherwise gone to the royal family -- had it more energetically promoted the bill.

"In short, the government did not work hard enough to pass the law. But we do not know why not," he said.

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