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Rest of Kuwait (the Women) May Soon Get Right to Vote

DOUGLAS JEHL
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KUWAIT CITY -- Under floodlights in these sweltering nights, the men who gather to talk politics in outdoor tents are talking now about whether Kuwait will ever be the same.

Until three weeks ago, the law that laid out who could vote and seek office in Kuwait began "Each Kuwaiti man. . ." Subject to ratification by the next Parliament, it now begins "Each Kuwaiti. . ."

The change would bring an end to an era in which political life in Kuwait has remained an all-male preserve. Announced in an edict by the Emir, Sheik Ahmed al-Jaber al-Sabah, it has left some Kuwaitis jubilant, many others aghast.

"Someone has to remind the people that this change is against Islamic law," said Mahmoud al-Hobeshi, 43, a businessman, who sees all-male parliamentary elections for next month as a referendum and is trying to rally support for candidates who would try to block the Emir's plan.

The religious issue, in fact, is open to interpretation. Sunni Muslims, prevalent in Saudia Arabia and Kuwait, cite a Koranic injunction against women holding leadership positions. In Iran, home of the Shiite branch, which has an influential minority in Kuwait, women can vote and hold office.

With its tradition of a raucous, elected Parliament and a record of accomplishment for women, Kuwait comes closer than any other Arab gulf monarchy to being free and democratic.

Many people had expected Sheik Jaber, the reclusive 73-year-old leader, to extend the franchise to women after the Persian Gulf war of 1991, but years of inaction had raised doubts in many circles about whether it would ever happen.

In an outpouring of delight, scores of Kuwaiti women flocked to the Emir's palace after his decision to thank him in person. At least seven women have already announced plans to run for Parliament in 2003, the first year they would be eligible. But even in Kuwait, conservatism may yet act as a brake.

In the windows of Villa Moda, a fashionable women's shop along the Gulf Road, the mannequins hold aloft signs saying, "Yes to women's voting." But at campaign tents of candidates like Walid Tubtabai, a strict Islamist, the answer has been a powerful no.

"Not only do they write, no, no, no," said Youssef al-Falakawi, a Kuwait University professor who has been polling voters at the nightly gatherings, a staple of Kuwait's highly personal political system, "but they tell me, 'You've got to tell the people this is a bad idea.' "

Kuwait may be small, with a population of just two million, but the Emir's initiative is being closely watched as a test of Arab willingness to move further toward democracy.

President Clinton, among many American politicians who prodded Kuwait for years to take the step, welcomed the Emir's edict with a congratulatory letter. Arab and Islamic countries like Egypt, Iran, Pakistan and Indonesia, where women already play prominent roles, have also hailed the step.

But from Kuwait's neighbors, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, there has been mostly silence. Among Arab gulf states, only Qatar has allowed women to vote, in a municipal election in March. In Oman two women sit on the Consultative Council.

With a directly elected Parliament, Kuwait was already several steps closer to democracy than the rest, and the idea that it should now go further, by allowing women to take part, is likely to unsettle the Saudis in particular, where women are still quietly crusading for the right to drive.

Already Kuwaiti women represent 31 percent of the workforce; the prominent positions held by women include rector of Kuwait University, head of the Kuwait News Agency and Ambassador to Zimbabwe.

Most Kuwaitis, from both ends of the political spectrum, say they expect the new Parliament to ratify at least the idea of allowing women to vote.

Even if a majority of the 50 members to be elected on July 3 turn out to be opposed to the idea, the Government would have insurance because under the Kuwaiti system, another dozen or so members of the royally appointed Cabinet would also be allowed to take part in the voting.

To reject the edict outright would also be an extraordinary act of defiance against the Emir, who has remained in the background of Kuwaiti politics but whose family has ruled Kuwait for more than 200 years.

Still, there are signs that a new Parliament may be willing to go along with only a half-measure, with members trying to draw the line at allowing women to hold office. Most Islamist candidates strongly oppose that idea, as do most candidates from Kuwait's powerful rural tribes.

"I don't have any problem with giving women the vote, but for a woman to be a member of Parliament, this is refused," said Falih al-Azab, 34, a police investigator, as he sat among 2,000 other men on Astroturf and rugs at an outdoor rally for opposition candidates.

That sentiment worries women like Fatima al-Abdali, who has declared herself a candidate in 2003. "Halfway is not enough," said Ms. Abdali, a 40-year-old environmental engineer who has spent the last 10 years campaigning for a woman's right not only to vote but also to hold office.

By tradition, Kuwait's elections are held in October, when the evenings are pleasantly balmy. This one is a rare departure, brought on by the Government's abrupt dismissal in early May of what it denounced as a do-nothing Parliament.

With daytime temperatures routinely in excess of 115 degrees, and evening temperatures still in the high 90's, the nightly politicking now takes place in a kind of perpetual sauna, in which cold water and lemon juice, not the usual coffee and sticky sweets, are the favored repast.

In recent years, the biggest political battles in Kuwait have been fought over what critics have cast as litmus tests of Islamic faith: the mixing of the sexes at Kuwait University and the distribution of un-Islamic books and misprinted copies of the Koran. To most Kuwaitis, the issues are peripheral, but the effect of the fights has been a political stalemate.

With the focus now shifted to women's rights, the Government has plunged deliberately into a politically hot issue, one that neither it nor its allies in Parliament had previously been willing to take on for themselves, for what may well have been sound political reasons.

"Kuwaiti conservatives are going to vote now for people who will not let the ladies vote," said Duwaij al-Shammery, a prominent Isamist whose regular Saturday-night open house has become a setting for even more spirited political talk.

Still, many Kuwaitis say they welcome the Emir's unexpected boldness, seeing it as a welcome change from the years of passivity that followed the gulf war. They say it reflects not only the Emir's frustration at the legislative standoff, but a decision to sideline, at least for now, the Crown Prince and Prime Minister, Sheik Saad al-Abdullah, who is the Emir's brother and has a reputation for indecisiveness.

According to diplomats and prominent Kuwaitis, the Government is now effectively run by the Deputy Prime Minister, Sheik Sabah al-Ahmed al-Jaber al-Sabah, a cousin from the Emir's branch of the family. Sheik Sabah, who is also Foreign Minister, had led a committee that recommended voting rights for women.

"It was coming," said Ahmad E. Bishara, a leading Kuwaiti liberal. "Kuwaiti women had achieved, de facto, everything there was to achieve in the professional world. But this was the final wall they had to cross, and the fact that they have had to wait so long has been frustrating."

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