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