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A vote for women

Print edition : Jun 17, 2005 T+T-

In a historic decision, Kuwait amends its election law in favour of granting full political rights to women, which include the right to vote and stand for parliamentary and local elections.

ATUL ANEJA in Manama

AFTER years of resistance, Kuwaiti lawmakers gave in to women's demand for the right to vote and stand for parliamentary and local elections. The historic decision came in the form of an amendment to the country's election law.

Thirty-five parliamentarians voted in favour and 23 against, with one abstention, of a law that would give women full political rights on a par with men. Kuwait has become the fourth Persian Gulf state after Oman, Qatar and Bahrain where women have the right to participate in elections.

The visitors' gallery where supporters of the amendment had gathered erupted with thunderous applause as soon as the result was announced. "We made it. This is history," said suffrage activist Roula Dashti, "Our target is the parliamentary polls in 2007. I'm starting my campaign from today." "I congratulate the women of Kuwait on having achieved their political rights," Prime Minister Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah said.

Kuwait's voter rolls are now poised to jump from 1,39,000 to 3,39,000 if all eligible women register. The political activist Fatima Alabdaly points out that more than 70 per cent of Kuwaiti college graduates are women, and women make up more than 40 per cent of the workforce.

Outside Kuwait, women's rights activists were jubilant. Many saw the result as symptomatic of the pro-reform sentiment sweeping across the region. "Not only does the decision bestow a basic human right for the women of Kuwait, it symbolises the demand for equality and freedom that the region is experiencing," Hoda Badran, chairperson of the Cairo-based pan-Arab Alliance for Arab Women, told Frontline over telephone.

As expected, some prominent members of the conservative bloc lashed out against the amendment. "Anyone who supports the passage of this law will bear the sin on Judgment Day," said Islamist Member of Parliament Dhaifallah Buramia during the pre-vote debate. Others described the law as "a bombshell" resulting from the imposition of foreign pressure on the government. Nasser Al-Saneh, a conservative lawmaker who opposed the amendment, said he hoped that "government pressure" was not behind the voting pattern.

While the vote has been a defeat for the conservative bloc, Islamist Members of Parliament, nevertheless, did manage to add a provision that could raise fresh controversy. An article introduced in the Bill requires that any woman politician or voter must abide by Islamic law. Supporters of the amendment have been unhappy with this provision but feel that it would not hurt them much. For instance, Dashti said that the vague reference to Islamic law did not bother her. In her view, the article probably meant that there would be separate polling stations for men and women and would not mean the imposition of an Islamic dress code. "They can't impose veils on voters," she said.

Massuma al-Mubarak, a political analyst and a Professor at Kuwait University, argued that any conditions put on the Bill would be a violation of the Constitution. The Kuwaiti Constitution prohibits discrimination based on gender. The state is also a party to the international human rights convention and the convention against all forms of discrimination against women. Despite the constitutional provision, a law passed in 1963 banned women from voting in elections.

The amendment passed on May 17 was, therefore, the culmination of decades of struggle launched by Kuwaiti women. "Women have been fighting for this since the 1960s," activist Shamayl al-Sharikh told Al Jazeera television. She said: "Back then, they always said women were not ready. Then, in the 1980s, with the rise of Islamists, they said it was against Islam. Then Iraq invaded, and during the occupation, His Excellency the Emir promised that after the war he would restore the Parliament and grant women rights. That was in 1990. It's now 2005." Till as late as 1999, Islamist opposition blocked several Emiri decrees granting women the right to vote in general elections.

In April this year, a Bill allowing women to run in elections to the Municipal Council passed its first reading but failed to get through subsequently, following a bitter counter-campaign led by the conservative bloc. The group, citing Islamic law, staged hundreds of town-hall meetings across Kuwait opposing the Bill. Emblazoned on huge banners that were put up was the slogan: "According to Islamic Sharia, women do not have political rights."

In a bid to widen their appeal, some within the bloc argued that women could, at best, have voting privileges, but not the right to stand for elections. In an interview with the Arabic language MBC television, Walid Tubtabi, Chairman of the Kuwaiti Parliament's Human Rights Committee, said: "Islamic Sharia only allows men to govern a state. Despite this, we believe that women have the right to vote for candidates and choose representatives." He, however, added that women had "the right to criticise... but we are against them running for Parliament".

Many women's rights supporters are of the view that political considerations rather than religion have been the basis for the opposition to their empowerment. Al-Sharikh said that the opposition to women's rights "has nothing to do with religion". Some of the parliamentarians might personally support women's rights but would not vote favourably, fearing a backlash in their conservative constituency. Some others come from Islamist or tribal backgrounds and this explains their anti-reform disposition.

As the demand for women's rights gathered momentum, some in the conservative ranks reportedly agreed to shift their stand, provided wages for government employees were hiked and debts on utilities waived. The demand was apparently made with an eye on placating overzealous religious forces at the grassroots-level with financial rewards. It, therefore, might not be coincidental that the Cabinet approved a $445-million Bill to raise salaries for public and private employees, just before the amendment was passed. The approval of the "compensation" package, which was possibly the result of the pressure on the government from within the ranks of the conservatives, shows that women may have to work hard to consolidate their victory in Kuwait's bitter gender war.