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Kuwait Women Gain Vote


Since the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Kuwait has celebrated February 26 as its "Liberation Day," marking the defeat of its Iraqi occupiers. Kuwait's women now say they have a second "Liberation Day," May 16, when the country's National Assembly voted 35 to 23 with one abstention to enfranchise women.

To the women of Kuwait, the two "liberation days" are linked. Political activist Rola Dashti, also chairwoman of the Kuwait Economic Society, says their struggle for political equality gained momentum during and just after Iraq's occupation.

"We felt after liberation that we deserved better because every time the country called for anything from its citizens when it was occupied, the women were at the forefront serving their country," she says. "And we expected that we should have it [political rights.]"

But Kuwaiti women who pushed then for political equality were rebuffed by lawmakers who championed tradition over equality. Then, in 1999, Kuwait's head of state, Emir Sheikh Jaber al-Sabah, issued a decree calling on the National Assembly to grant women the right to vote. But a powerful coalition of tribal interests and Islamists rejected it. Many Kuwaiti women were infuriated, especially those prominent in business, government and society.

But Sheikh Jaber did not forget Kuwait's women. Recently, he once again called on the National Assembly to pass a measure enfranchising women. As Foad Ajami at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC observes, the Emir also put political muscle behind his wishes.

"The fundamental difference is the pressure the government applied this time around," he says, adding "It didn't stand aside and let the contending forces play out - the intellectuals and the civil society and the Kuwait city people versus the Islamists and the tribes and the people in the hinterlands of Kuwait. This time, the government chose to push for the franchise of women."

American University of Kuwait President Shaffiq Ghabra says a member of the Emir's family put direct pressure on lawmakers. "Sheikh Sabah, the prime minister, worked in a very intelligent way: pushing and pulling, convincing parliamentarians, providing all kinds of pressures in order to get that vote moving," he says.

When women's political rights came up for a vote on May 16th, Badrias Darweesh at The Kuwait Times newspaper says the unified support of the ruling al-Sabah family, which holds many Cabinet posts, made the critical difference in passing the bill.

"We didn't get a majority, if you exclude the ministers," she says. "Don't forget [that] among the 35 [yes votes], there are 15 ministers in the cabinet. They were asked by Sheikh Sabah to vote 'yes.' So if you take these out, we had 20 parliamentarians with us."

With the passage of the bill granting women the vote and the opportunity to run as political candidates, activists such as Rola Dashti say that while mindful of Islamic beliefs, they now plan to bring a full slate of issues to the National Assembly.

"We do have things that are restricted by Sharia [Islamic] law which we will not deviate from, but there is a lot of civil law which women will be changing in terms of divorces and marriages. But more importantly, there are more social issues like employment, education and issues of economic resources. So, there are issues that women will be bringing to the table," she says.

Analysts note that as many as 200,000 women could register to vote, many more than the roughly 135,000 men entitled to cast ballots. But Badria Darweesh at The Kuwait Times warns that some women will still be pressured by traditions, at least in the beginning, to vote as others tell them to. "Some of them, yes, are going to 'go tribal' because they will be pushed by their tribes and their families." she says. "And we cannot deny that we're living in a tribal society."

But Ms. Darweesh says that should change when women realize that the secret ballot means they can vote as they like regardless of family or tribal wishes.

While Kuwait has joined neighboring Persian Gulf states Bahrain, Qatar, and Oman in granting women the right to vote, Kuwait's move came because of direct intervention by the country's top leadership. The Islamist groups and tribes that opposed it have not changed their position. Many analysts say because the enfranchisement of women is not universally accepted in Kuwaiti society, even among some women, this change in the country's social order may be a source of friction for years to come.

This report was broadcast on VOA News Now's "Focus" program. For other "Focus" reports click here

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