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Women from Arab Countries Learn How to Run for Office

Women politicians from 15 Arab countries are in Kuwait learning how to campaign for elected office. A special campaign school opened Sunday, focusing on the skills needed to succeed in politics in a region where women's political voices are often muffled.

More than 50 women from all over the Middle East and North Africa split up into small groups to discuss different challenges they will face in running for office. For many of them, it will be a totally new experience, and they may face severe obstacles in their quest to get elected.

When Kuwait's new minister of planning took the oath of office in June, conservative lawmakers banged on their desks and howled in protest as she was sworn in. Massouma al-Mubarak became the first Kuwaiti woman to ever hold a cabinet office, just a month after Kuwait's all-male parliament finally granted women the right to vote, after a six-year battle.

Two years from now, Kuwaiti women will not only vote in their first election, they will be standing as candidates for the first time. Minister Mubarak says they have a lot of work to do before then, and the campaign school is a start.

"Definitely, women in Kuwait did not have the chance to participate in an actual election campaign. But this is the chance for us all to learn from others, their experiences," said Minister Mubarak. "And also to share ideas and exchange thoughts about how to run a political campaign successfully."

In the Arab world, women who run for office are facing tough odds. In Bahrain, for example, 39 women ran for local and national office in 2002, but not a single woman won. Some countries, such as Jordan and Morocco, use quota systems to ensure women's representation in parliament.

Many of the campaign school participants say the most stubborn resistance to their candidacy often comes not from men, but from other women.

Asma Mohamed Othman is a veteran politician from Yemen who wears a black veil covering her face and represents a traditionalist party called Islah, which means repair or reform.

Othman says, "The positive thing is that women do participate in politics. But the negative is that other women may not accept this. Sometimes the resistance comes from women themselves."

In a keynote speech earlier in the day, former Canadian Prime Minister Kim Campbell had warned of the same thing. She said women have had the vote in Canada for nearly 100 years, but she was the country's first, and so far only, female prime minister. She was also the first female justice minister, and the first female defense minister of any NATO country.

She said part of the battle is convincing people, male and female, that women are capable of doing those jobs.

"So even in countries where women have had the vote for a long time, they have to struggle against this broader social expectation that leadership is not a feminine quality," said Campbell.

The teachers at this U.S.-sponsored "campaign school" are pro-democracy activists, female politicians and campaign experts from around the world.

Some of the lessons are concrete, how to convince people that they should vote for you.

Raheela bint Amer al-Riyami, a member of the Shura Council from Oman, described how she went door-to-door in her district introducing herself to voters, and got her friends and family to hand out campaign flyers on the streets.

Other lessons are more conceptual.

Vaira Paegle is a member of parliament from Latvia who returned to her country from America after the fall of the Soviet Union, to help build a democracy in her newly independent homeland.

"You should know why you go into politics. There are wrong reasons, in terms of you shouldn't mix politics and business. You shouldn't look at very narrow self-interest," said Paegle. "It really is to serve the common good, but know yourself when you go in."

Ms. Paegle led a panel discussion on opening day that sparked a heated debate on some of the more contentious aspects of Arab democratization, many of which are not specific to women.

Moroccan lawmaker Amina Ouchelh says, "Brothers and sisters, we all know that our Arab world faces many challenges in this millennium. Democracy is one of those challenges. We cannot face this without the capabilities and participation of both men and women."

The campaign school is the fourth one of its kind. It continues until Wednesday.