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After Winning the Right To Vote, Kuwaiti Women now Work on

After years of fighting for it, Kuwaiti women three months ago got the right to vote and run for public office. This week, a number of aspiring candidates have joined with other women from around the Arab world to improve their campaign skills at a special workshop in Kuwait City. Even though they are newcomers to politics, Kuwaiti women already have a remarkable level of sophistication when it comes to electoral strategy.

In one of the campaign school working groups, aspiring candidates are learning how to calculate exactly how many undecided voters they need to win their districts.

The women in the room come from many countries and a wide variety of political backgrounds. Some are hardened veterans of multiple election campaigns, and others are simply thinking about running for office sometime in the future.

About a third of the women come from right here in Kuwait. Listening to the Kuwaiti women strategize, it is easy to forget that they only got the right to vote three months ago, and that no Kuwaiti woman has ever run for public office before. They may be inexperienced, but these women are extremely sophisticated in the way they approach politics.

One participant says, "What I have done in my district is study the results of the last four elections, to know what percentage of votes I need to win."

Another woman switches into English briefly to explain how a concept she uses in the oil industry can also be used in a political campaign.

"We call it SWOT analysis, which is strength, weaknesses, threats and opportunities...."

Kuwaiti women are, by and large, very well educated. Many of them have been extremely successful in business and academia. In fact, women play a significant role in just about every sector of Kuwaiti society except politics.

Now, with a woman in the cabinet and an election on the horizon, they are hoping to change that.

And while Kuwaiti women are new to national politics, they do have some experience with other kinds of elections, according to Kuwait University education professor Alwa Al-Jassar.

"We are used to using the politics," Ms. Al-Jassar says. "We have election for the chair of the university. We have election for the dean. So we are used to it. We have elections for all the associations, lawyers association, teachers' association. This is going with elections.... My daughter, she is running to be vice president for the medical association students, in the medical school."

The Kuwaiti women's rights activists consider getting the right to vote a major victory, one they had been working on for many years. But some are more optimistic than others about whether any women will actually be elected to parliament in 2007.

They are trying to keep their momentum and unity intact during the next two years. And they realize that they have a lot of work to do, not just in preparing women candidates to run for the first time, but in preparing other women to vote for the first time.

Dana Al-Mutawa is a former student leader who is now working on a campaign to educate Kuwaiti women about their new political rights, including how to vote, and why.

"It saddens me to see that a lot of these women don't care if they vote or not," Mr. Al-Mutawa says. "That they have the right, it doesn't make a difference to them. They won't exercise this right. Because they do not feel the need to. They have been living this way for the past 60 years. What difference is it going to make? I have everything getting done for me."

Ms. Mutawa is expecting the road to political representation to be a long and hard one. Although other activists say they are determined that women will be in the next parliament, she says she doubts it will happen that quickly. She says the key will be in convincing other Kuwaiti women, especially the younger ones, that they not only deserve a voice in parliament, but that it serves their interests to have one.