Several hundred women demonstrated in downtown Kuwait City, Monday, demanding women be allowed to vote and run for office in parliament elections - something they have been prevented from doing in Kuwait for more than 40 years. But, this time the government has thrown its full support behind proposed legislation that would give women in the emirate the right to vote.
Under heavy police security, the peaceful demonstration Monday took place outside of the Kuwaiti parliament. Inside, members had gathered to discuss a government request to set a date to debate a bill that would allow Kuwaiti women the right to vote and run as candidates in parliament elections.
Some of the demonstrators say their motivation was the result of an announcement Sunday night that a bloc of 13 Sunni Muslim members of parliament said it would vote against the government-sponsored bill.
But, according to the chairman of the political science department at Kuwait University, Abdul Reda Assiri, those members of parliament are losing their credibility.
"People who have held the traditional justification that a woman's place is at home, women should focus on different issues," said Abdul Reda Assiri. "And, others have held to religious justifications that major decisions made in the society should be made by males. Now, this group of people cannot hold water as far as their rationale or their opposition because there are counter opinions from religions elements that women do participate in the political decision-making, whether as a voter or a member of parliament as in many other Islamic societies."
Although the Kuwaiti constitution calls for gender equality, a 1962 electoral law remains in force that precludes women from participating in parliament elections, either as a candidate or as a voter. Kuwaiti women have been appointed to positions within the government and are allowed to participate in local elections.
In 1999, parliament narrowly defeated a similar bill that would have given women the right to vote in parliament elections.
This time, according to Mr. Assiri, it appears the proposed legislation will likely be approved.
"The government this time is in line with the wish of the people," he said. "And, there is a political will on the part of the government in the executive branch to do something and the government can influence the decision making, and in fact
coerce some members to this issue. So, the chances of it being passed, the probability, I think this time is much higher than prior times. Perhaps this time it will pass, given the fact the political environment in this region of the world
has been changing in the last few years and few months."
Even so, opponents of the measure have been holding almost daily demonstrations in downtown Kuwait City.
In response, the government has launched a media campaign on television and radio stations urging public support for the proposed legislation.
Arab governments throughout the region have been under mounting domestic and international pressure to democratize, including the full participation of women in the political process.