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Arab Women Learn to Run for Office

Women from 15 Arab countries are in Kuwait learning how to campaign for elected office. They are discussing how to overcome problems faced by female candidates in their countries. Family can often be a complicating factor.

In a small working group, would-be candidates are learning how to develop a campaign strategy targeting undecided voters. They are asked to draw up a chart, group A contains the people who they know will vote for them. Group D contains those they know will vote against them. Groups B and C, in the middle, are the "swing" voters, who could go either way.

After they present their charts, the moderator asks them if they have noticed any patterns.

One woman raises her hand and says, "All of us have family in group A. But our families may not have the same politics. Some may be Islamist and others liberal. My brother could be the first to reject me being there."

The comment sparks a lively discussion about gaining the support of one's family -- which in the Arab context, means not just brothers and sisters, but an elaborate network of extended family members, and in some countries it also means members of a candidate's tribe.

Family ties are a key part of politics in many Arab countries. A number of participants in this campaign school say a candidate -- of either gender -- could be educated and competent, but will still run into problems if he or she lacks the right family background.

In the working group, they disagree over whether family ties are strong enough to trump political differences. One woman says candidates should start by trying to persuade those family members who disagree with them.

She says, "You are most comfortable talking to your cousins and brothers. If you succeed in convincing them, you can use that experience to carry your message outside the family and convince others. But," she says, "those who fail inside the family will not succeed outside of it."

The working groups are generally off limits to the media, but VOA was allowed to observe one provided none of the women taking part were identified. The organizers wanted them to feel free to speak their minds.

Sometimes family involvement in a woman's political campaign can be more complicated than just deciding who to vote for, especially in a region where many traditions and religious beliefs govern what behavior is deemed acceptable for women.

When she was running for the municipal council in Qatar, Sheikha Yousef Hasan Al-Gerifi says, her family had a very specific demand.

She says, "My family refused to let me put pictures of myself in my campaign advertisements. I tried to convince them that pictures of me should appear in newspapers and on posters, but during the entire election campaign, no pictures of me appeared in any advertisements."

Mrs. Gerifi won that election anyway, after both of her opponents dropped out of the race. One of them was her cousin.

It was the third time she had tried to run. The first two times, her family pressured her to drop out of the race and allow her cousin to be their candidate.

Family ties also complicated the campaign of Amneh Issa Salem Khasawneh when she ran for parliament in Jordan.

The first time she wanted to run was in 1997.

She says, "I come from a big tribe, and when I registered myself as a candidate I received a lot of pressure from them because they said my candidacy would affect the chances of the men in my family and tribe who were also running. Because of that pressure from my family, I did not run for parliament."

But six years later, Jordan introduced a quota system, guaranteeing at least six seats in parliament for women. So Mrs. Khawsaneh decided to try again.

She says, "Even then, I faced so much pressure from my family and tribe," who still objected to her candidacy. She says she decided to run in a different district, the one where she works, rather than in the place where she was born, so she would not be competing against any of her own relatives.

In the new district, she says, she won a lot of votes but still fell short of winning a seat in parliament.

Mrs. Khasawneh believes her decision might help her political ambitions in the long term. She says her family and tribe appreciated the fact that she was willing to respect their wishes and run in a different district. She says they are much more supportive of her now, and they will be helping her mount a campaign in the next poll.