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Kuwaiti Women Appear on Political Landscape This Election

Kuwaiti voters will go to the polls Thursday in a historic parliamentary election. Women will be allowed to vote for the first time, and 28 women are running for office.

Rola Dashti's campaign headquarters is overflowing. Women sit on one side of the large white canvas tent, and men on the other. But the women's seats are full, and the ladies have spilled across the aisle into the men's section. After the speeches, it is time for dinner.

There are separate buffet tables for men and women.

Simply having women at campaign rallies like this is new. Kuwaiti women have never been able to vote for parliament before, let alone run for office. On Thursday, they are doing both.

At her final campaign rally, Rola Dashti spends hours talking one-on-one with voters in the sweltering heat. She is a political novice, but she works the crowd like a veteran.

Although 28 women are running for parliament, Dashti is one of only two who are seen as having any realistic chance of winning. And even she acknowledges that she is still somewhat of a long shot.

"People, they think I'm over-optimistic. But I do see we're going to make it," said Dashti.

Dashti has made a career of defying expectations. She comes from a large, traditional Shi'ite family. Her late father, himself a member of parliament, had four wives, and she has 23 brothers and sisters. She is happily single at the age of 42, and wears her hair uncovered, pulled back in a neat pony tail.

"If I just put [on] the hijab today, I'll gain six or seven hundred votes, but I'm not going to do this," she said.

As a candidate, Rola Dashti's resume demands that she be taken seriously. She is a PhD economist, elected two years ago to head influential Kuwaiti Economic Society. A longtime activist, she led fight to get Kuwaiti women the vote. And at her final campaign rally, her many female supporters were looking forward to exercising their new right, including 31-year-old Nashoor Najaf.

"Of course. Sure," she said. "We were waiting for this moment for 15 years. "This is our first time for feeling that we are really human beings, we are equally together, men and women."

Kuwait's parliament gave women the right to vote last year, and that decision has changed Kuwait's electoral calculus completely. For one thing, women on the voters' roll now thoroughly outnumber the men, in part because all Kuwaiti women were automatically registered to vote, which is not true of men.

Soud al-Otabi, a supporter of an Islamist candidate in the conservative Rubiya district, points out the rather startling voter demographics there.

"In this district, we're talking about 12,000 women against 8,000 men. So 12,000 votes will make a big difference, and I think the candidate that can win the support of women, certainly he will make it to the parliament," said al-Otabi.

So in just over a year, Kuwaiti women have gone from politically voiceless to a political power to be reckoned with. Conservative politicians who last year opposed giving women the right vote are today actively seeking their support, much to Rola Dashti's satisfaction.

"There is a huge transformation in the society," said Dashti. "When men who were against women's political rights [are] addressing women's issues and telling them, I do care about your issues, this is great! Although we just keep reminding the women, these voted against you, don't give them your vote."

Women will not necessarily vote for female candidates, and since there are no past voting patterns to analyze, it is not clear how their political debut will affect the outcome of the poll. Both the Islamist and liberal opposition groups are hoping to pick up several seats.

Islamist lawmaker Deif Allah, who is allied with the local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, says in other elections, women voters have tended to support conservative candidates.

Political scientist Ghanem al-Najjar of Kuwait University says it is unlikely that any of the female candidates will win, but he says that is not really the issue.

"For me, it is not the women, whether they win or not," said al-Najjar. "I think the success of women is already felt. It is not by being members of parliament, it is by influencing the process. And already they are influencing and having a great impact on the political process."

This election is coming a year ahead of schedule. After a dispute over electoral redistricting, Kuwait's emir dissolved parliament five weeks ago, calling early elections that took all the candidates, male and female alike, by surprise.

Rola Dashti had been planning her run for office since the day women got the right to vote, but she acknowledges that the accelerated timeline has disrupted her plans. If the election were held next year, she feels confident that at least three women would win. As it is, she is trying to stay optimistic.

If she and the other female candidates fail to win a seat in parliament this time, she says she will not give up.

"I'm continuing the battle," said Dashti. "Women have to be in parliament in Kuwait, no ifs or buts about it. Women should be engaged in politics, no ifs or buts about it. And we will be keeping our work, and our struggle, so women are in parliament."