Kuwaiti women seek right to vote

The Monitor continues a four-part series exploring the status of Arab women.

Fatima al-Abdali and scores of other Kuwaiti women - most covered from head to toe in black - have been marching into the offices of their mukhtars, local leaders, to register to vote.

But the mukhtars are under government orders to send the women directly to the police. There, the officers record their complaints, serve them tea, then send them home.

Just getting it on paper makes it "mission accomplished" for these women, who helped their leaders fight Iraqi occupation a decade ago. These women - as well as many Kuwaiti men - say denials of their voting rights violate the country's 1961 Constitution, which promises not to discriminate on the basis of gender.

Here in Kuwait and in several quarters of the Arab world, societies are reconsidering women's roles in politics and public life in general. While women in the far more liberal Lebanon ask why so few of them are prevalent in politics despite their longstanding rights to vote and run for office, much more conservative Kuwaitis are deciding whether women should enjoy those rights at all.

The ruler of Kuwait, Sheikh Jaber al-Sabah issued a royal decree in June 1999 that stated women should be allowed to vote and run for office in the next election. But a measure to put his will into law was defeated, 32 to 30, by legislators last November.

The problem here, and in many other Arab countries where new young leaders are promoting progressive rights, is that top-down directed change won't take, because it doesn't have widespread, grass-roots support.

"The way this issue came to the public agenda was not healthy," says Dr. al-Abdali, senior environmental engineer with the Kuwait Oil Company. "Women were saying they think things are fine as they are, without the vote, and that allowed legislators to say the timing is not right."

So al-Abdali, and the scores of other women marching on the mukhtars, are taking what they learned as anti-Iraq protesters to demand the right to vote and an opportunity to run for office.

Constitutional basis

The country's Constitution promises not to discriminate on the basis of gender. So, in their latest step to fight city hall, Al-Abdali, the head of the Women's Issues Committee, has filed a case in Kuwait's highest court, charging that the prohibition against women voting is unconstitutional.

The case was thrown out of the Supreme Court last month, when judges ruled they had not followed court procedures. But they can file the case again next year - when they say they'll demand again to register to vote. Moreover, the Kuwaiti parliament may take up the issue again when it reconvenes this fall.

Islamic concept

At the center of the debate is an Islamic concept known as "willaya umma," meaning leadership of the Muslim community. The Koran, say Islamic conservatives here, forbids women to be in such authoritative positions.

"It is in the sayings of the Prophet that people will not succeed if they allow women to be their commanders," says Walid al-Tubtabai, an Islamist member of parliament who led the drive to defeat the voting rights bill. "Besides that, the entry of women into politics will cause social and political problems."

Dr. al-Tubatabai's outlook, echoed by many men and women alike here, views this not as the suppression of women's rights, but as something akin to a democratic oligarchy in which families express political preferences through their fathers' and husbands' votes. And he argues that the nature of campaigning in Kuwait, which requires nightly visits to salon gatherings and publishing details of a candidate's history, puts politicking off-limits to a proper Muslim woman.

But others argue the term is open to interpretation, and shouldn't apply to parliamentary representation. They point to other Islamic nations that interpret the term as referring only to leadership bodies representing Muslims across the world. Women have already served as leaders in non-Arab Muslim nations such as Turkey and Pakistan, while women in the Near Eastern and North African Arab countries have voting rights. (See two women who are making a difference, right).

Women in other Arab countries have enjoyed voting rights for decades: Syria and Lebanon since the 1950s, Yemen in 1967, Jordan since 1974.

In non-Arab Muslim countries such as Turkey and Pakistan, women have even served as prime ministers.

But other Arab countries grant rights

Several other Arab Gulf countries, while still lacking many basic democratic freedoms, have been taking steps to include women in the decisionmaking arena. In Qatar, women were allowed to vote and run for office in the country's first municipal elections last March. Oman's emir last year allowed two women to sit on the Consultative Council, while Bahrain selected its first woman ambassador. And Saudi Arabia began allowing women to watch proceedings of its Advisory Council from a separate viewer's gallery.

But women are so untested in politics in the Arab world that they often don't vote for each other when they are able, such as in the Qatar election last year. Women were permitted to vote and run for office for the first time. Several ran, but other women didn't vote for them.

"Even women do not elect women," says Amal Khoury, a research assistant with the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies. "There is no trust in women that they are capable of doing the job. There is still a mentality that as long as a husband is working, she should stay home and take care of the children."

But women do get out to work

While many Arab countries are still debating whether the words "working mother" belong together, women are already a widely accepted presence in the Lebanese workforce.

According to a 1998 report published by the United Nations Development Program, Lebanese female participation in the labor force is the highest in the Arab world at 28 percent, followed by 27 percent in Yemen, 25 percent in Syria, and 21 percent in Jordan.

Indeed, more so than elsewhere, women's groups in Lebanon seem to be choosing to do battle on issues that mirror life in the West: equal pay, maternity leave and child care at the office, the "glass ceiling" on professional advancement, and even sexual harassment.

"If a young lady comes to me and says she's been sexually harassed, I can't build a case against anyone in court because there's no law against it," complains lawyer Ekbal Doughan, president of the Working Women League in Lebanon. "And it is she who will be convicted, socially, because people will judge her more than they judge him."

Statistics that show more women entering the workforce, however, are offset by high levels of public ambivalence about its effects on society. A study released by a coalition of Jordanian human rights groups in May found that 50 percent of men believe women should not be involved in political or trade-related work, about a third believe women should not be allowed to drive or do volunteer work, and some 20 percent believe women should not be allowed to vote.

Lack of women's rights

The reluctance to allow women to vote here means the perpetuation of problems that male politicians pay lip service to, but don't make it their business to fix. "If you're a woman, you can't even open a bank account for yourself, even if you're divorced," says Rola Dashti, a Kuwaiti economist who hopes to run for office in 2003 - if women win the right to run for office by then.

Many here say the struggle for women's voting rights will continue either through their court challenge or political means.

But Kuwaiti suffragists say they're concerned that in a compromise with opposition Islamists, parliamentarians will give women the right to vote, but not to seek office.

"That would be only half of our rights, and then it could take another five decades to get the other half," says Al-Abdali, the Kuwait women's movement leader. "They tell us it's not the right time, as though they have a chart of the right time. You'll never find the whole society facing in one direction. If you wait for that time, it will never come."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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