Historic first: Kuwaiti women vote, run

Two female candidates ran for office in municipal elections seen as a test for a 2007 nationwide vote.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

A sea of black flooded a local polling station in Kuwait Tuesday when hundreds of women clad in the head-to-toe abaya cast their vote for the first time.

One of the two female candidates contesting a vacant seat on the powerful Municipal Council, Khaledah Al-Khader, said she faced some criticism from Islamic groups.

"Some individuals believe that simply because I am of the female gender, I am incapable of having a seat in the council - because I would not be strong enough to deal with the pressure," says Ms. Khader, a medical doctor educated at Tulane University in New Orleans.

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Considered a test case for 2007 parliamentary polls, the by-election is the first in which women have been able to vote since the National Assembly approved universal suffrage last year.

The May 2005 decision sparked widespread debate about women's roles in politics, with some conservative Islamist members of Parliament arguing that women should not be allowed in Parliament without wearing the Islamic hijab, or head covering.

The landmark political participation of women in Kuwait's election Tuesday is part of a regional trend in the Arab Gulf states, where women are growing more publicly vocal about political matters.

Qatar recently announced that it would hold first ever parliamentary elections in 2007, in which women will be allowed to vote. These modest political gains mark a dramatic shift for a region where many women still cannot even leave their homes, take a job, or go to school without the permission of their father or husband.

But though Kuwait's new law was a victory for women activists who had fought for suffrage for decades, female candidates and voters still face obstacles.

Khader's fellow female candidate, 32-year-old chemical engineer Jenan Al-Bousheri, has taken a modest approach to her campaign, refusing to visit the all-male diwaniyas, or gathering places. Another female politician, Ayesha Al-Reshaid, who already announced plans to run for parliament in 2007 and has visited male diwaniyas, recently received a death threat warning her to stop campaigning.

Ms. Bousheri, who wears the Islamic hijab and has worked for the municipality for 10 years, says she doesn't feel threatened but instead is simply being respectful of the country's conservative nature. In addition to not visiting the diwaniyas, she refused to include her photo on campaign billboards, which could be considered indecent.

"It's a new situation in Kuwait. I don't want to put [up] my pictures. Maybe in the next two years or three years, the situation will be different ... I can put it [photos] but it's my decision," she says.

Early morning turnout at the polling stations was modest. Each station included an entrance for men and for women. Female monitors had been appointed by the electoral authorities to check the identity of female voters wearing abaya and niqab (face covering).

Kuwait TV said the polls marked an "historic day" for the country. Kuwait's Prime Minister Sheikh Nasser Al-Sabah praised the elections, visiting polling stations in the predominately Shia area of Rumaythia just south of downtown Kuwait City.

The Municipal Council has 16 members, 10 elected and six appointed by the government. The local government body wields considerable power across the nation, approving building, construction, and road projects.

The seat became vacant following the death of the late Amir Sheikh Jaber Al-Sabah and the appointment of a new government by the new Amir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah. Abdullah Al-Muhailbi, the Municipal Council member representing the fifth district of Rumathiya, Salmiya, was appointed Minister of Municipality in the new government.

In addition to the two female candidates, six male candidates competed for the seat. Women made up 57 percent of the 28,000 eligible voters for the fifth constituency.

Speaking at the polls, Khader told reporters that the elections showed the country and the world the capabilities of local women.

"This is the first time Kuwaiti women can show the men that we are capable. It is important that we do our best and leave the outcome of the polls to God," she said.

Material from the wires was used in this report.

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