Progress on political rights for Kuwaiti women

On May 16, the Kuwaiti parliament voted to give women the right to vote and run for office. The next election is 2007.

In one of the last remaining corners of the Middle East where women couldn't vote, democracy took a step forward this week.

On May 16, the Kuwaiti National Assembly voted 35-23 to give women the right to vote and run for parliament. The assembly attached an addendum that said women voters and those who run for political office must abide by Islamic Sharia law.

The granting of political rights to women marks a turning point in the conservative oil-rich emirate, and it has been greeted with mixed reactions here. Many activists and women's rights supporters were elated. Muna Al-Fuzai, a local Kuwaiti columnist, says she "finally feels like a full human being."

A young Kuwaiti college student, who would only give his first name, Suleiman, says he opposes the decision. "Women aren't ready. When men gather in the diwaniyas [men-only parlors] they talk about politics. But not women. They are not politically aware," he says.

Some Kuwaiti women object as well. According to a young Kuwaiti professional (also only using her given name, Donya), the granting of women's political rights will undermine the power of the country's educated, urban elite. "The Bedouin have more wives. These women will vote on tribal lines and we'll have more tribes in parliament," she says.

Five women have already announced themselves as candidates. Rola Dashti, president of the Kuwaiti Economists Association and political activist; Badriya al-Awda, a local writer; Khadija al-Muhamid; environmentalist Fatima al-Abdali and Emirates University lecturer Maasuma al-Mubarak.

"I believe that today is a historical day for the Kuwaiti woman," says Ms. Dashti. "I believe that today we have achieved a victory, a victory for freedom. We won the battle between freedom and ignorance, terrorism against development, and now the Kuwaiti woman will have a say in parliament."

These five are well-known in Kuwait and liberal in their political outlook. All will likely face stiff opposition from the Islamist political bloc.

To conservatives here, democracy represents a form of modernity that many bitterly oppose. Islamist lawmakers have decried the decision.

"Anyone who supports the passage of this law will bear the sin on Judgment Day," said Islamist member of parliament Dhaifallah Buramia during the pre-vote debate.

The conservative Islamists - who in recent years have backed separate classes for men and women at Kuwait University and the banning of all dancing in public - claim that women's political rights will allow women to mix with men and undermine the country's Islamic purity.

The historic right granted to women in Kuwait is one granted to women in every other Arab country that has the vote, with the notable exception of Saudi Arabia.

Still, Kuwaiti women won't get to exercise their rights immediately. The government Tuesday withdrew a bill which proposed delaying June 2 municipal elections for six months to give women time to register. The first opportunity for women to vote and run for office will be the 2007 parliamentary elections.

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