Unveiled, unmarried, and unafraid, Ayesha Al-Reshaid is determined to break the social and political taboos against women in Kuwait. But simply exercising her newly won right to vote in national elections was not enough for this 40-something businesswoman and journalist.
Instead, she has made a brash bid for a parliamentary seat in the Islamist-controlled district of Keifan, 10 minutes from downtown Kuwait City. Dominated by former member of parliament (MP) Waleed Tabtabae – infamous for his opposition to women's rights, public dancing, and women wearing shorts during sports matches – Keifan is a conservative stronghold where most of the women wear the body-length abaya, hijab (head scarf), and the face-covering niqab.
Armed with a broad winning smile, Ms. Reshaid – one of 28 female candidates among 253 hopefuls – says that she chose to take on the Islamists directly because "I'm very competitive and this area [Keifan] is very difficult. If I succeed, then that success will be that much more special."
While women's prospects for winning seats are considered remote, many observers have already hailed the parliamentary elections as a success because they mark the first time Kuwaiti women have taken part – as voters and candidates – in a national election. Now, Saudi Arabia is the only Middle Eastern country that holds national elections but doesn't allow women to vote.
Kuwaiti women won the right to universal suffrage in May 2005, and voted for the first time in municipal elections in April. The local polls were widely considered to be a test case for parliamentary elections in 2007. But after a row in parliament this spring over the number of electoral districts, Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah dissolved the parliament and called for new elections June 29. Suddenly, women – who account for 57 percent of Kuwait's 340,000 voters – were being courted by would-be MPs, even conservative Islamists opposed to universal suffrage.
Reshaid jumped at the chance. She's been actively campaigning ever since women's rights were approved by parliament. And she was the first woman to visit diwaniyas, the traditional male-only salons where Kuwaitis talk politics.
But Reshaid has ruffled more than a few feathers with her aggressive tactics and open personality. She has received death threats warning her to stay out of the diwaniyas and to quit the race "or else." She has been called everything from a "mouse" – a slur – to words mothers wouldn't want their children to hear. After two men were seen in early June driving around Keifan tearing down her posters, cutting her photo out of them and writing crude slurs on them, Reshaid filed a complaint with local police.
"This is an act of terror.... I believe they were sent by certain people to force me to withdraw. But I will continue in the race and I will not back down," Reshaid told reporters a day after the incident.
She admits to taking extra security precautions but denies that she is scared. She says the Islamists are more talk than action. "They are cowards. They won't do anything violent in the end." And, she says, "People in Keifan want change."
Reshaid knows she's facing an uphill battle. To give herself an added advantage, she's been campaigning ever since women's rights were approved by parliament. She is also targeting women voters by going after the issue closest to their hearts: equality. Kuwaiti women take second place to Kuwaiti men when it comes to marriage and housing. The children of a Kuwaiti woman married to a non-Kuwaiti are not Kuwaiti citizens, for instance. When a Kuwaiti woman does marry a Kuwaiti, the government gives preferential loans to the husband for a home. A Kuwaiti woman married or not, gets no such help.
Reshaid's supporters believe that she will help change this. "Women candidates who reach parliament will make sure that women get their rights," says a middle-aged Kuwaiti woman who would only give her name as Umm Ahmed. Sitting in Reshaid's campaign headquarters, Umm Ahmed laughed and joked with dozens of other women, most of them wearing the black abaya and all of them eager to see a woman in the National Assembly.
"If we have a woman MP, we can go to her house and speak to her openly," Umm Ahmed explains. The freedom to talk with a member of parliament alone and openly has long been denied most Kuwaiti women. Being alone with a man can damage a woman's reputation, a dangerous situation for some in a country where tribal traditions still carry much weight and women are sometimes killed for dishonoring the family.
Despite the enthusiasm of Reshaid and her supporters, few see a woman actually winning a seat, and even fewer see Reshaid as likely to be successful.
Not one woman candidate is among the list of predicted winners published by the liberal Arabic daily Al-Qabas. Former tourism czar Nabeela Al-Anjari comes in third, and women's rights activist and economist Rola Dashti comes in fourth for the 10th electoral district, Adailiya. Each of the country's 25 districts elects two MPs to fill the 50-seat parliament.
Mobs of women voters flocked to polling stations Thursday. Open from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m., with results expected in the early hours of Friday morning, the polls are divided by gender, with some stations designated female only.
Whether any female candidate garners enough votes to take a seat next to her male peers in the new parliament remains an open question.
"Will women make it into parliament? I hope so, inshallah, [God willing] because Kuwaiti women are educated and capable," says Mariam, a young woman sporting jeans and a blue jean jacket. But she doesn't think it's likely that Reshaid or any other women will make it this time. "Next time, maybe they'll have a chance."
• Material from wire services was used in this report.