July Issue 2005
Vote of Confidence
Last month, the Middle East’s oldest democracy and most liberal state successfully overcame its worst political controversy over voting rights for female citizens. Kuwaiti lawmakers have finally granted women full political rights, including the right to vote and run for office in local and parliamentary elections. Women will, for the first time, be allowed to vote in the legislative elections to be held in July 2007.
Thirty-five lawmakers in an all-male parliament voted in favor of granting women full political rights, while 23 voted against, with one abstention. “It has been 20 years, but at last we have secured our rights,” says Lulua al-Mulla, general secretary of Kuwait’s Social Cultural Women’s Society. Moreover, less than a month after the passage of this historic law Kuwaitis appointed their first female cabinet member, Massouma al-Mubarak, thereby marking another landmark feat in the women’s struggle for equality.
Mubarak, a columnist and political science professor at Kuwait University, has replaced Sheikh Ahmad al-Abdullah al-Sabah as planning minister and minister of state for administrative development affairs. Her appointment makes Kuwait the third country in the Gulf region to have a female cabinet member.
On June 6, two engineers, Sheikha Fatima, a member of the royal family, and Fawzia al-Bahr, were made members of the 16-person municipal council, which is responsible for city planning, public health, and property issues, and monitors restaurants and construction. “I never dreamed of being a member in the council. I am very proud to be the first Kuwaiti woman to be appointed to this council,” Fatima told Newsline. “The council is technical and deals with planning matters but still, I will try to promote the cause of Kuwaiti women wherever possible.”
Tribal and hardline Islamist legislators have staunchly opposed the granting of political rights to women, saying that if female suffrage was introduced, women would neglect their families, which would disentegrate, and children would stray from Islamic teachings.
Islamists accuse the ruling party of supporting female franchise rights because of western (read American) pressure, a notion rejected by the State Department. Tribals and hardline Islamists believe that granting women the vote runs against Islamic precepts, while liberals argue that this is mere tradition and has nothing to do with religion.
On the day of the vote, when parliament met to discuss the failed legislation, Kuwaiti cabinet members unexpectedly proposed a complete amendment of the election law, using the “order of urgency” to push the legislation through in one session. Islamist members disputed the move, but lawmakers succeeded in removing the word “men” from Article 1 of the election law.
In order to appease Islamist members of the government, a clause in the law stipulates that women must abide by the rules of Islam when voting or running for office. Though the exact meaning of that clause was not made clear, some observers said it could mean that there would be separate polling stations for men and women.
After the proposed amendments were introduced in the bill, 10 Islamist MPs withdrew their motion to refer the legislation to the constitutional court, saying they would give parliament a chance to debate the bill. Islamist MP Naser al-Sane said ,”the issue was revised, we realised that the reason for not allowing women to vote was linked more to tradition than Islamic shariah, so we decided to support the vote and set some restrictions,” he said. The decision to give voting rights to women came amid noisy street rallies by female activists, who were also permitted to watch the debate, though the Parliament’s public gallery was cleared after some activists applauded a speech by one MP in support of their cause.
Some 400 to 600 women took part in a protest demonstration, where they were joined by some men. Carrying placards reading: “Women’s rights now,” and “Islamic law does not contain anything against women’s rights,”some of the women were completely covered, but many were dressed in the pale blue colour that symbolises the struggle of women in Kuwait. The demonstrators were surrounded by a heavy police contingent. The Islamists also took to the streets to oppose the bill.
Men and women are nominally granted equal rights under Kuwait’s constitution. However, the 1962 election law only granted the right to vote to men over 21 who are not members of the police or military. Kuwait became the first Gulf state to have a constitution and parliamentary democracy in 1962, and though they have reached high positions in education, oil, and the diplomatic corps, women were barred from participating in political life. While only 15 per cent of Kuwait’s 950,000-plus citizens were previously eligible to vote, the figure has now risen to nearly 40 per cent. In the Middle East today, women can vote and be elected in Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Palestinian territories, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Yemen, Morocco, Tunis, Algeria, Iran and now, Kuwait.
While there are no elections in Syria (which holds presidential referendums in which women can vote), UAE, Libya, Saudi Arabia are the only countries in the region where women cannot actively participate in the electoral process. The real wonder here is the monarch’s commitment to female voting rights while the tribal and hardline Islamist camp has been forcing the national assembly to term decrees of the otherwise all-powerful emir as ‘unconstitutional.’
Prior to the landmark legislation, the pro-women’s rights emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmad al-Jabir al-Sabah, issued dozens of decrees between the dissolution of parliament in May till today, which MPs charge as ‘unlawful.’
Constitutionally speaking, the government can re-submit the draft law for women to vote within the next three parliamentary terms. To pass, the bill requires a simple majority of the 49 elected MPs and the 16 ministers who are entitled to vote. One of the ministers is an elected deputy.
Kuwaiti women, more educated and ambitious than their Gulf Arab counterparts, question the fact that they lag behind men in their political rights in the region’s only constitutional monarchy. In the capital of the richest Arab state, beautiful young women sashay in designer jeans, high heeed shoes and skirts, alongside females covered from head to foot, even when behind the wheel of a US-made SUV. Women in Kuwait can mingle freely on the street, in the workplace without being any cause for concern.
While opponents stage near-daily protests, the government of this newly ‘liberated’ Kuwait has been running a rare campaign on state-run television and radio to win public support for the female franchise bill.
Kuwait’s ruling family, a substantial number of whom are government ministers, are Western-educated, enlightened, and generally progressive. The 50-seat parliament is the most active in the Gulf; its press the freest in the region, and its women, who account for 34 per cent of the labor force and two thirds of the bachelor degree-holders in the country, are the most economically active in the Arab world. Perhaps this is why the legal exclusion of women from voting and holding political office was on the mind of every politician, journalist and activist that Newsline spoke to.
Diplomats confirm external pressure over the oil-rich tiny Arab state for female franchise rights, a move which would help speed up the democratisation process in the country.
“Ninety per cent of the Kuwaiti women reject political rights because they know it is against their religion,” said Daifallah Buramya, the lawmaker who termed the approval of the bill a ‘big shame.’ The leader of the Islamic Salaf Alliance, Khaled al-Issa, criticised liberals and what he branded ‘agents of some foreign embassies,’ who tried to distance Muslims from their religion by enforcing so-called ‘western’ ideas of women’s rights. “The constitution must represent the will of the Kuwaiti people to change the political course we have chosen,” said Issa in a protest rally. The rich, motivated Kuwaiti Islamists have been using SMS text messages in their campaign against the female franchise bill. However, Kuwait’s Islamist Ummah Party announced its total backing for women’s full political rights, becoming the first Sunni Muslim group in the Gulf to support women’s suffrage. Many observers note that Kuwait is also eager to break away from its tribal image and show the outside world that it can modernise.