Breaking down barriers

Rola Dashti has been leading the struggle for women’s rights in Kuwait for 15 years. As she tells Massoud A. Derhally, she may finally be on the verge of success.

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By  Massoud A. Derhally Published  May 8, 2005

Breaking down barriers|~|DETERMINED-200.jpg|~|DETERMINED: Dashti says women in Kuwait should be part of the decision-making process.|~|When Kuwait’s parliament signalled last month that it was backing the right of Kuwaiti women to run in municipal elections and vote for the first time, Rola Dashti was elated. The journey had been a tumultuous one for Kuwaiti women. After being sidelined by the emergence of Islamist and tribal legislators, who have dominated parliament since it was reinstated by a ruling from Emir Sheikh Jaber Al Ahmed Al Sabah after the country’s liberation in 1991, their struggle has been led by women like Dashti. Dashti began the push for suffrage upon her return to Kuwait after completing a PhD in the US in 1992. “Women’s issues and the prisoners of war (PoWs) were at the top of my agenda,” says Dashti, adding that as a Kuwait citizen she felt she had to engage civil society and carry out her civil service duties. It was the feeling that Kuwaiti women were not on an equal footing with men on various levels that galvanised Dashti into action. “I felt I can’t be a citizen of a nation, which I love, but can’t have a say, that decisions are made and I’m not part of the decision-making process. It doesn’t click, that there are those who are not close to the qualifications of [some] women, but have the right to voice their opinion,” says Dashti. “I felt this wasn’t just… very discriminatory; that this isn’t democracy and that this would have a very negative impact on the future of Kuwait,” she adds. The 40-year-old economist began organising workshops, seminars and engaging the media. But Dashti and other Kuwaiti women didn’t stop there. They wanted to bring about a paradigm shift in Kuwaiti society, and realised to orchestrate real change they would need existing laws to change also. There seemed to be some hope when in May 1999, when the Emir issued a royal decree stating that women should be allowed to vote and run for political office. But the bill was subsequently shot down by parliament. “You don’t have riots, civil disobedience or people getting killed or jailed in Kuwait as they try to get their rights, so the other route was that other women and myself take our case to the court,” says Dashti. “So we went … and applied to the courts to contest the election law. This was a big thing in Kuwait because my case was the first to reach the constitutional court.” Many of the cases brought by Dashti’s colleagues were struck down because of legal technicalities, but her case was successful in 2000. Now, the fact that many beyond the fringes of Kuwaiti society are listening to her is making some conservatives and Islamists nervous. “Everybody started to think about what would happen … I got praised by so many people, but at the same time I got attacked by so many,” says Dashti. Some even accused Dashti of trying to destroy Kuwaiti society; maintaining that if the courts ruled that the election law in its existing form was unconstitutional then all previous laws might be judged the same way. “This got me concerned because my intention is not to destroy the country, but to be part of the development of the nation,” says Dashti. “Then I had to go and ask if this were true… and the answer was no. The ruling would be effective from the day of the ruling. That put me at ease.” Though she doesn’t feel her life is threatened, the unrelenting women’s rights activist is fully aware of the accusations being waged against her by opponents. Some have said she should be jailed, that she and other vocal Kuwaiti women are traitors and that she is a Westerner aiming to destroy the country. Breaking down barriers is never an easy thing, but the half-Lebanese Dashti believes there is no way but to move forward towards full-fledged rights for Kuwaiti women, as laid out in the 1961 constitution. She says that Islamist, tribal and conservative legislators will have to accept the winds of change in the country, but they are scared. “If women get empowered it means they will ask for their rights and they will know more about their rights. And they will understand whenever there is discrimination it is because of law and realise they have the power to change laws. It means they [the Islamists and conservatives] will have to address women’s issues that they don’t want to address,” explains Dashti. The chauvinism that permeates most Arab societies is very much prevalent in Kuwait. Its main proponents are the Islamists and tribal legislators who make up the all-male parliament, says Dashti. “No-one wants to address issues in terms of family laws where it affects women in terms of divorce, marriage, alimony, and child custody. They don’t want to discuss the issue of women’s employment at a time when job creation is limited in the nation,” she says. “They don’t want to discuss housing rights of women, divorced women, widowed women, single women — they don’t want to discuss these issues. They just want women to go back and bring up children and to cook for them.” On April 19, however, there seemed to be light at the end of the tunnel for Dashti when lawmakers approved a bill that would pave the way for women to run and vote in municipal elections. She was over the moon, but adds that the achievement came at a hefty price. “Parliamentarians are bargaining with the government on voting for this, but in return they want huge pay increases … it’s a huge cost,” says Dashti. She adds, cynically: “You don’t debate to approve one national development and hit the government and the country with a very huge bill. This is why women’s issues became so politicised. I’m not happy we are used to that level of bargaining.” The issue now, says Dashti, is whether women will have enough time to run for the municipal elections, or wait for the second-term election in 2009. “[If the municipal election law is passed,] we will see a lot of women registering as voters and our campaign [will aim] to have a high voter registration for women,” she says. Asked if she would run for a seat in parliament, Dashti says: “Yes I will run for parliament and employment and youth issues [will be] on the top of my agenda.” An ecstatic Dashti was photographed with Kuwaiti prime minister Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah the day the bill was approved in the first round of voting in parliament. “He congratulated us and I mentioned that it’s the first round. We want the ultimate goal; we want to be in parliament,” she says. “He promised he would be appointing a woman in the municipality. My most important issue was that we want to move forward, we want to have full democracy in Kuwait and we want to deepen the democracy.” But then barely a week later, the bill that would have paved the way for Kuwait women to run and vote in municipal elections was shot down in the second round of voting. “If you come to Kuwait there is a huge sand storm, no-one can see anything. ‘This is God saying he’s not happy with what’s happening’,” reacted Dashti when asked what she thought of the bill’s failure. “I have to be optimistic. I now know that we are not going to be part of the 2005 municipal elections, but there is a big indication we will take part in the elections in 2009. Looking at it from a positive side this gives us enough time to mobilise women to register and enough time to campaign. We are talking about deepening democracy, it's not a snap shot it’s a process; once it starts we will continue from it.” Speaking to reporters after the vote, the prime minister Sheikh Sabah indicated that the bill could have another chance shortly: “I am confident that women will be granted their rights. We have resorted, after deliberation, to postpone the topic for two weeks in order to vote on it.” Dashti, who chairs the Kuwait Economic Society, says much of what propels her to do what she does today stems from an influential mother that emphasised the education of her children. Dashti’s brothers, who are university advisers, have been very supportive of her, she adds. When asked what she thought would check fundamentalists in parliament, she briskly answers: “Women’s persistence.” She likens the attitude of Islamists to that of Arab governments. “The ruling authorities in the Arab world look at their citizens like servants at their disposal, that they own you and do favours for you. It’s the same thing with the Islamists — if they give us anything they are doing us a favour. This is despite them saying we respect you, that women are honoured. They don’t walk the talk.” She adds: “We are at a crossroads today. The issue of women’s political rights isn’t about a woman and a man in Kuwaiti society. The issue today is Kuwait’s future, an issue of freedom against fundamentalism. It is an issue that also concerns the rest of the Arab world, because we are speaking about freedom versus extremism.” “What will determine [the outcome of] all of these issues in Kuwait will be the political rights of women; will women be allowed to participate or will the role of women be to stay at home? [Will we see] the freezing out of half the population and the further marginalisation of it? This is the real struggle; it’s no longer an issue of waiting for our rights, it’s an issue of not wanting my country to deteriorate.” ||**||

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