Still waiting

The recent elections in Kuwait were hailed as a watershed for women’s rights in the region, with female candidates allowed to compete for the first time. So how big a blow to the campaign for equality was the fact that none got elected? Massoud A. Derhally reports.

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By  Massoud A. Derhally Published  July 16, 2006

|~|kuwait-body.jpg|~|Despite heavy turnout women failed to pick up any seats after voting.|~|The June 29 elections in Kuwait were a huge turning point, with women being allowed to stand. But it was also a monumental jolt, at least to the 28 women running, that none within their fold managed to secure a place in parliament. The big bombshell in the elections was the success of the opposition, which consists of Islamists, liberals and nationalists, that was able to muster a significant majority in parliament by securing 33 out of the 50 seats. As Arabian Business went to press, the new cabinet had been announced with minimal changes, raising the spectre of a showdown with conservative legislators in the future. The conservative Islamists, who increased their seats to 18, are unlikely to budge on the issue of electoral reform. Arguments over the issue had originally led to a deadlock in parliament, and had prompted Emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah to dissolve parliament and hold the elections a year early. “It was an earthquake and a major shift,” says Abdullah Al-Shayji, a professor of political science at the University of Kuwait, in reference to the re-election of 29 MPs, as well as four others that had lost their seats in 2003. “The Islamists came out on top. The Shiites changed the guard completely and are now opposition rather than pro-government MPs.” In truth, few in Kuwait expected women to be elected to parliament. There were a number of hurdles, notwithstanding the fact that female candidates only had a month to campaign before the country went to the polls. There was also a trend towards the re-election of the incumbent 29 MPs. That was an act of defiance against the government and a rebuttal to the dissolution of parliament. But there was also the innate view in Kuwaiti society, according to Al-Shayji, that women are still novices when it comes to politics. “They don’t have the experience, they don’t have the know-how, and they don’t have what it takes to be politicians or to be involved in politics, and especially legislating,” he says. “There is a lot of argument about the competence of women when it comes to politics in this part of the world.” Even more ominous was the religious fervour that seeped into the campaign process, in the form of a fatwa or edict issued by Islamists against women running as candidates. That caused many people to decide against voting for women candidates. But perhaps the biggest disappointment was the decision of major political groups, in addition to liberals and Islamists, not to sponsor, support or endorse any of the women that were running in the elections, according to Al-Shayji. “That was a big let down for the women's movement,” he says, adding: “Women's groups and associations did not support women candidates, but the 29 candidates running for re-election.” Nadia Bakhurji, a Saudi women’s activist and businesswoman, is dismayed by the results of the elections. “The women not getting seats in the parliament is a big surprise to us, because if anybody should be leading in this area, we would have thought it would have been the Kuwaiti women because they have been so active over the years,” she says. “Kuwaiti women are very educated, and very progressive.” Mary Ann Tetreault, a professor of international affairs at Trinity University who has covered Kuwait, agrees. “Kuwait is running to get back at the head of the line on women’s rights and status, a position it lost as the other non-Saudi Gulf States enfranchised women and men equally. Now that women are voting and running in Kuwait, they still have a long way to go, but they have gone back to being trendsetters,” she explains. “The most significant aspect of the event vis-à-vis women’s rights is that women were so obviously ready to participate, and many have shown themselves to be just as (or more) politically savvy than their spouses. From a wider perspective, the election was precipitated by citizen action in which young women and men participated together in focusing criticism on government corruption. Women throughout the campaign were full of questions and comments about corruption and how they expected it to stop,” says Tetreault. Whilst the inclusion of women in the political process is certainly a positive step in the transformation of the country, the outcome of the elections has highlighted the pressing challenges Kuwait still faces. These include tribalism, sectarianism, and manipulation of the electoral process through what at times has been blatant vote-buying. But these issues not only illustrate that the democratisation of Kuwait will be a gradual and at times cumbersome process, they also will have been noted by citizens of other Gulf states that will have been watching their neighbour avidly during the electoral process. The road to emancipation for Kuwaiti women could be a long one, given the make up of the new parliament and the current electoral system, which predominantly favours tribal and sectarian allegiances. It was ironic that Islamist candidates had tried to court women voters during the run up to the elections. But it was equally bemusing that the majority of Kuwaiti women voted for conservatives, a year after being granted suffrage. “Looking at the women’s ballots, it seems that women have helped Islamist MPs to clinch the first place in their constituency,” Al-Shayji. “They vote along the same lines as their tribal leaders, and because of the influence of the Islamist organisations that are well organised.” Kuwaiti women make up 57% of the country’s 340,000 eligible voters. For three districts, their votes made the difference between second or third place candidates and the top spot. The ascent of the Islamists means the conservative bloc in parliament will continue to try and marginalise women, and stand in their way when it comes to attaining equal status in parliament. “I hear, and I see and understand from what is going on that they [Islamists] do [stand in the way] and that is very disappointing to me,” says Bakhurji. “The way I was educated about Islam and the way I was educated about the history of Islam is a completely different and conflicting story.” Bakhurji believes the way to overcome the conservative elements in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf is through education. “We need to educate these people and we need to educate women about what their rights are Islamically. It’s not about a modern movement. In history, women were asked for their opinion in the days of the Prophet, so why aren’t they asked now? Why shouldn’t they have an active role and why should a woman be judged as a creature, instead of a human being with abilities and rights? Unfortunately there has been a huge vacuum when it comes to the true Islamic attitude to women and the imposed Islamic attitude towards women. This is not the real Islam. This fundamentalist movement has been so entrenched in many different parts of the world,” says an incensed Bakhurji. Bakhurji points to her own personal experience as testimony to what she says is a changing and slowly maturing tide of men that want to see women join them on an equal footing in Arab society. “When I won my seat on the Saudi Council of Engineers in December 2005, men voted me in, and there are minimal female members in the organisation. Why did they vote for me? [Because] they want to see a woman. The Saudi Council of Engineers is an important organisation and part of society, and it will have an impact on the engineering profession and the fact that there is now a woman on board will open a lot of doors for a lot of other women,” says Bakhurji. “Ironically, the first women to get anywhere politically will be in Saudi Arabia. Surprising as it sounds, we have a certain sector in society that is serious about women being involved in the decision making process, the economy and many areas.” In June 2010, Kuwait will hold its next round of parliamentary elections. Should the present system carry on unchanged, women will stand little chance of realising their dream, say observers. The way forward may be through a quota system, which would enable women to overcome the prejudices of society. “If they are not given the quota system, as a list of candidates or as a block, they are not going to make it even 10 years from now. It’s a very hostile atmosphere they are working under and if the circumstances do not change, there is no hope for them to make it,” says Al-Shayji. Bakhurji has called for such a quota system in Saudi Arabia, and believes it is the only meaningful mechanism that could also allow women to play an integral part in the decision making process. “It is one of the things that I pushed for in 2004, when I put my name forward for the Saudi municipal council. One of the things that I and my colleagues wanted was a quota, especially in the first few years to get representation,” she says. “It's not just about men and women, there is a lot of politics in these elections, parties and lobbying. The stronger you are, the more powerful and influential you are, and the more votes you can get.” N. Janardhan, a political analyst at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai, believes a quota system is likely to be the next step for the Gulf States, given the winds of change elsewhere blowing through the Arab world. “It is another step forward in the road to empowering women and this is what furthering democracy really means. That would be the next step that people may demand, and maybe that’s also the only way that women may actually get elected in the future,” he says. But to have a quota system, for instance, in Kuwait, the constitution will need to be amended, and that is unlikely to take place at present. Ultimately, time alone will tell how countries forge ahead with democratic reform. In November, Bahrain will hold its parliamentary elections. The last time the kingdom did so, like in Kuwait, no women were elected. “It will take a while before women are actually considered serious contenders in this part of the world. Any step forward is actually constructive. But before people begin to internalise that factor and see this as meaningful, it will take some time. The very fact that they are making an effort to innovate the role that women play in the region is constructive. You wouldn’t have imagined having as many women as you have now in the ministries,” says Janardhan. Bahrain, which has many similarities with Kuwait, now has its first female judge and ambassador. Three other GCC states have women ministers. “These are steps that will obviously improve their stock for the future. As more and more women assume public posts, people also will gain confidence,” says Janardhan. Though she agrees that the elections in Kuwait are a step forward, Bakhurji does pose a question about the meaning of the final outcome. “Are we really ready for democracy?” she asks. And then she quickly adds, “I wish we were. But from the outcome in Kuwait it worries me that maybe we are not. We still don’t have the democratic system and culture in our thinking. Democracy means the way the voting should be done is fair and square, and more people should be voting and have the right to choose their leader.” Not surprisingly, Bakhurji holds her own gender to account as well. “There are a large percentage of women who do follow the absolute Islamists, for various reasons. Some of them actually believe that we as women should be in the back seat, that we should only focus on our reproductive role and that we shouldn’t be fighting for our rights. The problem is that these women sometimes block women from moving forward. Sometimes it’s not the men; it’s the women. But with time, a drop of water will break a rock.” ||**||

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