Women See Few Gains in Kuwait ´Democracy´ (AP) By Tim Sullivan KUWAIT 12/09/02 2:15 AM)
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KUWAIT –– Massoumah al-Mubarak knows the power of democracy in
Kuwait. She has felt its sting all too sharply.
When Kuwait´s emir decreed women should have the vote, the
freewheeling Parliament – a rare symbol of democratic ideals in the
Persian Gulf – used its constitutional powers to overrule him. A week
later legislators rejected women´s suffrage again in a separate bill.
"This is what they are so proud of here," said al-Mubarak, a
professor of international relations and prominent women´s
activist. "They use the tools of democracy to undermine democracy."
Nearly 12 years ago, U.S.-led forces drove Iraqi occupiers from
Kuwait amid promises of political equality in Kuwait, promises that
made it easier to sell Americans on a distant war to protect a tiny,
wealthy autocracy. As U.S. troops mass here for a possible second war
against Iraq, Kuwaiti democracy remains an ideal that is usually
discussed using comparisons.
"Compared to the other countries around us, Kuwait is very
democratic," said Waleed al-Tabtabai, a conservative Muslim
lawmaker. "Saudi Arabia or Qatar, their councils are just veneer.
"In Kuwait, anybody can run and elections are free," he said.
That, however, depends on the definition of "anybody."
Of the 2.3 million people who live in Kuwait, only about 115,000 are
registered voters. Nearly two-thirds of the population are
foreigners, many of whom perform low-status jobs in the oil-rich
Of Kuwait´s 860,000 citizens, the excluded include people under 21
and naturalized citizens of less than 20 years´ standing. Members of
the military and the police also are barred, to keep the forces from
Most conspicuously absent, from polling booths and candidate lists,
"It´s only a democracy of the few," al-Mubarak said.
Comparisons again: Just across the border in Saudi Arabia, women face
employment and social restrictions and aren´t even allowed to drive.
Kuwaiti women are legally protected in the workplace and in
education. They hold key business jobs and a few occupy top
diplomatic and government posts. They can drive too.
Kuwaiti women serve as undersecretaries in the oil and education
ministries, though they cannot rise to the top positions in any
ministry because Cabinet ministers, like lawmakers, must be men.
In many ways, Kuwait has a vibrant democratic culture. Parliament is
allowed to exercise significant authority, though when it gets too
contentious, the ruling family can dissolve it. And unlike many
countries in the region, Kuwait has a vigorous press and political
dissent is common.
But this is also an Islamic nation where tradition runs deep – even
many women believe only men should vote – and where politicians with
tribal ties are powerful.
It is a country largely led by conservative Bedouins whose fathers
and grandfathers left the desert when vast oil reserves were
discovered and glass-walled skyscrapers and Porsche dealerships
started erupting from the sands.
When it comes to governing, many Kuwaitis still believe a woman´s
place is far from Parliament.
"We don´t think its time yet," lawmaker al-Tabtabai said of women´s
suffrage. "As for running for elections, we are against this."
Al-Tabtabai believes Islamic law prohibits women from running a
state, and thinks women should be excluded from political campaigns
to avoid mixing the sexes.
The role of women in Kuwaiti society shifted significantly after
Iraq´s 1991 invasion. Women risked arrest and torture to protest the
occupation, and with the streets too dangerous for many men to leave
home, women were in charge.
After the Iraqis were ousted, Kuwait´s emir, Sheik Jaber Al Ahmed Al
Sabah, returned from exile with praise for his country´s women and
promises of equality.
But in 1999, when he decreed women could vote and run for Parliament,
the legislature overruled him. Attempts to bring about change through
the courts have failed.
"It just doesn´t make sense," said Abdullah al-Naibari, a liberal
lawmaker. "Kuwaiti society is conservative, but we´ve seen that
people accept to work under ladies ... so why can´t they be allowed
But for women´s activists, perhaps the most galling issue is how few
women care about the vote.
"There is a thick wall of customs and traditions and stereotypes that
makes it very hard to get through to them," she said.
Fatima al-Jasser would agree.
The 28-year-old kindergarten teacher believes women here are already
not "giving enough attention to their homes and children."
She also thinks women in Kuwait´s quarrelsome Parliament would only
make things worse.
"Women are emotional," she said, "but men resort to reason."
(© 2002 The Associated Press 12/09/02)
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