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Women See Few Gains in Kuwait ´Democracy´ (AP) By Tim Sullivan KUWAIT 12/09/02 2:15 AM)Source: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A29006-2002Dec9.html AP} ASSOCIATED PRESS AP} ASSOCIATED PRESS Articles-Index-TopPublishers-Index-Top
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 nation.

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 being politicized.

Most conspicuously absent, from polling booths and candidate lists, are women.

"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 to vote?"

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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