Mixed progress for Gulf Arab women

Women in the conservative Gulf mark this year's International Women's Day with steady progress towards empowerment as more occupy high official posts, but in Saudi Arabia they still cannot get behind the wheel.

    Maasuma al-Mubarak is the first female Kuwaiti minister

    In a historic change in oil-rich Kuwait, women were granted full political rights including voting and running for seats in  parliament in May 2005, after four decades of marginalisation.

    The subsequent appointment of a leading women rights activist, Maasuma al-Mubarak, as the first female minister who became an ex-officio member of parliament, served as the icing on the cake.

    Rula Dashti, a Kuwaiti activist, said: "This is a historical achievement after 35 years of struggle. It is the first mile in the women's journey to take part in the  political process."

    "God willing, women will be voted into the parliament in 2007  (general elections) ... Our surveys show that some 70% of men and women are ready to vote for women," Dashti, who heads the Kuwait  Economic Society, told AFP.

    But women's march towards equality in conservative Kuwait has not been smooth as discontent have been voiced from certain quarters.

    When Mubarak began to read the oath in parliament, a number of tribal MPs started screaming and banging on their desks.

    She looked unperturbed.

    Saudi 'dialogue'

    Meanwhile, across Kuwait's southern borders, the process of empowering Saudi women continues to stutter despite warm "good luck" wishes from the new ruler, King Abdullah.

    Addressing women who took part in the fifth round of a "national dialogue" in December, Abdullah, however, coupled his wishes with a call to be patient and "demand what is possible".

    Lubna al-Qassimi is in charge of
    the UAE's economy portfolio

    Women were banned from participating in the kingdom's landmark municipal polls in 2005, but in professional bodies, they seem to be making headway.
    In November, two businesswomen swept to a surprise win in  the chamber of commerce elections in the Red Sea city of Jedda, in the first polls in which women were allowed to stand as candidates.

    A female engineer in December also elbowed her way into the  board of the kingdom's syndicate.

    But despite claims by Iyad Madani, the information minister, in front of a largely foreign audience during the Jedda Economic Forum in February that women can legally apply for a driving licence, a 1991 religious edict keeps women in the back seat.

    Society's shoulders

    Hatoon al-Fassi, a women rights activist, said: "There is a feeling that the leadership is trying to shirk its  responsibilities by unloading them on society's shoulders."

    She was referring to official claims that the law does not ban women from driving.
    "As the regime in Saudi Arabia is not based on public participation, change has to come from above," the lecturer at King Saud University in Riyadh told AFP.

    Saudi women who adhere to Islamic regulations by covering up and dressing modestly, still cannot travel without a written permission from a male guardian.

    "We have been demanding to establish a supreme council for  women, linked directly to the king. An (official) body like this would be beneficial," al-Fassi said.
    Public offices

    In other Gulf countries, women are more fortunate.

    They can wander around in Western-style clothing, while it is common to see veiled and non-veiled women driving sports cars or serving at banks' counters.

    They are increasingly present in public offices too.

    The United Arab Emirates appointed a second woman minister in February's cabinet reshuffle.

    Saudi women are not allowed to

    Mariam al-Rumi joined the cabinet as a social affairs minister, while Lubna al-Qassimi, first female minister in the country's history, remained in charge of the economy portfolio.

    Oman's government continues to have three female members - the third was appointed in October 2004.

    Meanwhile, two female members of the elected Majlis al-Shura (Consultative Council) still hold on to their seats in the 83-strong body.


    Qatar has one woman in the cabinet, and several other women have been appointed to key posts in the past years in the gas-rich state, whose indigenous population is estimated at about 150,000 only.

    In Bahrain, a second woman joined the cabinet in January 2005.

    But whether Bahraini women will enter the island kingdom's parliament remains to be seen in this year's elections after failing in 2002 polls, the first since the parliament was  dissolved in 1975.



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