Long, winding road for Kuwait women

After legislators and constitutional lawyers battled it out in parliament on Tuesday, Kuwait’s women will have to wait another two weeks to see if they are to be granted partial electoral rights.

Kuwaiti women say they are victims of blatant discrimination

On Monday, 60 MPs in the National Assembly voted 29 in favour of women gaining the right to run and vote in elections for the Municipal Council, while only two voted against.

Yet 29 also abstained, which under Kuwaiti parliamentary law meant that the session was declared without a quorum.

What that meant for the proposed law, however, was left in doubt.

“Three positions emerged,” women’s rights activist and leading Kuwait Economic Society member Rola Dashti told Aljazeera.net.

“Some said that the law had passed, some that it had been suspended and others that it had failed.”

After a day of legal wrangling, eventually an agreement was reached. The next session of the parliament in two week’s time will debate and vote on the law once again.

Official call

Prime Minister Shaikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber Al-Sabah said after Tuesday’s session: “We have resorted, after deliberation, to postpone the topic for two weeks in order to vote on it.”

Meanwhile, the coming days must also see the emir issue an official call for municipal elections, which will then take place two months later.

The lack of a positive decision on women’s voting rights on Tuesday means that women will not qualify to vote this time around, even if the bill granting them such rights passes in two weeks time. Instead, they will have to wait for the following municipal elections in 2009.

A deal was struck after a day ofpolitical wrangling in parliamentA deal was struck after a day ofpolitical wrangling in parliament

A deal was struck after a day of
political wrangling in parliament

However, ”in two weeks time, when the parliament meets again, it will also debate a resolution calling for the municipal elections to be postponed for two months”, Dashti said.

This might mean a last chance for women to vote this year, if the law on voting rights also passes. Many, though, think that parliament will refuse to postpone the balloting.

Instead, “what may happen is that the government may appoint a woman to the Municipal Council this time”, Dashti said.

Of the 16 members of the council, 10 are elected and six appointed.

Conservative opposition

This is not the first time the question of women’s voting rights has come up before the assembly.

“Women have been fighting for this since the 1960s,” activist Shamayl al-Sharikh said.

“Back then, they always said women were not ready. Then, in the 1980s, with the rise of Islamists, they said it was against Islam. Then Iraq invaded, and during the occupation, His Excellence the emir promised that after the war he would restore the parliament and grant women rights. That was in 1990. It’s now 2005.”

“It’s so frustrating. Nothing is easy for Kuwaiti women”

Rola al-Dashti,
Kuwaiti women’s rights activist

Opposition to women’s suffrage amongst parliamentarians has led to the rejection of several Emiri decrees granting women the vote in general elections, the most recent of which was in 1999.

Last month, however, a bill allowing women to run in elections for the Municipal Council passed its first reading. This is the bill that failed to get through today.

Those opposed are often from conservative Islamist or tribal backgrounds. Other MPs fear that while they may support women’s rights, their constituents do not.

Emir decision

Yet proponents say the issue is not about Islamic law, but pure politics. “This has nothing to do with religion,” al-Sharikh said.

Advocates claim almost every Muslim country in the world apart from Kuwait allows women voting rights of some kind, with several major Muslim nations having female political leaders.

Kuwait's Emir Shaikh Jaber is infavour of women's voting rightKuwait’s Emir Shaikh Jaber is infavour of women’s voting right

Kuwait’s Emir Shaikh Jaber is in
favour of women’s voting right

Kuwait’s Islamic Affairs Ministry has also ruled that in the event of a dispute on the issue, the final word should rest with the emir, Shaikh Jaber al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, who is in favour of women voting.

Women’s rights activists are also furious that Monday’s debate was tied to a demand from conservatives for a pay rise for public employees and the cancelling of outstanding utilities debts.

“It’s blackmail,” al-Dashti said. “They want the government to trade women’s political rights in return for them dropping this very expensive wage bill.”

The Kuwaiti cabinet estimates the cost of passing the salary raise and writing off the utilities debts as over $1 billion a year.

Eye on assembly

Currently, only adult male Kuwaiti citizens are eligible to vote in general elections. This means only around 15% of the population have balloting rights for the 50-seat National Assembly, whose MPs are supplemented by 15 cabinet members.

Now, all eyes are back on the National Assembly, which looks set to be the scene once again of a furious debate in two weeks’ time.

“I feel it is a step forward,” Dashti said. “Had the bill failed, it would have had a very big impact on our rights. But at least there is still hope.”

Many hope too that the passing of municipal electoral rights will be a stepping stone to full electoral rights in time for the next national elections, scheduled for 2007.

Source: Al Jazeera

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