The poll was called after Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad Al Sabah, the amir, dissolved parliament last month following a standoff between the government and opposition over electoral reforms.
The opposition accuses the government, a close US ally, of trying to turn parliament into a rubber-stamp assembly. But the government says it is committed to reform.
The opposition is a loose alliance of 29 pro-reform former parliamentarians and Islamist and liberal groupings, tolerated in a country that bans parties.
Right to vote
Parliament passed a law in May 2005 giving women the right to vote and stand as candidates in elections for the 50-seat National Assembly.
More than 250 candidates are standing, including 28 women determined to make headway despite daunting odds against any female candidate beating seasoned male opponents, many of them former parliamentarians seeking re-election.
Women queue at a polling station
Fatima al-Abdali, a US-educated female candidate, said: “The participation of women in the elections makes this a historic day for Kuwait.
“The success of any woman will be a victory for all Kuwaiti, Gulf and Arab women.”
Many experts say voting by conservative groups such as Islamists and powerful tribes will hurt the chances of women candidates. But female candidates themselves believe one or two of them could win since women make up 57% of the 340,000 eligible voters.
Candidate Nabila al-Anjari, 50, told Reuters outside a polling station in her Jabriya constituency: “I hope all Kuwait women go out and vote and each woman has to give her vote to another woman.”
Al-Anbaa daily reported: “Today’s parliamentary elections are different and will enter Kuwait’s political history; Kuwait women will practice their right to run and vote.”
Men and women voted in separate polling stations across the conservative Gulf country as some members of the former parliament, who had voted against female suffrage, had demanded.
“Practice your right, let your voice be heard… Belong, vote, take part in the 2006 election,” said billboards across Kuwait City sponsored by a women’s group, urging women to vote.
But most experts see only a small chance of success for female candidates given their political inexperience, tough competition from male candidates with established voter bases and the limited time they had to prepare campaigns.
The opposition, labelling the poll as a “battle of good and evil”, have also accused some cabinet ministers and ruling family members of sponsoring corrupt practices such as vote-buying. The government dismisses the charge.