Votes for Kuwaiti women – from paradox to potential paradox

The parliament of Kuwait voted this week to give the country’s women full suffrage, meaning they will be able to vote and stand for election. The decision marks the end of a long battle for female voting rights in the country and of the remarkable paradox whereby these rights were denied them in one of the most liberal of the Gulf states.

A proposal to give women the vote in Kuwait was narrowly defeated just two weeks ago, and it only concerned the right to vote in municipal elections. The proposal adopted on Monday this week goes much further than that, giving women the vote in all elections, including those for parliament, where women will also be admitted as elected representatives.

It was the latter aspect which was particularly a thorn in the side to certain conservative Muslims. Some of them could live with women having the right to vote, but their election to parliament – and hence the possibility of them assuming positions of power – went too far. They regard this as contrary to Islamic Sharia law. The prophet Muhammad was even quoted as part of the argument against the proposal: “A nation that appoints a woman as its ruler shall never prosper.”

Exerting pressure
So, this raises the question of how such a major turnaround was possible within the short space of two weeks and, moreover, how an even more radical proposal was passed than the one first rejected? It had everything to do with the massive pressure exerted on the plan’s opponents by the Kuwaiti government. In addition, the government more or less made a considerable salary increase for government and private sector employees dependent on the proposal being approved. Fear of the voters’ reaction if this popular measure had not been passed no doubt swayed some members of parliament.

With the introduction of full female suffrage, the Emir of Kuwait has fulfilled a long-standing promise made after the invasion of his country by Iraq in 1990. He did so in appreciation for the part women had played in resisting the foreign occupation. In 1999, however, a decree to that effect was blocked by parliament, since which time the issue has remained a political bone of contention between three movements inside the assembly.

These movements are the more secular, liberal wing, which enjoys most support among the country’s business and commercial class, the Islamic fundamentalists, who are gaining in influence in Kuwait, and finally the traditional Bedouin tribes, who are a key factor in Kuwait. This Bedouin ‘bloc’ was also opposed to female suffrage, not so much on religious grounds, but more because this community remains a highly conservative one in social terms. It was the combination of these conservative Bedouins and Muslim fundamentalists that had managed to block female suffrage in the past. That opposition has now been conquered, thereby ending a remarkable paradox in the oil-rich nation.

Kuwait was one of the first nations in the Gulf to introduce a parliament; a body which has also taken its role seriously, as evidenced by the real confrontations it has had with the Emir and his government on a number of occasions. Kuwait also has a reasonably free press. In short, this country is more liberal and progressive than the other Gulf States. It is also more progressive than nations such as Saudi Arabia, where no one – male or female – had the vote until six months ago, and even then it was only granted to men for the purpose of electing a mere 50 percent of the seats on local councils.

By introducing full female suffrage Kuwait has moved one step closer to becoming a true democracy, although the Emir and his family still retain the reins of power. However, the Muslim fundamentalists are not about to throw in the proverbial towel. One of their number has already claimed that, when women do get their first opportunity to vote, a great number of them will also back the conservative Muslim groups. If his prediction proves to be correct, Kuwait will have produced yet another remarkable paradox.

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Votes for Kuwaiti women – from paradox to potential paradox
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