Sunday, June 03, 2007

THREE FEMALE HISTORICAL REPRESENTATIVES DISCUSS RECORD OF WOMEN’S SUFFRAGE IN KUWAIT AT AWARE CENTER

At the end of May 2007, the AWARE Center in Surra, Kuwait invited three noted female Kuwaiti activists to speak on and reflect on the previous year’s elections. That is when women voted and ran for office of their National Parliament in Kuwait for the first time in that nation’s history. The first speaker was Lubna Al-Kazi who has been active in the women’s rights movement in Kuwait for several decades. She was followed by a younger outspoken economist named Dr. Rola Dashti. Finally, a statistical analysis of tendencies of Kuwait voters was given by Dr. Khadeeja Al-Mahameed, who noted that she had been participating in the movement for franchise in Kuwait since 1972.

After a slight disruption by one local human rights activists who shouted slogans and made complaints against the Ambassador of the United Kingdom, Stewart Laing-- who was in attendance to hear the three women speakers--, Lubna Al-Kazi gave a short historical overview of the movement to enfranchise Kuwaiti women. She explained first that from its inception, the 1962 constitution of Kuwait never has specifically prohibited women from political action or participation.


SHORT HISTORY

Lubna Al-Kazi indicated that the women of Kuwait had nearly received the vote in the 1970s before other disorienting political matters arose in the country. Al-Nazi did not note exactly what these other matters were, but most Kuwaitis would have recognized these issues as (1) the rise of fundamentalists and radical fundamentalism, (2) ethnic conflict in Kuwait and in the region, and (3) the wars in Iran, Iraq and Kuwait itself—all pushed the women’s demands off of center stage.

Women were very active in the resistance against Iraq during the occupation in 1991-1992. Meanwhile, Kuwait’s Government in Exile promised women the right to enfranchisement. Sadly, once the government returned to office in 1992, the same government leadership soon indicated that it would be at least 1997 before women could vote or run for office.

By 1995, a grand coalition of men and women, known as the COMMITTEE ON WOMEN’S ISSUES, had been organized and became very active. This movement included women--with and without abeyas (head coverings)--, young women, and both male and females of various age groups who took part in a series of demonstrations and sit-down strikes all over the country at the headquarters or meeting places of the male-only political groupings.

Al-Nazi noted that over the previous decades various Kuwaiti women and women’s groups had tried to sue in court to obtain the right to vote. Nonetheless, once again in 1997, women of Kuwait failed to receive the vote right from the all-male dominated--and increasingly tradition oriented--national parliament.

This is why the Emir of Kuwait in a special governmental proclamation attempted to give women the franchise in 1999. However, at that time the Parliament of Kuwait was not in session. Therefore, tragically when the parliament returned to session that year, it overturned the Emir’s proclamation by taking the case to the Supreme Court of Kuwait.

Meanwhile, more and more women and other interested groups continued to file suits against discrimination against women in various Kuwait courts. Finally, a new long sustained series of protests at the national parliament of Kuwait began in March 2005. This movement included a sustained series of protests at the national parliament of Kuwait. This particular campaign was called simply “NOW”—as in “Give Women the Franchise Now!” To the relief of many Kuwaitis—both male and female--, the Kuwaiti Parliament in mid-May 2005 passed the law giving women full-participation in elections as voters and candidates.


ANALYSIS OF WOMEN IN 2006 ELECTIONS

By early spring 2006, women were voting and running for offices in local elections. One of them who ran in those local elections was Dr. Dashti, who spoke second. To the surprise of the sadly somewhat disorganized women’s organizations—who had apparently slacked off after receiving the vote the year earlier--, the Parliament was closed by the Emir and snap elections were called. They were set for the first part of summer 2006.

In all, there was only about thirty-days allowed for the Parliamentary election period. Nonetheless, despite being caught off-guard, women’s groups, female campaigners, and various female organizations--who had just finished participating for local elections in April 2006--gave their best to make a good showing in the elections set for later June 2006 in Kuwait. Eventually, Kuwaiti women from all quarters of society came out in full force during one of the hottest months of the year to run or to support other female candidates.

Dr. Rola Dashti noted in her speech given at the AWARE Center that there were many pleasant surprises everywhere to be observed as women participated in national elections in Kuwait for the first time in the nation’s history.

First of all, it turned out that the 27 women who, in fact, did announce their candidacies and run for parliament represented all age groups and all segments of Kuwaiti society. The candidates were from a tremendous variety of backgrounds: rich, poor, conservative, modern, single, married, divorced, tribal-oriented, city oriented, non-educated, & college-educated.

There were women who wore abeyas, there were women who wore birkas (face coverings), and there were modern un-covered female candidates. In short, the female Kuwaiti candidates were as diverse as anyone could have ever hoped for.

More surprises in June 2006 included the fact that all of the strongly male-clannish groups around the nation opened their private meeting places to the women candidates and women voters for the first time. More importantly, these women candidates were taken seriously and, according to Dashti, were given very serious treatment in the questions raised by these male-only organizations.

Feedback from these men’s meetings, called “diwaniya”, was positive with the men often noting that the women generally had fuller platforms and plans for what they would like to see done by parliament in Kuwait than some of their male counterparts. All in all, Dashti emphasizes that Kuwaiti women demonstrated well in summer 2006: “We know politics.”

In order to aid women’s enfranchisement, at the very same time in May 2006 that the Emir of Kuwait had called for snap elections, he ordered the election boards all around the country to automatically register to vote all women who had proper civil IDs and were eligible according to the law. This is certainly one reason why women were able to outvote men in many townships throughout the country.

Sadly, even with women making up over 53% of the total votes for the National Parliament, none of these 27 women was actually elected to office in that summer of 2006. Nonetheless, Dashti notes that women definitely influenced the campaigns of all political groupings in the country that election period by emphasizing issues related to education, women, family, society and citizenship—as well as many matters of which had not been to any great degree part of such campaigns before.

For example, one woman candidate in one district which largely consists of disenfranchised Bedouins ran on a platform to give her husband and many other males and females there full citizenship rights—a claim many have been making since Kuwait became a country in 1961. Because this particular female candidate lived in a district where women significantly outnumber men, all other candidates in that district had to take on the issues raised by this first-time female politician.

Similarly, changes in how male candidates ran their own campaigns occurred all over Kuwait. Some male candidates, for the first time, even hired female advisors to help them run their own campaigns. In addition, Dashti notes, thousands of women—many of whom had never participated in politics before became involved in supporting both male and female candidates at the grass roots level.

Thousands of more women for the first time also simply went to sit under the same tents as their male voting counterparts to hear various candidates speak and took time to ask these campaigners questions about issues that mattered to them--and that they felt society needed to worry about. For example, poor education is of great concern throughout Kuwait. Other areas of concern in the Kuwaiti society include the need for better health care, job place issues, and youth problems, like drug abuse.

Dr. Rola Dashti says she will never forget the glorious day back in May 2005 when women were first given the franchise in parliament. She indicated she had tears in her eyes that day, and this moment will likely be recalled as the highpoint in her life. However, she ended her speech by indicating how proud she was when on one of the hottest days of the entire year in June 2006, many women stood for over three hours in line to cast their votes for the first time in history.

When asked what she thought about the possibilities of women being more successful in coming elections, Dashti said she, as women candidate in local elections herself, certainly had now learned what it was like to run a campaign for office. Many others had gained experience in 2006 which will help them the next time around.

Nevertheless, Dashti did indicate that she preferred something like an affirmative access quota of 25% to enable women to overcome historical baggage, tradition and structural biases in the Kuwaiti system--in order to make it impossible for women to represent their peers more fully in future campaigns. (This sort of affirmative access quota would not automatically give 25% of the seats to women’s candidates but would allow historically adversely affected groups of both men and women to gain fuller political representation.)


VOTING TENDENCIES AND BIASES OF KUWAITIS

The final speaker at the AWARE Center on that night of May 23, 2007 was Kuwait University professor of sociology, Dr. Khadeeja Al-Mahameed who has not only been politically active herself but spent much of 2005 and 2006, i.e. in the days leading up to the national elections in June 2006, surveying Kuwaiti townships in a rigorous academic manner in order to comprehend what the most influential factors in life and politics for the country’s adult population.

Her study involved equally (50%-50%) males and females of voting age in 16 districts of the country. There were 1600 participants who were asked to answer fairly detailed questions on what thoughts or authorities influenced their decision-making process in the year leading up to national elections in Kuwait, i.e. that year involving female participation in elections for the first time. The results of her survey point to why women failed to win any national seats in their first attempts at national office as political candidates.

The types of questions undertaken in al-Mahameed’s research included one similar to this:

--When making decisions about whether women should be active in politics, what influences your opinion the most?

(a) Fatwa of an imam
(b) Personal opinion
(c) Constitution of the country
(d) Social customs
(e) The true social need
(f) Competency of the women
(g) Other

Dr. Al-Mahameed had hypothesized in advance that social or tribal customs would have the greatest influence on the most respondents--regardless of class, gender, or whether one was identified as a city dweller or a village Bedouin. Second, Al-Mahameed predicted that Kuwaiti’s second strongest influence in developing opinions or attitudes towards women’s participation would be what religious figures or authorities were stating.

To her surprise, the results of Al-Mahameed’s study revealed that the individual’s thinking about religion was by far more influential on how to vote or whether to support women’s political participation. This result is interesting because it reveals a great lack of understanding about Islamic precepts and practices in the voting community of Kuwait.

Clearly, as Al-Mahameed advocated, one of the most important things to do in order to help women receive fuller participation of governance is to retrain or better educate imams and other religious leadership in Kuwait.

She stated this by noting that in most Islamic nations, women vote, and more importantly, the Koran does not prohibit women from voting. Nor does the Koran prohibit women of Islamic faith from participating in politics in any form. Nonetheless, in Kuwait there is a perception among voters of the Islamic faith that there is a strong contradiction posed by the practices of politics and what they perceive women’s roles in their faith ought to be.

One reason, Dr. Al-Mahameed had been incorrect in assuming that tribal and social values are only of secondary importance in making political decisions at this time in Kuwait’s history is that over recent decades, the country has significantly urbanized and become more modern and urban. Moreover, even in the rural areas modern media is now reaching every home and citizen’s tastes, opinions, and customs are evolving towards a more modern dimension of decision making or preference building.

Despite a slowly growing detachment to social traditions and tribal customs in Kuwait, those factors along with even more decisive factors of religious beliefs, faith and religious leadership do indeed continue to influence Kuwaitis greatly in their living and voting choices. In the wake of these findings, Dr. Al-Mahameed differed with Dr. Dashti and advocated that women be given a clear quota system in coming elections.

However, Dr. Al-Mahameed also clearly stated that the best way to change the way people think about women in politics is to change the opinions of imams and other opinion authority figures in the religious world of Kuwait. As well, a more widespread 7 public discussion of what Islam does in reality say about women in politics needs to be undertaken.

Dr. Al-Mahameed authoritavely noted that there was substantial literature by imams and religious councils all over the Islamic parts of the world who have made very strong cases for fuller participation of women in politics. This knowledge of the sacred writings of the Koran and of other religious authorities needed to become more publicly documented for educators and community leadership to fall back on and refer to in public and private discourse.

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