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Women’s Suffrage, Reformist Victory Mark Kuwaiti Elections

A recent crisis over redistricting and corruption prompted the government’s leader, emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah, to dissolve the unicameral legislature, known as Majlis al-Umma, and call an election a year earlier than was expected.

As experts had predicted, Islamist-lead reformists won a number of the 50 seats at the expense of pro-government incumbents, with 20 of the 29 member of parliaments who formed the original opposition in favor of redistricting returning to office.

Islamists and secular liberals secured 36 of the 50 elected seats in the new parliament, the state-controlled Kuwait News Agency reported Friday, allowing the opposition to maintain a majority even when including the 15 ruling family-appointed ministers who hold non-elected seats in the legislature.

Kuwait is lead by a hereditary monarchy, in which the ruling al-Sabah family holds the positions of emir and prime minister as well as key ministerial positions in the country’s executive branch. But the country’s 44-year-old constitution limits the family’s power through a legislature that is elected by men, and now women, who have held citizenship for 20 years.

“It’s like women in Kuwait have been standing behind a closed door since the constitution was passed,” said Mary Anne Tetreault, author of “Stories of Democracy: Politics and Society in Contemporary Kuwait.” “They weren’t allowed in as equal partners. And now the door is open, the sun is coming in, and these women are marching out.”

It was not until May 2005, through the pull of the progressive ruling family and family-appointed ministers, that parliament allowed women to vote and stand for election.

Saudi Arabia is now the only Gulf state that does not permit women to run or vote; Brunei and the United Arab Emirates are monarchies, so neither men nor women are eligible to vote in those countries.

The legislature’s influential Islamic fundamentalists had thwarted the al-Sabah family’s initial effort in 1999, and the opposition is seen as a continued risk to the government now that it can demand electoral reform and reject ruling family-appointed ministers.

“So far it’s largely been a veto of the ministers chosen by the ruling family,” said Michael Herb, a Kuwaiti politics expert from Georgia State University. “It will become democratic when instead the parliament chooses who the ministers are. It’s certainly moving in that direction.”

Last year, a women’s right advocate, Masouma al-Mubarak, was appointed as Kuwait’s planning minister, and more recently, two women were appointed to a Kuwait City municipal council, paving the way for a national election that saw 28 women running for office in a field of 249.

None of the women, who mounted their election campaigns in haste, was expected to win seats even though a majority of registered voters — 57 percent of 340,000 — were women.

Women, who turned out in lesser numbers than men, were expected to vote according to the political affiliation of their family, and not necessarily by gender. Even liberal women that might want to vote for women, Herb says, would know that voting for a candidate who isn’t going to win is taking a vote away from the liberal male candidate who faced an Islamist opponent.

During their campaigns, female candidates — professors, retired business owners, women’s rights activists — had to overcome inexperience and richer opponents buying votes, and endure vandalism and threats from their own tribes, but remained driven, in part, due to the involvement of other women and youth.

Young Kuwaitis lead electoral reform protests and anonymously wrote about “q80” politics in blogs independent of the state-controlled media.

“The political atmosphere became vibrant with the rally to change the electoral law,” said Saoud al-Enezi, deputy secretary-general of the National Democratic Alliance, the liberal minority bloc. “Young women and men participated and, first, they started participating in [applying] political pressure on the government and on the members of parliament. We merged forces with them and they became real engines behind the movement. Their issues became the country’s issues.”

Al-Enezi said the more obvious difference in this election campaign was their participation. “The new generation is getting aboard,” he said. “With globalization in the media — on the Internet — it just makes it so hard for any country to go back for less democratization.”

Tetreault, who attended the rallies of women candidates said, “I saw women that brought their daughters, and I saw men bringing their sons and daughters to the events that they are going to. They’re out there. They have questions.”

The female candidate who received the most votes — 1,539 but 17 percent of the votes in her district, according to state media — was Rola Dashti, a 42-year-old economics professor, but she lost to an opposition candidate.

Like al-Mubarak, the pioneer minister of planning, Dashti has been a vocal advocate for women’s rights, and, according to Tetreault, has had aspirations of a political career since she was young.

“We’ll keep up our struggle and will fight until we see women in parliament,” Dashti told Reuters.

Experts on Kuwaiti politics agree that many women did not have the resources or experience to win seats in this election, but if the electoral system were to be reformed so more candidates could be elected from fewer districts, Herb says “you would throw everything up in the air, and maybe you could get enough women to vote for, say, Rola Dashti in order to put her over the top.”

“MPs from today onwards, regardless of their points of view, will definitely have to seek new ways to engage women for future elections. No candidate will win next time by a vote of men only,” analyst Shafeeq Ghabra told Reuters.

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