Kuwait’s shifting tides

Raymond Barrett
4 July 2006

On 29 June 2006, the people of Kuwait went to the polls to elect fifty deputies to sit in the country's Majlis al-Ummah (national assembly). What made this day historic – and justly received widespread international media attention – was that women were able to participate for the first time, both as candidates and voters. But the election outcome was as striking (though less reported) as the process: for while not a single woman managed to gain a seat in the assembly, the victors included the "Islamist bloc" of MPs, many of whom had opposed the parliamentary vote to grant suffrage to women in May 2005. Welcome to democracy, Kuwaiti-style.

The landmark ruling that politically enfranchised Kuwaiti women is a reflection of profound demographic shifts in the country; no less than 57% of Kuwaiti voters were women. But the opening of politics to women, which has transformed the appearance of political campaigning in the country, has also had effects that western advocates of equality might find unexpected. In particular, it has obliged existing political groups specifically to address issues that appeal to and concern the feminine majority; and some of the most effective in doing this were the Islamic Constitutional Movement (Kuwait's incarnation of the Muslim Brotherhood) and the Salafists – movements that advocate Kuwait's embrace of a more rigid version of Islamic teaching as the basis for defining the laws of the state.

Raymond Barrett is an Irish journalist working with the Kuwait Times. He has also written on middle-east affairs for the Beirut-based The Daily Star and Ireland's Sunday Business Post .

Also by Raymond Barrett in openDemocracy:

"Iran through Arab eyes" (10 May 2006)

"Kuwait's political turmoil" (31 May 2006)

The election itself was the consequence of the surprise dissolution of parliament by the head of state, Emir Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, after a clash over the issue of electoral reform between the sixteen-member cabinet (appointed by the emir) and a group of twenty-nine assembly members (many Islamists among them).

The particular argument that sparked the dispute was a draft law to reduce the number of constituencies in the country from twenty-five to ten. The dissident MPs protested that this was a surrogate for centralisation of power and the disenfranchisement of the non-urban Kuwaiti majority they mostly represented (see "Kuwait's political turmoil", 31 May 2006). The government's failure to heed the assembly members' own proposals led to a coalescence of unlikely political allies (liberal and Islamist MPs, youth and student groups) who embraced the label of a "reform" or "opposition" movement.

As a result, the question of changes to Kuwait's electoral and political system became a major topic in the brief election campaign that followed the dissolution, and there were widespread allegations that state coffers were being used to fund pro-government groups. Two other issues – corruption (including the evergreen Kuwaiti tradition of vote-buying) , and foreign shareholding in the oil industry – dominated the campaign. But a number of candidates on all sides also made strenuous effort to portray themselves as champions of women's rights, and promised to back a wide range of "pro-woman" legislation. The very presence of women at the centre of Kuwaiti politics thus had a tangible effect on the way the campaign was conducted.

A space for women

The pledges candidates made included the repeal of a law preventing a Kuwaiti woman who marries a non-Kuwait national passing on her nationality (and the financial privilege that comes with it) to her children. There were also suggestions that state benefits for divorced and widowed women should be increased, and the number of years women would have to work before earning a retirement pension should be reduced (from twenty to fifteen years). But the "woman-centred agenda" articulated by many Islamist candidates generally focused on reinforcing the traditional role of women as child-rearers and homemakers, rather than as active participants in the public realm.

This conscious appeal by candidates from Kuwait's Islamist and tribal traditions (which often overlap) required some flexibility in reaching out to women voters. In many parts of Kuwait, it is unacceptable (outside of formal environments such as work) for a man to approach women who are unrelated to him, especially if it were done without due discretion or respect for tradition. A member of the campaign team of one Islamist candidate in Kuwait's southern "tribal heartlands" told me: "It is not our tradition to talk to women, but we have selected educated women to go and visit (women) in their homes". He repeatedly stressed the educational level of candidates and campaign staff alike as a key element in the ability to target potential women voters.

This greater inclusion extended to the architecture of the campaign. The "campaign tent" is one of the defining symbols of politicking in Kuwait: an elaborate, hugely expensive, ornately-upholstered – and traditionally all-male – environment, where voters visit after the evening ishaa prayer to meet and listen to their preferred candidates while being served fine food. It is a place where candidates use generosity to display their prominence and standing in the community. This time, women were – within limits – invited to participate in what one aspirant assembly-member referred to as the "democratic wedding".

In areas of Kuwait close to the modern capital, men and women sat on different sides of the room – or were divided by a partition – while jointly attending some campaign functions. Some Islamist MPs held election evenings exclusively for women (one candidate who had opposed female suffrage held twice as many "women-only" gatherings than male ones).

The final results suggest that the Islamists' efforts paid off. But the election had a mixed impact on Kuwaiti women candidates and voters. The suddenness of its announcement caught many female candidates unprepared, and unable in time to mount an effective campaign. During it, some of them had their election posters and placards defaced. When it had ended, only a handful of the twenty-eight female candidates (out of a total of 253) received a significant number of votes; the best performance was around 10% of the vote in a few districts – far below the threshold needed to win a seat.

One defeated candidate, Aisha al-Rushaid, was philosophical. The election was part of an essential learning-curve, she said: "It was a good experience (which) we learned from, but circumstances were not aligned in favour of women". But there have also been recriminations over the failure of any female candidates to win a seat; some Kuwaiti women accused women voters of following the instructions of their male relatives and supporting candidates opposed to their right to vote.

Badrya Darwish commented in the Kuwait Times: "Even some candidates who stood against women's rights in parliament made it this time on the backs of women. I call this a betrayal. Women betrayed their sisters." Kuwait's women have entered the democracy tent, but they have yet to make it their own.

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