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Kuwait at Odds on Women's Rights Issues

By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, December 5, 1999; Page A43

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia –– Kuwait likes to present itself as the most democratic of the Arab oil monarchies, so it was taken as a matter of course that once the country's emir ruled last spring that women should have full political rights, the decision would be accepted by the parliament as a logical step along the path of openness and participation.

Even emirs, it seems, can miscalculate.

In a rebuff to the country's monarch and a reminder of how culturally sensitive the issue of women's rights remains on the Arabian Peninsula, the Kuwaiti National Assembly last week narrowly rejected legislation that would have allowed women to vote and run for office.

The change was advocated by the emir, Sheik Jabir Ahmed Sabah and others who feel the current political status of women violates Kuwait's constitution. It was also supported by the United States, which has pushed for more democracy since the country's liberation from Iraq during the Persian Gulf War.

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But the opposition from religious conservatives, those loyal to the country's tribal mores, and some who viewed women's suffrage as a Western idea being foisted on Kuwait from outside proved more influential, a sign that some commentators say reveals the limits of liberalism in the Gulf.

"The Kuwaitis boast that their democracy is the oldest in the Gulf region, but their satisfaction is misplaced," the Arabic daily al-Quds al-Arabi editorialized. "Being the oldest does not necessarily mean being good, because Kuwaiti democracy has stood still and failed to evolve."

Kuwait's political system is a monarchy in many respects, but with a decades-old constitution and a parliament that can overrule the emir and pass laws. Only males over 21 with proven Kuwaiti lineage are eligible to vote, however. Along with women, active members of the military and police are also excluded. During the most recent parliamentary elections in July, that meant only 113,000 of Kuwait's 793,000 citizens could vote. The overall figure excludes 1.2 million foreign guest workers for whom citizenship, and therefore political rights, are virtually impossible to obtain.

The status of women across the Middle East is governed by a patchwork of conflicting religious and social interpretations, in which Islam is used to justify some rights for women in one country, restrict them in another, and in which cultural concerns sometimes prove paramount.

Some of the Gulf's smaller countries, for example, are proving the most nimble at political change. Qatar recently allowed women to vote and run for a new municipal council, considered a forerunner to the development of a national parliament. Oman has appointed women to its consultative council and named its first woman ambassador.

Saudi Arabia and Iran, meanwhile, the two countries that purport to apply Islamic law with the most rigor, have wildly varying attitudes about the role of women in society. Though both require women to cover their heads and wear a loose-fitting cloak or coat in public, Iran's political system and professional ranks are largely open to women--an improvement, Iranian women say, over their status under the rule of the U.S.-backed shah. But in Saudi Arabia, considered a bedrock of U.S. interests in the region, women are restricted from many jobs in which they would interact with men, and are prohibited from holding their own identity cards, traveling without a husband's permission or driving.

When the issue of allowing women to drive was floated earlier in the year--as part, many Saudis assumed, of a liberalization effort supported by Crown Prince Abdullah, the de facto ruler--it was quickly shot down by religious authorities and disavowed by others in the royal family.

The mix of religious and cultural influences all came to bear in Kuwait. There were religious arguments in favor of women's suffrage--there are no Koranic rules against it, it was argued--and others against it. There were those who pointed to Kuwait's constitution as part of a legal culture that should be honored, and others who pointed to the tribal system that predated it. Some opponents argued that the country should not allow itself to be "reshaped" by the influence of the United States or other Western powers.

"The Americans may be able to control the military situation in the Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula, but I doubt very much that they can induce the 'social transformation' that suits them," Kuwaiti analyst Abdallah Nafisi wrote in an Arab daily soon after the parliament voted. "This . . . effectively amounts to playing with fire."

© 1999 The Washington Post Company

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