December 12, 1999

Defeat for Women's Rights Underscores Rift in Kuwait

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    KUWAIT -- In the galleries of Kuwait's Parliament late last month, scores of women in bright orange T-shirts cheered every vote in favor of a historic proposition that would have made this tiny Persian Gulf country the first among its close neighbors to grant full political rights to women.

    But in the next gallery over, an even larger group of men wearing traditional dishdasha robes cheered even louder every time a member of the all-male Parliament announced that he was voting no.

    The rivalry reflected the depth of a division that has left Kuwait a split society, and the outcome of the ballot left little doubt about which side retains the political upper hand.

    The defeat of the plan dealt a sharp rebuff to Kuwait's emir, Sheik Jaber al-Ahmed al-Sabah, who had cast his lot with modernists last spring by issuing a decree that forced Parliament to address the issue head-on.

    His plan would have allowed women to vote and run for office by the next scheduled parliamentary elections, in 2003. But Parliament unceremoniously rejected both the measure and a substitute, embittering those who had hoped that Kuwait, still the only Persian Gulf country with an elected Parliament, would set a broader example of reform.

    Ali al-Baghli, a former oil minister who is a member of Parliament, condemned what he called "the fanatic mentality" of Islamist and tribalist members of Parliament whose views have held sway. "I wish to convey to my colleagues that all Western women do not work in strip clubs and bars," Baghli wrote last week in a sarcastic newspaper commentary, cast as a response to months of dark warnings that allowing Kuwaiti women to enter politics would invite their moral downfall.

    The defeat comes at a time of increasingly open tensions between reformists and conservatives across the region on the issue of women's rights.

    In Saudi Arabia, where women are still not permitted to drive, Prince Walid bin Talal, the billionaire financier, was quoted last week as calling for an end to that law -- even though such a change was ruled out last May by his uncle, Prince Nayef bin Abdel Aziz, the interior minister.

    And in the United Arab Emirates, Sheika Fatima, the wife of the president, Sheik Zaid bin Sultan al-Nahayan, was quoted recently as saying that women should be allowed to become Cabinet ministers. That step has not been taken in any Persian Gulf country, and it would be a particular departure in Emirates, which cultivates deeply conservative traditions.

    In Kuwait, more than anywhere else in the region, some women already play prominent roles in professional life, working side by side with men as lawyers, diplomats and financiers. Many shun head coverings, and some younger women dress in a provocative Western style that would be seen as scandalous or even illegal in most neighboring countries.

    But among Kuwait's 350,000 or so women, a less-visible majority still hews toward more traditional values, symbolized by the covering of their hair, bodies and sometimes even faces in keeping with conservative interpretations of Islam.

    While modernists like Baghli have been outspoken in bemoaning the defeat of women's rights measures, other prominent Kuwaitis defend the Nov. 30 vote as a true gauge of public sentiment.

    "How would you have expected me to feel if a candidate called to tell me, 'I need to speak with your wife and daughter,"' said Saadoun al-Otaibi, a lawmaker who voted against the measure.

    His comments reflected a deep aversion among many Kuwaitis to allowing women to mix with men to whom they are not related, even at campaign rallies or polling booths.

    The government, led by Sheik Saad al-Sabah, the crown prince and prime minister, has vowed to introduce the measure again as early as next year, and one prominent supporter, Muhammad al-Saqer, has said he has no doubt that Kuwaiti women will be able to exercise political rights in time for the 2003 elections.

    For now, as a kind of consolation prize, the government said last week that it would extend limited ministerial duties for the first time to a woman, Sheika Rasha al-Sabah, who is undersecretary of education and a member of the royal family.

    At the same time, some of the same women who crowded into the galleries wearing T-shirts that read "Vote in 2003" have vowed to become more aggressive. Until now, the most radical protest by Kuwaiti women took place in 1996, when about 500 stopped working for an hour. But some women, including Kawthar al-Jowan, a prominent member of a women's trade association, now say they are considering "different tactics" in a bid to secure greater rights.

    The defeated plan lost by just two votes, 32-30, with two abstentions, but the closeness may have been misleading, and Kuwait-based diplomats and analysts say they do not expect any renewed drive for the measure to begin until late next year. Even then, some say, it is no sure bet that the proposal will be approved. Among Kuwait's 50 elected members of Parliament, they note, only 15 voted in favor of the provision, while 32 voted against.

    The contest was close only because of a provision built into Kuwait's Constitution, which allowed a bloc of 15 government ministers appointed by the royal family to join in voting in favor of the emir's plan.

    For that reason, many Kuwaitis have reacted with raised eyebrows to a recent complaint by the State Department spokesman, James Rubin, that the defeat of the women's rights measure represented a "regrettable setback" to democratic development.

    That analysis reflected "a low opinion of Kuwaitis," said Abdulhamid al-Bilali, a commentator for the Kuwaiti daily al-Qabas, noting that it was the popularly elected members of Parliament rather than the emir and his government who opposed the measure.

    In trying to smooth the way for passage of the measure, the emir, who is 73, had first disbanded Kuwait's existing Parliament and ordered new elections that were held in July. In those contests, liberal candidates made strong gains, convincing most observers of Kuwaiti politics that the government would win the votes necessary to pass the women's rights measure.

    Those calculations underestimated the strength of traditionalist sentiment in Kuwait and the depth of resentment among members of Parliament who felt betrayed by the emir's tactics. Among those who turned against the measure were many conservative tribalists who usually support the government, while those who abstained in protest at the government's tactics included Ahmed al-Saadoun, a former speaker who had been seen as a supporter of women's rights.

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