December 12, 1999
Defeat for Women's Rights Underscores Rift in Kuwait
Equal Rights for Arab Women Called Key to a Better Life (Nov. 19, 1999)
Rawalpindi Journal: Women Still Segregated, but Now at Grad School (Aug. 14, 1999)
Rest of Kuwait (the Women) May Soon Get Right to Vote (June 18, 1999)
U.N. Adds Enforcement Mechanism to Treaty for Women (Mar. 21, 1999)
By DOUGLAS JEHL
UWAIT -- 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
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
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
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
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
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.