December 20, 1999
Vote on Women's Rights Shows Deep Rift in Kuwait Society
Defeat for Women's Rights Underscores Rift in Kuwait (Dec. 12, 1999)
Equal Rights for Arab Women Called Key to a Better Life (Nov. 19, 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.
"We thought everything would be OK, and then the men had their
revenge," said Ghadia Ahmedi, a 21-year-old student.
Ali al-Baghli, a former oil minister, 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 in a sarcastic newspaper commentary,
responding to dark warnings that allowing women to enter politics
would invite their moral downfall.
Tensions between reformists and conservatives on the issue of
women's rights have become increasingly open across the region.
In Saudi Arabia, where women are still not permitted to drive,
Prince Walid bin Talal, the billionaire financier, was quoted
recently 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 would
be a particular departure in the Emirates, with its deeply
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 covering
their hair, bodies and sometimes even faces in keeping with
conservative interpretations of Islam.
While modernists like Baghli have been outspoken in condemning
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 the 2003 elections.
For now, as a kind of consolation prize, the government said
that it would extend limited ministerial duties for the first time
to a woman, Sheika Rasha al-Sabah, a member of the royal family,
who is undersecretary of education.
Some of the same women who crowded into the galleries have vowed
to become more aggressive. Until now, the most radical protest by
Kuwaiti women was 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
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 until late next year. Even then, some
say, approval would be no sure bet. 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 that 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 P.
Rubin, that the defeat of the measure represented a "regrettable
setback" to democratic development.
That analysis reflected "a low opinion of Kuwaitis," said
Abdulhamid al-Bilali, of 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 the measure, the emir, 73, had
first disbanded Kuwait's existing Parliament and ordered new
elections that were held in July. Liberal candidates made strong
gains, convincing many here that the government would win the votes
needed 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
conservatives 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