December 1, 1999

Kuwait Narrowly Kills New Bill to Give Women Political Rights

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    KUWAIT -- Kuwait's all-male Parliament Tuesday narrowly rejected granting women full political rights for the second time in a week.

    The vote was 32 to 30 with 2 abstentions. With 64 members present, the bill needed 33 votes to pass.

    "We will fight on," a liberal member, Ahmad al-Rubai, said after the vote, which followed seven months of debate.

    The liberal lawmakers who introduced the bill had argued that the current election law, which bans political rights for women, violates the Constitution. After the vote, the government hinted Tuesday that it had no immediate plans to refer the issue to the Constitutional Court.

    Full political rights for women would have been a revolutionary step in the sole Persian Gulf Arab state with an elected Parliament, for which only 113,000 men are now eligible to vote.

    Only men over 21 who have held Kuwaiti citizenship for at least 20 years can vote or run for office. Women and members of the armed forces and the police are not eligible under the current law. Some lawmakers suggested that political rights should be broadened for men before considering a political role for women, The Associated Press reported.

    While members of Parliament cannot reintroduce the bill in the current parliamentary term, the government could submit it again in the form of a new draft law. But experts doubt that will happen soon.

    In a move that surprised the region, the emir of Kuwait, Sheik Jaber al-Ahmad al-Sabah, had issued a decree, after dissolving Parliament in May, giving political rights to women. But it was rejected by the new Parliament, 41-21, on Nov. 23.

    The United States, Kuwait's key Western patron, had urged the lawmakers to approve the measure.

    The new vote was on a measure introduced as a parliamentary bill rather than through the emir. Some members had objected to the issue being addressed by decree when the Parliament was out of session.

    A member of Parliament who supported the bill, Abdel-Wahab al-Haroun, urged its passage saying, "the day will surely come when women will get political rights." He said that all the Muslims in countries with political rights for women "cannot be wrong" and Kuwaitis, with their small population, "the right ones."

    Those opposed to the bill were mainly Sunni Muslim and tribal members of Parliament, while those in favor were mostly liberal and Shiite Muslims and government ministers, who are members of Parliament by virtue of their office.

    A Shiite clergyman, Hussein al-Qallaf, abstained from the vote Tuesday after strongly supporting women's rights in a debate before the vote. He said later that he abstained because the bill lacked provisions to satisfy religious concerns before allowing women to take part in politics.


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