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Kuwait: Women Win Political Rights Over Islamist Opposition

Saudi Arabia is now the only Mideastern nation with elections where women are not allowed to vote In a move that surprised even some of its members, the parliament of Kuwait has voted to give women the right to vote and run in parliamentary and municipal elections. Both the United Nations and the United States, which is seeking to spread democracy in the Muslim world, have hailed the move as a major step forward for Kuwaiti society. But conservatives in the small Persian Gulf nation are bitterly contesting the law, with some vowing eternal damnation for those who voted for it.

Prague, 17 May 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Daifallah Buramia, an Islamist member of the Kuwaiti parliament, summed up the religious opposition to the bill, which was approved yesterday.

Speaking during nine hours of a marathon debate, Buramia stated: "Anyone who supports the passage of this law will bear the sin on Judgment Day."

In the end, Buramia's stern warning went unheeded. Thirty-five deputies voted for the bill. Twenty-three voted against, with one abstaining.
Kuwaiti conservatives argue that women's participation in politics violates Islam's teachings and will allow women to mix freely with men.

When the news was announced, crowds gathered outside parliament danced and cheered, drivers honked their horns, and fireworks lit the sky. Roula al-Dashti, a women's rights activist, was among those celebrating.

"I believe that today is a historical day for the Kuwaiti woman," al-Dashti said. "I believe that today we have achieved a victory, a victory for freedom. We won the battle between freedom and ignorance, terrorism against development, and now the Kuwaiti woman will have a say in parliament."

She added that women will now begin preparing to run and vote in the country's next parliamentary elections in 2007.

Women can now vote in all Middle Eastern nations where elections are held, except Saudi Arabia. But given the importance of the parliament in Kuwaiti politics, women's suffrage is arguably more significant there.

Yesterday's vote comes as the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush is pressing hard for democratic reforms across the Islamic world. Washington points to recent elections in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Palestine, as well as smaller reforms elsewhere, as signs that its policy is working.

The Kuwaiti vote took Muslim fundamentalists by surprise. The parliament was due to consider a law giving women rights only in municipal elections, but the cabinet suddenly insisted on a more sweeping measure.

Conservatives accuse the government of giving into foreign pressures. The vote came less than one month before a state visit to Washington by Kuwait's prime minister.

U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher hailed the vote as an important step forward for Kuwait. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan had similar praise.

Ayed S.R. Manna, a professor and adviser to the Kuwaiti Journalists' Association, told RFE/RL that the vote represents a defeat for religious hard-liners.

"It is really a big deal, and this is a victory for democratic attitudes in this small Arab country, because half of the population had been deprived of this right for about four decades," Manna said. "It might be a defeat for those conservatives and the religious attitude in the country."

However, Kuwaiti Islamists have in the past managed to foil previous suffrage attempts. Yesterday, they managed to introduce a restrictive article that requires future female politicians and voters to abide by Islamic law.

It is not clear whether that means a strict dress code or just separate polling stations and election campaigns. Some women have expressed concern. But Manna characterized it as a minor move to appease Islamists, saying it will not affect women's essential rights.

"I think [the law] is mostly accepted because it is unacceptable for Kuwait, as one of the first democratic countries in the region, to be the last to give the woman her right to full political participation," he said.

Still, it wasn't easy to win over the all-male parliament. Prior to the vote, in a move seen as compensation for parliament's backing of the bill, the cabinet approved a pay raise for state employees and pensioners, at a cost of some 450 million dollars a year.

British investigative journalist Michael Griffin closely tracks political developments in the Muslim world and is author of "Reaping the Whirlwind: The Taliban Movement in Afghanistan." Griffin told RFE/RL that while the new law is noteworthy, it remains to be seen how Kuwaiti society as a whole will react to changes in the political status of women.

"As for women, it's hard to see whether you can legislate political freedoms for women in states where there are religious restrictions or prescriptions on women's behavior," Griffin said.

Kuwaiti women are traditionally more liberal and educated than their Gulf Arab counterparts, even if they have trailed in political rights.

Kuwaiti conservatives, meanwhile, argue that women's participation in politics violates Islam's teachings and complain it will allow women to mix freely with men.

Griffin said that while democratic steps are being taken across the Islamic world, it will take time to see whether they are lasting.

He cited last week's protests in Afghanistan as an example of how fragile progress can be in places that lack democratic traditions. Several people were killed in the protests, which were sparked by a U.S. media report -- later retracted as erroneous -- that U.S. interrogators had desecrated copies of the Koran, Islam's holy book.

"On the one hand, you can have, apparently, the stately march of democracy into a country like Afghanistan, which has never known anything but war for the past 25 years," he said. "And yet somebody will misreport perhaps an act of blasphemy against a copy of the Koran, and suddenly it almost looks like the whole structure is teetering on the edge. So perhaps in Afghanistan's case, that gives an indication of how fragile these things can be.”

In the latest confrontation with tradition, modernity has won out in Kuwait -- for now.

But Nada al-Muttawa, a female politics teacher at Kuwait University, is not letting her guard down. The Associated Press quoted the smartly dressed professor as saying: "I fear those Islamic law controls. I hope they are talking about separate ballot boxes and not the imposition of Islamic dress...which infringes on personal freedoms."