Friday, May 20, 2005

History in the making in Kuwait

From The Daily Star:

Kuwait's Parliament passed a law granting women the right to vote and cleared the way for women to run in parliamentary elections for the first time in the emirate's history.

Prime Minister Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah told reporters at Parliament he planned to name a woman minister.

"I congratulate the women of Kuwait for having achieved their political rights," he said.

However, an article included in the bill requires that any female politician or voter abide by Islamic law. It was not clear what limits this may put on women's rights.

The bill was approved in a 35-23 vote with one abstention, bringing scores of women activists in the gallery to their feet in applause. Some ululated and began singing the national anthem.

"I am overexcited. I can't believe this," said activist Rola Dashti, who said she would run in the next parliamentary election, in 2007. "I'm starting my campaign as of today."

Dashti said she was not concerned by the vague reference to Islamic law, saying it probably just meant separate polling stations and not an Islamic dress code.

"They can't impose veils on voters," she said.

The bill comes too late for women to participate in municipal elections in June. The next polls they can vote and run in will be the 2007 parliamentary elections.

Kuwait's Cabinet had asked for the vote earlier Monday in a surprise move after a number of attempts had been stymied by hard-line lawmakers, who successfully inserted the Islamic law article in the final bill.

Women activists have for years been pushing for their right to vote and run for Parliament, but several attempts to give them political rights have over the years been defeated in the house.
Monday's historic vote entails the amendment of Article One of the electoral law, which has hitherto limited the right to vote to men.

It was deemed out of step with the emirate's Constitution which stipulates equality of the sexes.

On May 3, Kuwait's Parliament failed to approve a bill that would have allowed women to vote and stand for election in time for municipal polls due to take place later this year.

The failed vote prompted some 150 Kuwaiti women activists to sign a statement which accused government ministers of taking part in a "conspiracy" against their political rights.

Emir Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmad al-Sabah, who favors giving women the vote, issued a decree in 1999 granting women full political rights but it was narrowly rejected by Parliament the same year.

Massouma al-Mubarak, a political analyst and professor at Kuwait University, said the move was long overdue.

"This is the right thing to do," she said. "It is no favor from anyone."

But she said that any conditions put on the bill would be a violation of the Constitution.

"When you put conditions only for women, this is extraconstitutional. The Constitution puts no conditions" on any one, she said. "No dress code, no Islamic law, and no nonsense."

Although Kuwaiti women have reached high positions in oil, education and the diplomatic corps, the country's 1962 election law limited their political rights.

With only men over 21 who are not members of the police or the military allowed to vote, just over 139,000 are registered to cast ballots out 960,000 Kuwaitis. With women over 21 voting, as stipulated under the new law, the figure could reach 339,000.

Women can now vote in all Middle Eastern nations where elections are held except Saudi Arabia