In Liberated Kuwait, Some Still Lack Right to Vote

Times Staff Writer

One of the proudest stories told by Kuwaiti historians is about the bravery of Kuwaiti women during the brutal seven-month occupation by the Iraqi army in 1990 and 1991.

Although Kuwaiti men were forced to hide to avoid arrest, women staged street protests and smuggled food, information and weapons to resistance fighters. Covered head to toe in the traditional abaya, they moved silently but boldly throughout the occupied country, defying roadblocks set up by Iraqi soldiers. Some were raped and killed.

A national museum dedicated to the history of the occupation and liberation lavishly praises these women. Each year, as part of the Liberation Day celebration on Feb. 26, the story of their courage is retold.

But bravery during war has not led to political emancipation for Kuwaiti women.

Twelve years after a U.S.-led military coalition freed their country, women here are still denied the right to vote in legislative elections or to hold legislative office. Political power continues to be held exclusively by men -- despite post-liberation promises by the ruling family.

"After liberation, we thought we'd have our rights immediately because we did a hell of a good job," said educator and feminist Khawla Ateeqi, 58. "But it hasn't turned out that way."

The emir, Sheik Jabbar al Ahmed al Sabah, proposed in 1999 that women be given the right to vote and hold office by 2003.

But his proposal was narrowly defeated in the National Assembly, 32-30, by a coalition of Islamic fundamentalists and politicians from districts dominated by traditional Bedouin tribesmen who believe that voting rights for women would undermine male dominance in the family.

Now, as the U.S. assembles a military force in the Kuwaiti desert for a possible war with Iraq, which President Bush has said would spread the cause of democracy in the Middle East, Kuwaiti feminists are hoping that worldwide media attention on their nation will help their cause. The issue of women's rights is expected to come before parliament after the midyear elections.

"With the media here, it will be hard for the men to keep women from their rights," said Iqeal Ahmed, 44, editor of Al Bayt Al Methaly, a monthly magazine devoted to interior design. "Nothing happens quickly in this country, but slowly we are educating both men and women."

A leading Islamic political leader, however, says that the women's movement is actually losing strength in Kuwait and that recent support for the movement by U.S. officials will backfire and harden the stance of those opposed to granting political equality to women.

"The liberals are trying to change the identity of Kuwaiti culture, and the Islamists are trying to keep the identity of the conservative Kuwaiti people," said Abdrazzak Shayji, 40, a law professor at Kuwait University and spokesman for the Islamic Salfia political movement. "We refuse to bow to American pressure with their pushy attitude."

Shayji and other Islamic leaders were furious about a recent trip to the U.S. by a group of Kuwaiti women. The trip was sponsored by the U.S. State Department and Vital Voices, a Washington-based foundation dedicated to helping women gain political power.

In New York and Washington, the women met with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-New York), former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Lynn Cheney, wife of Vice President Dick Cheney. They took part in sessions on how to organize, set political goals and use the media to get their message to the public.

"They are interfering with Kuwaiti administration," Shayji said.

Although they lack the right to vote, women are assured of equal pay and equal job opportunities under Kuwaiti law. They can also initiate divorce proceedings, although property settlements favor the husband. Under Kuwaiti law, when a couple divorces, the man retains the family home.

Women serve in high-level appointed governmental posts, including as ambassadors, and as executives in education and business. Women drive, often as fast and recklessly as the men (Kuwait has one of the highest freeway fatality rates in the world as a percentage of population). There are no "religious police" who tell women how to dress or act in public.

Still, the parliament voted to segregate the sexes at public schools, including Kuwait University.

Lujainj Salah, 27, an advertising executive, is confident that change is coming. She notes that the courage of Kuwaiti women during the occupation was in keeping with tradition.

"Kuwaiti women have always been strong," she said. "Before oil was discovered, women did most of the work. The men were at sea looking for pearls or trading with India, and the women became self-sufficient."

In a book published in 2001, "Women in Kuwait: The Politics of Gender," feminist author Haya Mughni argued that among the main obstacles to women's gaining political power are upper-class Kuwaiti women who fear a loss of prestige and influence if women, particularly those from the middle and lower classes, receive voting rights.

"Of all Kuwaiti women, those of the elite and the merchant class have been the most eager to preserve the ... relations from which they gain prestige and access to many privileges," Mughni wrote. "Their loyalty to their own class has often superseded their loyalty to members of their own sex."

Fear of change, Mughni said, "is endemic, pervasive, deeply entrenched in every segment of Kuwaiti society. It is such a powerful fear that nonconformity has become a social deviance, a mental illness, an abnormality; and even women are actively engaged in the process of recreating an orderly society."

Kuwait, like all Arab countries, remains a man's world, with men spending their evenings in public gatherings, talking, eating and smoking "hubbly-bubbly," strong tobacco filtered by water. (The legislature sought to prohibit women from engaging in "hubbly-bubbly," but the effort failed.)

Even men who are not opposed to women voting insist that such rights should not be seen as the full measure of whether women are treated well in Kuwaiti society.

"Socially, women are equal, but politically, it is different," said Bader Salman Rushoud, 52, a senior consultant to the Kuwait Investment Authority. "Sooner or later, it will happen that women will get the vote, but in Kuwait, you must wait."

The emir, who makes few public appearances, has not repeated his proposal for women's rights. Possibly as a result, public discussion of the issue has declined. Since 1991, a handful of women have attempted to register to vote and a number of silent protests have been held. But now, fewer women are trying to register and attendance at protests has dropped sharply.

"It is a ladies' movement -- they have to prove themselves," said Jassem Saquer, 50, director of a firm that provides children's entertainment for malls.

Feminists say legislative candidates who say privately that they support women's rights still refuse to take that stand in public, particularly when campaigning in Bedouin neighborhoods. In four of six districts in Kuwait, the Bedouin influence is strong.

"The candidates are cowards when they come to places where there are tribal people," said Ateeqi, who was on the group trip sponsored by the State Department and Vital Voices.

Mohammed Enizi, 60, enjoying a night of conversation with his male friends, says he does not oppose voting rights for women but believes that women should not run for office. A feminist court challenge by a woman seeking to run for office -- even though she cannot vote -- was rejected.

"The home is for the woman," said Enizi, a retired government executive. "I would not recommend or encourage women to serve because the children need her. She must bring them up."

Among Persian Gulf countries, Kuwait appears in the middle on issues of suffrage. In Bahrain, women can vote and run for parliament; in Qatar they have been promised those rights when elections are held next year; in Oman and Saudi Arabia, there are no parliamentary elections and no voting rights.

Some feminists say the Islamic politicians in Saudi Arabia are afraid to defy their movement's leaders by bestowing voting rights on women. Like their peers in Kuwait, Saudi women also have seen their hopes for greater rights since the 1991 Persian Gulf War go unrealized.

Saudi women are not allowed to drive or take a public role in business affairs. Their public dress and demeanor are harshly governed by religious police. The refusal of some Western women, including U.S. military personnel, to obey Saudi customs has led to continued friction with the government of King Fahd. Saudi women who staged a protest in 1990 by daring to drive were arrested and punished. There have been few outward signs of discontent since then.

Shayji said the opposition to women's rights in Kuwait is more cultural than religious. Allowing women to vote would mean that their names, addresses and phone numbers would become public, which would be dangerous and offensive, he said.

"We do not believe in making women into men," Shayji said. "It is the same as opposition to the U.S. movement for globalization. Kuwait is Kuwait, and the U.S. is the U.S."

The Kuwaiti family, he said, could be damaged by political differences between wife and husband.

"This is not the United States, where the husband votes for Bush, the wife for Gore," he said. "In Kuwait, the man speaks for the family."

His movement's steadfast opposition to women's gaining the vote is unchanged by stories of Kuwaiti women risking death during the occupation.

"They are using this as a reason for entering into the political arena," he said. "They forgot that this is a duty they had to do for their country, not an exception."

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