Kuwait still divided on women's voteBy Jonathan Gorvett in KuwaitThursday 22 June 2006, 7:52 Makka Time, 4:52 GMT Kuwaiti women demonstrating for electoral reform in May
For the first time in the emirate's history, Kuwaiti women have won the right to join their men in voting for a new parliament, but the battle seems far from over.
It is a move described by many as historic, coming almost a year after a campaign by advocates of female enfranchisement won through, despite strong opposition from traditional, tribal and Islamist deputies.
Yet as the campaign moves into its closing stages, the widespread view is that many women will probably cast their votes for just those conservative and even anti-enfranchisement candidates.
"Most women did not want to participate in politics," says Islamist candidate and member of parliament Waleed M al-Tabtabae, who is running in Kuwait City's hotly contested Keifan district.
He voted against women being given the vote when the subject was debated last year in parliament.
"This was a heavy duty put upon them. The majority of women are in favour of us and opposed to having the vote," he told Aljazeera.net.
The June 29 elections were called by Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, the emir, after he dissolved parliament last month.
In the crossfire
The issue of the franchise has drawn strong reactions from many women too.
At a recent diwaniya, or assembly, called by al-Tabtabae to promote his campaign, one woman in the audience asked: "Why should we vote for you when you voted against us having the right to vote?"
Kuwaiti women voted in municipal
elections for the first time in April
She was immediately shouted down by other women and told she was "not welcome".
"I was amazed," said Massuma al-Zaid, who will probably vote in Keifan for Aisha al-Reshaid, one of 30 female candidates in the race for 50 seats in the National Assembly.
"To be shouted down by people who are ready to vote away their own rights."
Others see things differently.
Fatimah al-Haysa, who will vote for al-Tabtabae, says: "It is about Islam and about protecting the family. We do not want to see these things eroded by ideas which we feel are not in keeping with our beliefs."
Kuwait's Islamic authorities are generally behind women voting, provided they do so in separate voting booths and attend separate, women-only campaign meetings.
Most candidates have therefore organised two separate election headquarters and are running two parallel campaigns.
"This makes for some difficulty," says al-Tabtabae. "It is very difficult for us to communicate with the women and hear their point of view. Of course, before, when only men could vote or run for office, the relationship between the candidate and the voters was much easier and more open."
Follow husband's advice
Kuwait's Islamic authorities have also advised women to take account of the experience and advice of their husbands - advice which most candidates expect to be honoured.
"I think 80% of the women will follow their husbands or fathers when it comes to deciding who to vote for," says Abdulwahed Al Awadi, running in the constituency of Daiyah.
Yet the view that women will simply follow the advice of their men is also contested, particularly by the generation of young activists who fought for female enfranchisement.
One such activist, the Kuwait Times columnist Shamael Al Sharikh, says: "I have heard this idea that women will end up backing conservative candidates, because the conservative families will be stricter at enforcing female obedience.
"But they also said women would be too shy to come forward and participate. Instead we have seen many women participating in the debates, standing as candidates - taking an active role."
Al-Reshaid's campaign has seen her election posters torn down, allegedly by the Takfeer Wal Hijara, a hardline Islamist group.
Four Kuwaitis charged with being members of the Takfeer were recently arrested on suspicion of vandalising al-Reshaid's billboards.
"Kuwaiti women refuse to accept such behaviour in dealing with female candidates," al-Reshaid told reporters.
Women are also the numerical majority in the elections, an anomaly caused by the fact that when women won the vote, all Kuwaiti females of eligible age were automatically registered on the electoral roll.
Men have always had to register voluntarily. At the same time, Kuwait's military, almost entirely made up of men, is prohibited from voting.
Naji Abdulhadi, a candidate in the Khaldiya district, says women's participation is "changing the whole picture".
Kuwaiti women will no longer sit
on the sidelines
"There is a saying that women will not go further than their husband, and in some areas I think that's so, but in some instances it's the woman who convinces the man."
Yet few male candidates expect any of the 30 women candidates to get elected.
"They needed six months, not one month, for a campaign, if women were to get elected," says Abdulhadi. "If, one day, we have party lists, then I can see them getting in."
Political parties and primaries are banned in Kuwait, although unofficial groupings exist and selection meetings are often held secretly.
Added into the mix is the contentious issue of electoral reform which the National Assembly had taken up prior to its dissolution.
Analyst and commentator Kemal Al Harami thinks Kuwait "may be entering a period of instability, politically".
"The new parliament will also push for five constituencies, and when it gets them, it may resign, forcing another election.
"What's also interesting this time is not only women's participation in all this, but the youth. It is the young Kuwaitis who are driving both female enfranchisement and the electoral reform, not parliament."
If that is the case, then the voting on June 29 could demonstrate the breaking of many longstanding traditions - both between genders and generations.
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