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Kuwait’s Tenacious Suffragettes

Kuwaiti MPs (L-R) Salwa al-Jassar, Rola Dashti, Massuma al-Mubarak and Aseel al-Awadhi attend the inaugural session of the new parliament in Kuwait City on 31 May 2009.

In 2009, Kuwait was the poster boy—or rather, poster girl—for women’s political participation in the Gulf. For the first time in its history, women were elected into the Kuwaiti parliament. Four women won seats; at the time this was the largest number of female MPs to be directly elected to parliament in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region. Three years later, this regional promotion for universal suffrage resembles a somewhat sad and faded ad campaign. The year 2012 has not been a good one for Kuwaiti women in politics. Not one of the twenty-three female candidates who ran for election this February made it into the National Assembly. However, all is not lost as women may yet make a comeback in snap elections taking place this Saturday.

Turbulent times

The disappointing results for female candidates in February came in the context of a particularly tumultuous year for Kuwaiti parliamentary politics. The first country in the Gulf to have an elected parliament, Kuwait boasts a lively political scene—often proving too lively to keep MPs in Parliament for any reasonable length of time. Kuwait has seen off five parliaments in as many years. For the first four women ever to sit in the assembly—Rola Dashti, Massouma Al-Mubarak, Aseel Al-Awadhi and Salwa Al-Jassar—the entrance into politics was less a learning curve than a baptism by fire. Since their election, the 2009 parliament has been gripped by corruption scandals. Anti-government street protests have swelled and protestors stormed Parliament in November 2011, ultimately leading to the resignation of the prime minister and the dissolution of parliament late last year. The early disbanding of the 2009 parliament in December 2011 meant that women’s inaugural time in Parliament lasted all of 31 months.

The quick turnover is essentially the result of a standoff between the royally appointed Cabinet and the popularly elected Parliament. The vicious cycle of political stalemate goes something like this: MPs and protestors challenge the Cabinet on grounds of corruption, parliament is dissolved, a new anti-government parliament is installed, and around we go again. In the latest cycle following the dissolution of the 2009 parliament, the new parliament elected in February 2012 was dissolved in June only to be replaced by the old 2009 parliament, which was then dissolved in October. Still following? The forthcoming elections on 1 December will decide Kuwait’s third parliament of 2012.

By early 2012, the dizzying rotation of parliaments had left women’s parliamentary participation out of the loop. The political instability polarized the electorate. In the February election campaign, women’s moderate platforms failed to capture the attention of a disillusioned electorate who instead voted in a parliament dominated by tribal and Islamist candidates. Unsurprisingly, voters had lost confidence in the parliamentary process and sought refuge in identity and street politics.

The February election campaign was one of extremes. Identities became more important than political agendas. Rola Dashti, one of the first four female MPs and currently the only woman in the Kuwaiti Cabinet, believes that the reason women were unable to secure any seats in February was because of this “identity protection.” She explained that once voters had lost faith in the parliamentary system, they no longer voted according to the candidate’s platform, but rather for the candidate who would best protect their identity. In Kuwait, identity often translates as tribe. “A tribal person would vote for the most extreme representative of his tribe,” Dashti told The Majalla in reference to identity protection and the huge gains made by tribal candidates in February’s election. The loose alliance of tribal and Islamist candidates took thirty-four of the fifty seats in parliament.

The losers were those who represented the middle ground. The campaign was marked by nasty rhetoric and the maligning of opponents, including liberal female candidates. “The propaganda against women was very ugly,” Massouma Al-Mubarak, former MP and current candidate, told The Majalla. She went on to say that fatwas were issued in an attempt to prohibit the participation of women in politics. In December 2011, former MP Jamal Al-Omar told the Kuwait Times that “some mosques are being used to support certain candidates and millions are being spent on the media to defame opponents.”

The polarised politics of February were an echo of the early noughties, when women in Kuwait were first given the right to vote and run for office in 2005, and conservatives in Parliament succeeded in dissuading voters from electing women until 2009. There was an active campaign led by some of the opposition to dissuade the electorate from voting for women again this year. “Opposition groups fought fiercely to deprive female candidates of votes,” said Kuwaiti journalist and political analyst Ahmad Al-Essa. The loosely termed opposition is an assortment of liberals, reformists, Islamists, nationalists, youth and tribal groups—not all of whom participated in the name-calling.

Before all women’s woes are unequivocally laid at the door of the conservative opposition, former female parliamentarians may need to take some responsibility for their losses. Despite the unfavorable political climate, some observers argue that the four female MPs made their own political deathbeds. After all, the election campaign—whether played nicely or not—was democracy in action and represented the will of the people. “The women elected in 2009 were perceived as being too pro-government and not having taken bold decisions that aligned them with the populist opposition camp,” Kuwait expert Kristian Ulrichsen told The Majalla. The criticism directed at the women was likely a reflection of the general disappointment with the 2009 parliament; voters may have punished the female candidates running for re-election after their reputations were tainted by association with an opaque parliament.

Some commentators have gone so far as to accuse the former female MPs of abandoning their electoral platforms and giving women in politics a bad name. Ayesh Al-Rasheed, a female candidate who ran in the 2009 elections, told Al-Arabiya news that she decided not to compete in February, citing the “incompetency” of the former female MPs as a reason for her departure from politics. Al-Rasheed went on to accuse the women of winning seats on the coattails of the government. Dashti, one of the accused, was quick to come to the defense of the MPs, saying that women parliamentarians won “on their own merits.” She cited the calabre of the candidates, who were highly educated women from a wide spectrum of professional fields. Dashti believes that in the end it was “people support” that swept the female candidates into parliament in 2009.

The claim that female MPs abandoned their platforms ignores the women’s considerable achievements during their short-lived time in Parliament. The four female MPs oversaw 5 rulings reducing discrimination against women in Kuwaiti society, including over women’s employment and passport rights. Former MP and current candidate Massouma Al-Mubarak felt that much of the progress made by women in Parliament went unreported in the media and therefore failed to reach the voters. “Since that time we’ve explained to the voters what we’ve done and why the media didn’t reach people,” Al-Mubarak told The Majalla.

A convincing comeback?

With fresh elections scheduled for this Saturday, all eyes are again on the opposition after they decided to boycott the ballot—but what of the women? Three hundred ninety-seven candidates, fifteen of whom are women, signed up to compete over the fifty parliamentary seats. Are we to see a repeat of February’s results? Dashti thinks not: in February, “society was stressed because of the parliamentary instability,” but now it’s different, because people are “sick and tired of bickering.” Dashti believes that Kuwaitis now care more about political stability than identity protection: “This time people will not resort to their identity but to the state,” she asserted. A pioneer of women’s suffrage in Kuwait, Dashti also remarked that increased collaboration between different candidates should lead to less polarization of the electorate. Both Dashti and Al-Mubarak are confident women will fare better in the forthcoming elections; predicting that up to five female candidates will win seats in the next Parliament.

Although Dashti’s forecast for less “bickering” seems hugely optimistic given the current stand-off between those boycotting the elections and those choosing to run, she is right in thinking women will perform better. The opposition’s decision to boycott the elections following the emir’s controversial decree concerning the electoral law will only further propel women into Parliament as opposition voters abandon the elections. Pro-government voters supporting women’s liberal platforms are expected to come out in force. “If pro-government forces take advantage of the opposition boycott and do better than expected, we might well see the election of more women to the National Assembly,” said Ulrichsen.

The new electoral law reduced the number of votes per person from four to one. Those boycotting the election argue the electoral law serves pro-government candidates because it prevents the formation of electoral alliances, which allowed an exchange of votes between opposition candidates for reciprocal support. In addition to the boycott, the new electoral law itself may also work in women’s favour. Minorities and independents are more likely to benefit from a system preventing electoral coalitions. “The emir’s initiative to decrease the votes from four to one serves the minorities,” said Kuwaiti political analyst Ahmad Al-Essa.

Kuwaiti women choose their candidates before casting their ballots at a polling station in Kuwait City on 2 February 2012.

Women voters may make a big difference in this respect. Kuwaiti women make up the larger percentage of the electorate, totaling 52 percent of voters. Referring to the new electoral law, current candidate Massouma Al-Mubarak said, “Women will be more willing to give women their vote, at least this is what I understand from the voters when I’m talking to them about [women’s] issues.” Although she does concede that the new electoral law could go either way, she adds, “For women, this is the first time we’ve tried it so we don’t know if it’ll work in our favor or not.” However, she does stress that the new law will be a “good thing for society as a whole.” The opposition is far from agreed.

Democracy and legitimacy

Kuwait has witnessed its largest-ever street protests since the royal decree on the electoral law was first announced in October. As a result, Kuwaiti women in politics have not been confined to Parliament. The irony is that although the most popular opposition parties threaten to curtail the rights of women, the mass opposition demonstrations have attracted more women to popular politics than ever before. The change is tangible enough for the Kuwait Times to become rather flustered: “The current political situation and recent events have introduced some strange and negative phenomena into the conservative Kuwaiti society. The most visible is the participation of women in the protests,” wrote staff writer Nawara Fattahova. Long-held traditions are being challenged as Kuwaiti women forge a new political path for themselves.

The emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, is currently enjoying some respite from the political chaos at home with a three-day state visit to the United Kingdom. On Tuesday evening, Queen Elizabeth hosted the emir at Windsor Castle for a royal banquet, a far cry from Kuwait City’s troubled streets. His official delegation includes Saffa Al-Hashem, a female candidate for the third electoral district. She is an outspoken advocate for women’s rights and in January this year sat on a panel discussion concerning Kuwait’s political impasse called Rescuing a Nation. Al-Hashem blamed the lack of cooperation between the executive and the legislative authorities in Kuwait for the slow progress in resolving Kuwait’s political problems. To a certain extent that same lack of cooperation is failing female parliamentarians, who have never experienced a normally-functioning parliament.

At heart, the setback for Kuwaiti women in politics stems from the reality that Kuwait is a fledgling democracy still in its early experimental phases. It is hardly surprising that female candidates have suffered disappointment in their parliamentary debut marked by political growing pains. If women do make it in to the next Parliament—which appears a likely prospect—their next challenge will be to prove their legitimacy to the Kuwaiti people, and especially the opposition. The boycott will likely ensure the victory of a cabinet-friendly parliament, which may temporarily calm relations between the Parliament and the government, but in the eyes of the opposition it will be null and void. At her first election rally last week, Al-Hashem voiced what many others will be wondering: “How do we link democracy with people who think that without them the Parliament is unconstitutional and Kuwait no longer respects freedoms?” Female parliamentarians will have to go some way in convincing their opponents that parliament is the only viable avenue for decision-making. In the words of current female candidate Massouma Al-Mubarak, “We have to be committed to the constitution, we have to make changes through the constitution, not through the streets.”

The strange political hybrid that is Kuwait’s semi-democracy—the marrying of popularly elected institutions alongside the royally appointed—will have to make space for Kuwait’s determined female parliamentarians, who are far from giving up. When asked about her expectations for the upcoming elections, Al-Mubarak enthused, “I am always optimistic. If I wasn’t I wouldn’t stand for election. We are open to surprises.”

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Grace Perriman
Grace Perriman is a desk editor at The Majalla. She was previously a freelance writer who penned Middle East-inspired travel writing and blogged the first year of the Syrian uprising from Damascus. Grace received her bachelor’s degree in Arabic and Persian from the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. A keen traveler, she has journeyed overland from Istanbul to Cairo, Tangiers to Bamako, and has crisscrossed Iran.

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