Breaking the Glass Ceiling

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Despite a relatively democratic legacy when compared to other countries in the region, the past few years have been unstable for Kuwait’s political system. Yet, amid the regular dissolution of parliament, in 2005 Kuwait made a major step forward in solidifying its democratic system and in promoting inclusion. It was in 2005 that women were given the right to vote and run for office in Kuwait. Four years later, four female candidates won seats in the parliament despite Islamist propaganda against their campaigns.  

Dr. Rola Dashti is part of this so-called Kuwaiti Quartet. Born in 1964, Dashti has been a prominent activist for gender equality in the country. Having been at the forefront of the campaign that gave women suffrage in Kuwait, her election and, indeed, her various other achievements are symbolic of the improvements in society that can come about if governments support inclusion and equality for women.

Like the three other women elected alongside her, Rola Dashti holds a doctorate and was educated in the US, having obtained her PhD in Population Economics from Johns Hopkins University. Apart from her distinguished education, Dashti’s professional trajectory is equally impressive. Dashti has worked as an economist at the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research, the National Bank of Kuwait, and the World Bank. She also managed contracts for the government’s Emergency and Reconstruction Program following the liberation of Kuwait in the 90s.

Dashti’s accomplishments and her support for women’s rights made her stand apart in the 2009 elections, which followed a particularly tumultuous moment in the country’s parliamentary politics. She, and the other women elected, were seen as fresh faces potentially capable of implementing the policies necessary to improve Kuwait. Even after her election Dashti’s obvious commitment to the country’s best interests have made her, in the eyes of many Kuwaitis, a harbinger of positive change. Dashti recognizes the unique situation she finds herself in. “People see women as saviors, as the ones who will bring real change,” she exclaimed in an interview with the Arab Reform Bulletin. Having been given the opportunity to create positive change, and prove to Kuwait that the advancement of women benefits everyone, Dashti’s policies have been levelheaded and at times even unpopular.

For one, she opposes the government’s stimulus package, arguing that it establishes incorrect economic standards. “Citizens should take responsibility during the crisis [and the habit of] taking from the country and not giving doesn’t work.” In an interview with the Kuwaiti Times, Dashti also criticized the possibility of a debt write-off, explaining that it is an unequal and unjust policy because not all citizens can benefit from it, including those who borrow from Islamic banks.

Although some of her most impressive policies have dealt with the economy, she and the rest of the Kuwaiti Quartet are present in every major committee, including finance, legislation, foreign affairs, health and education. In terms of her social policies, Dashti has proposed various programs, including healthcare and education reform. Women’s issues are still at the top of her agenda, and she has been placing particular focus on the financial rights of unmarried women and women married to non-Kuwaitis.

Beyond Kuwait, Dashti also hopes to impact the well being of women throughout the Gulf. When asked what she believed were the factors that limited the political representation of women in the region, she noted multiple reasons, including the religious and social environment as well as the attitude of political leaders who have not taken a clear position on what role exactly women should have in the public realm.

“In the Gulf,” she told the Carnegie Endowment, “there is a conflict between a modernizing and development-oriented perspective and a religious-tribal perspective. The latter fights to keep women at home and preserve the traditional arrangement of male domination of the public sphere and female limitation to the private sphere. Men have succeeded in the public sphere to the extent that they are giving up their roles at home. The modernizing perspective promotes a partnership between men and women in public life, and citizenship rights and duties for both. The struggle between these two trends remains unresolved, and here the third force appears—the government role—which is unstable and swings back and forth, one day siding with the modernizers and the next day with religious and tribal elements.”

Her position on the issue, however, is clear. She believes that women’s political participation stands much to gain from economic improvements, noting that even though women represent 30-40 percent of the workforce in the Gulf, their jobs tend to be lower skilled and less well paid. She also blames their lack of political power on what she calls “economic violence,” or the control of men over women’s money. Apart from giving women more financial power, Dashti believes that real change must come through strengthening the “genuine participation for women in a decision making post, a media alliance to highlight the role of women and their presence in public life, and supporting and developing young female leaders.”

Dashti’s commitment to women’s rights has gained her international acclaim. She was most recently awarded the North-South Prize by the Council of Europe alongside Mikhail Gorbachev for her campaigns on women’s suffrage.

Yet, for all of Dashti’s achievements, her unique situation as a women’s activist has garnered her much criticism as well. She has been called a traitor, an agent of the West, anti-religion and a destroyer of family values. Islamic fundamentalists have also made statements to the media that women do not belong in politics, and many have also insisted that the female MPs wear the hijab whenever parliament is in session. (Two out of the four women in parliament, including Dasthi, do not wear the headscarf). Dashti, however, negated that idea by arguing that such a rule would “violate articles in the constitution which call for gender equality.”

Dr. Dashti is largely responsible for much of the legislative and political advances of women’s rights in Kuwait. Her commitment to the advancement of women is unwavering, and the progress she has instilled in Kuwait is slowly becoming a model for other countries in the Gulf. Beyond being an advocate for women, however, Dashti is a committed politician. While one of her passions remains the rights of women, her policies have all of Kuwait’s interest at heart.

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