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Kuwait: Despite a Salafist Fatwa Against Them, Four Women Win Elections

Sunday 31 May 2009, by siawi

Inter Press Service, 22 May 2009

Kuwait: ‘Gender-Bender’ Election Raises Optimism

by N. Janardhan

DUBAI, May 22 (IPS) - Despite the reappointment of the Kuwaiti ruler’s nephew as premier, the results of last week’s elections - the historic victories of women candidates, and the decline of Islamist representation in parliament - are being perceived as a vote for change in the Gulf state.

"The results have contributed to a mood of relief and satisfaction. It is a vote for change," says Ghanim Al-Najjar, professor of political science at Kuwait University.

According to Farah Al-Nakib, a Kuwaiti scholar at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, "To have four strong and smart women get elected to parliament is a turning point in Kuwait’s history. It indicates that Kuwaitis are fed up of the political deadlock, social stagnation, economic crisis, and conservative repression plaguing the country for some time."

"Most of all, this election proves that the Kuwaiti people are ready for real change. It is a vote against status quo and a vote for something and someone new," she told IPS.

One of the elected women members of parliament, former minister Massouma Al-Mubarak’s reaction to the media encapsulated the prevailing mood. "This is the will of the Kuwaiti people for change. We hope the results will lead to political stability and help achieve the desired cooperation between parliament and government."

Women captured four seats in the 50-member National Assembly in the May 16 polling, after two unsuccessful bids in 2006 and 2008. This is the first time women have been elected since parliament was established in 1962, and women were granted political rights in 2005.

Statistically, nearly 55 percent of the 384,000 eligible voters are women. Of the 210 candidates in the fray, 16 were women and the overall voter turnout of 58 percent was down from last year’s 65 percent.

Reflecting a departure from the past, the parliament now has 21 new MPs. The strength of Islamist MPs - who had extended their influence over the last two decades - has eroded. Sunni Islamists and their tribal allies now have 11 seats in the parliament, down from 21. While Shiites increased their tally from five to nine, Liberals moved from five to seven.

The political exercise was conducted after the emir, Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, dissolved parliament in March - following a prolonged standoff between the ruling family-dominated Cabinet and elected MPs. At the heart of the crisis were the parliament’s repeated attempts to question the prime minister.

While there was a keen expectation that the emir would appoint a new prime minister, Sheikh Nasser Al-Mohammad Al-Sabah has been reappointed. Sceptics point to the re-election of some MPs who had targetted Sheikh Nasser as a recipe for renewed confrontation when the parliament reconvenes on May 31.

Although MPs have legislative and monitoring powers, they have no influence over the composition of the cabinet - which comprises several ruling family members. Since MPs can grill ministers and vote them out of office, there has been immense friction in the National Assemby.

However, optimism prevails about the new parliament being progressive and long lasting, especially since the country has witnessed three parliaments and five governments since 2006 - the last one surviving for just two months.

"It is hard to predict if this parliament will be less confrontational than the previous one. While indications point towards a more cooperative and productive parliament, much also depends on the nature of the cabinet that will be in place soon," Al-Najjar of Kuwait University told IPS.

Politics apart, the election of women MPs Massouma Al-Mubarak, Aseel Al- Awadhi, Rola Dashti and Salwa Al-Jassar is the crowing glory of the just concluded polls and a development of immense social significance.

Kuwait scholar Al-Nakib says, "These pioneers will certainly play a critical role in shaping Kuwait’s future. It is also a major step for women’s empowerment in the country and the region. Their election proves that Kuwaiti women can and will achieve their goals if they are determined to, even against odds."

According to Mary Ann Tetreault, professor of international affairs at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, "In spite of all four women having advanced degrees [doctorates from the United States], they present a spectrum of female activism and engagement. The diversity of this first female cohort in the National Assembly will make it hard to view and speak about them as ‘liberals’."

Elaborating on the fallacy of some branding them as liberals, Tetreault told IPS, "They are only liberal in the sense of being open-minded, but they all have different visions, ideological perspectives, issue interests, and approaches to policy that will become more evident as they engage in parliamentary life."

In fact, she added, the women’s success reflects the Islamists’ poor performance. "Two women MPs outpolled Islamist MPs. It is perhaps this factor that stimulated the Salafi fatwa [decree] stating women running for political office were committing a sin and that voting for a woman is a sin."

Explaining the rationale behind the support for women candidates, the Kuwait specialist said, "This [fatwa] may have stimulated a counter-movement favouring the women, apart from the trend to support ‘new faces’. This also reflects the notion that women would behave differently from men in the parliament and that male MPs may behave better in front of women."

While this is debatable, Tetreault said, "any improvement in parliamentary decorum would be a plus, given the contentious issues that the new National Assembly will be called upon to decide."