- The Washington Times - Friday, September 17, 2004

The Bush administration has made women’s political participation a critical part of democracy-building in Iraq and Afghanistan, and both Bahrain and Qatar have granted women voting rights in the relatively recent past. But despite the fact that it boasts the first female Arab-Muslim ambassador to the United Nations, Kuwait is one of three countries on the Arab peninsula that has yet to grant women the right to vote or to run for parliament.

Kuwait boasts an educated female population that is an active part of the labor force. Although social limitations remain, women have reached prominent positions in both the government and the private sector. Kuwait’s constitution guarantees that men and women are equal under the law, but Kuwait limits voting rights to males 21 years of age. Women’s-rights supporters have been seeking reform for decades, but the issue did not gain political impetus until 1999 — when Emir Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmed al-Sabah sent a bill to parliament granting women full political rights. The bill was voted down by a mere two votes. In the autumn of 2000, the women’s-rights bill was reintroduced, but a legislative committee again rejected it.

Two issues are at stake here — the right to vote and the ability to run for office. A bill is currently before the Kuwaiti parliament, which is set to reconvene in October, that would grant women the right to do both. However, the legislation is waylaid in the Interior Committee and could remain in committee indefinitely or be amended merely to granting voting rights.

Numerous voices cry out from the Islamic scholarly community about the political participation of females. But although Islam is well known for its slights to women in regards such as inheritance laws and bearing witness in court, nowhere does the Koran say that women should not have an equal say in the political process. In fact, women have headed governments in several Muslim (but not yet Arab) countries — Bangladesh, Indonesia, Pakistan and Turkey. Many women’s-rights supporters cite Islam in support of their political participation, but Kuwaiti tribal groups and some conservative voices have remained firmly resistant to the idea. And since these voices are some of the best-organized and well-funded political blocs in Kuwait, granting women the right to vote could result in a loss of seats for liberal and progressive voices.

The decision ultimately lies within the Kuwaiti parliament, but the emir and cabinet exert tremendous influence. Voting rights eventually will be granted to Kuwaiti women, but it is a question of when. The success of the current bill depends on how heavily the Kuwaiti government lobbies parliament. Washington should continue working toward democracy in the Middle East, and urge Kuwait to empower women.

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