The Plight of Kuwaiti Women

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ROLE MODEL: Ma'souma Al Mubarak was Kuwait's first female to be appointed as a minister, and one of the first four female MPs in the National Assembly

Will the upcoming parliament see more female MPs?

By Abdullah Alelyan

On October 17, Kuwait’s Ruler Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmed Al Sabah recently disbanded the country’s National Assembly, also known as Kuwait’s Parliament, following a letter by the government citing the legislatives body’s lack of cooperation.

Al Sabah also called for early parliamentary elections to be held on November 26 to allow for a new parliament to take over.

Despite the complicated political life in Kuwait, that is strained by the continuous tug-of-war between the opposition and the government, (which saw the Emir of the country disband the Parliament on several occasions in the past), the news of new elections heralds hopes of another sort.

The disbanded Parliament, which was elected back in 2013, had one female member—Safa Al Hashem—among the 50-strong Parliament deputies.

Knowing that Kuwait only endorsed women’s right to vote and to run for political posts on May 16, 2005, one would expect that Kuwait, arguably the Arab Gulf region’s truest democracy with its active political parties and margin of political freedoms, to have an abundant representation of its women in the political arena.

Yet, since 2009, only four Kuwaiti women managed to reach the Parliament through different elections.

Even though Al Hashem was the only woman in the current outgoing Parliament, she had tendered in her resignation last year to register a political stand.

With the new elections coming up, many women in Kuwait hope that this would be an opportunity for them to have more representation within the legislative body, despite many Kuwaitis’ doubts that garnering such a success would happen soon.

“There are many out there who continue to put sticks in wheels when it comes to women’s worth. Some say a woman is a failure and is not suitable for political office,” Ma’souma Al Mubarak, Kuwait’s first ever female minister and former MP tells Newsweek Middle East.

Mubarak, who was assigned to four ministerial posts since 2009, and was one of the first four female MPs, adds that women managed to induce effective change since they became part of the political office in Kuwait.

“When I was the Minister for Planning, I helped introduce an important amendment that banned all ministries from specifying the gender of applicants for any government-related jobs. Prior to the amendment of Decree 949, there were ministries that specified they wanted male candidates to certain jobs,” she says proudly.

Mubarak is also a political science professor at the University of Kuwait, and she stresses that it would be “malicious” of people to claim that women provide nothing to Kuwait’s political arena.

Most of those who tend to “put sticks in wheels,” according to Kuwaiti women, are Islamist groups who oppose the presence of females in public. However, there are Kuwaitis who also blame the women for not being active enough in terms of supporting one another.

Rawan Al Fadli of the Progressive Party is against the allegations that women do not support one another.

“This is a phrase that was created by the media and the public believed it,” she says, adding that women must believe in themselves and carry on with their fight for representation. Journalist Iqbal Al Ahmad believes that the Kuwaiti society in general does not favor women in politics.

“There has to be government support, even if briefly, which helps women prove themselves and consequently, the society will start accepting the idea,” she tells Newsweek Middle East.

Another Kuwaiti reporter tells Newsweek Middle East that a very well-known former Kuwaiti MP who was an Islamist was always endorsed by women.

“Musallem Al Barrak, an opposition Islamist MP, who is currently in jail, always opposed having women working in political posts. Strangely, Barrak always won on the back of women voting for him extensively,” the reporter adds.

In that sense, Ahmad believes that there is a situation of “double standards” among Kuwait’s Islamic currents who, prior to the government endorsing women’s political rights in 2005 were always issuing fatwas (Islamic legal ruling’s) and statements that women should be banned from taking part in the political life, but after the endorsement of those rights “the same Islamists were the first to rush and utilize women to benefit from their votes.”

On the other hand, Khwala Al Atiji, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood-related party the Islamic Constitutional Movement (ICM), claims that in her opinion, women’s political experience, especially in parliament, has been unsuccessful.

However, she holds that Kuwaiti women’s experience as ministers has been “relatively successful,” despite the country having only one female minister at present in a cabinet of 14.

Atiji further tells Newsweek Middle East that she believes women must succeed on their own, as an individual or a member of a party “because the Kuwaiti man in politics is not more educated than woman, nor is [he] stronger.”

In that sense, Iman Al Issa, the secretary general of the Popular Labor Movement in Kuwait, believes that the current period in Kuwait “is filled with hardships and challenges, and controlled by corrupt persons, to which women’s political aspirations can’t hold their ground.”

For that matter, Issa says she “is not optimistic when it comes to any political breakthroughs for women in the near future.”

Indeed, it has been over 10 years since Kuwaiti women nailed their political right to vote, to run for elections, and to hold public office. However, those rights remain ink on paper, according to activist Sarah Al Idriss, who tells Newsweek Middle East that women are being opposed by many in Kuwait, including Islamists, aside from the society which sees strong women as “tomboys.”

In Idriss’s opinion, Kuwait needs a strong female role model to push the society forward, just like what happened when Mubarak was assigned as the first female minister.

 

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