Gustavo Ferrari/AP
Winning parliamentarian candidate for the second constituency, Salwa Al Jassar, right,
receives a bouquet of flowers for her victory.

First Kuwaiti Women Are Elected to Parliament

May 19, 2009 08:00 PM
by Anne Szustek
Four women were elected to the parliament of Kuwait, a mere four years after women were granted suffrage in the country.

“A victory for Kuwaiti women and…for Kuwaiti democracy”

Four of the 16 female candidates running for Kuwait’s 50-seat parliament were elected Sunday; they are the first women elected since the Persian Gulf nation became a democracy in 1962.

All four women hold doctorates from American universities and are members of Kuwait’s Liberal voting bloc (the country has blocs instead of political parties).

One of the newly elected, Aseel al-Awadhi, a University of Texas-educated political philosophy professor at Kuwait University, was quoted as saying to Agence France-Presse by London paper The Times, “It’s a victory for Kuwaiti women and a victory for Kuwaiti democracy.”

Among the other four elected was Massouma al-Mubarak, who became the country’s first cabinet member in 2005, the same year Kuwaiti women were given the right to vote and run for office. According to Kuwait Times, she is planning to run for the parliament’s deputy speaker seat.

Dubai-based paper Gulf News reported that the four female members of parliament are expected to have real voting power, thanks to the majority won by liberal and Arab nationalist voting blocs. This would be a welcome change from how female politicos have been treated in the country up until now.

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Background: Kuwaiti women and politics

Kuwait’s parliament granted women suffrage and the right to run for public office in 2005. Today, according to The Times, women constitute 54.3 percent of the 385,000 Kuwaitis eligible to vote. But women who have sought a place in the Kuwaiti political sphere have not always had steadfast support.

Case in point: Massouma al-Mubarak, one of the newly elected MPs. Four years ago, she was named the country’s Minister of Planning, making her the first female cabinet member in the country’s history. In 2006, she became Minister of Transport and then Minister of Health the following year.

She wound up resigning from her post. Gulf News and the BBC write that pressure from Islamist deputies may have played a role, although the official line was that there was disapproval over her management of a hospital fire.

The BBC reported that religious conservatives also made life difficult for Kuwaiti Education Minister Nouria Sbeih, the second woman to serve on the nation’s cabinet. From the moment she took office, Islamists criticized her for not wearing a headscarf. Later, Sbeih successfully survived a no-confidence vote called over her liberal approach to university sex segregation laws. The majority of Islamists voted to keep Sbeih in office, but religious hardliners have not been as approving in other matters concerning the mixing of men and women.

They successfully managed to keep Kuwaiti women away from the ballot box for years. When suffrage for women came in 2005, they stipulated that there should be separate voting areas for men and women.

Kuwaiti MP Ali al-Rashed has faced death threats over his proposal for coeducation, he told the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “One zealot, not one of the Islamists, threatened that if I did not withdraw the proposal he would shoot me,” he said. Kuwaiti men and women attended the same university lectures from 1965 until 1996, when the Islamists took power and separated classes by gender.

Related Topic: Iran’s upcoming elections

Less than half the number of those who registered to run in the 2005 Iranian presidential elections has signed on for candidacy in next month’s elections. The New York Times reported that 40 of Iran’s candidates are women, although it is believed the female presidential hopefuls will be barred.

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