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2/9/04 Kuwait's Parliament Considers Women's Political Rights, Again by Mary Ann Tétreault

(Mary Ann Tétreault teaches political science at Trinity University in San Antonio.)

When Kuwait's parliament reconvenes in late October, it will be facing a full agenda. Member initiatives include an ambitious redistricting bill and threats to interpellate at least two cabinet ministers. The government's wish list is equally contentious; it includes a wide-ranging privatization program and a proposal to confer full political rights on Kuwaiti women. Despite promises of enfranchisement in return for their highly lauded performance resisting the Iraqi occupation of 1990-1991, Kuwaiti women are still denied the rights to vote and run for national office.

In the summer of 1999, the Kuwaiti emir issued a decree granting women these rights that the parliament voted down — twice — that November. As the new women's rights bill was endorsed by the Council of Ministers on May 16, 2004, the fifth anniversary of the failed emiri decree, it has been greeted gingerly by Kuwaiti suffragists and attracted only a few scathing remarks from the usual suspects in Parliament. Just a few weeks before the next act will open in one of Kuwait's longest-running political melodramas, the bill has evoked little debate.

“Melodrama” is not too flippant a term for the reluctance of the parliament to recognize Kuwaiti women as full citizens, and in fact, “soap opera” is an even better metaphor. Melodramas are highly emotional productions but they do end, usually quite happily. Soap operas go on and on. Characters age and some even die but the basic relationship among them lives on, its tensions forever unresolved. What brings viewers back day after day is not the prospect of a happy ending; it is schadenfreude.


The main characters in the soap opera, Kuwaiti women, do not fit the standard Western “Arab” or “Muslim” stereotype. In fact, Kuwait has long been the home of a vigorous women's rights movement. Beginning in the early 1970s, middle- and upper-class women began lobbying for political rights and for fundamental changes in Kuwait's family law. Not just a reaction to the lack of formal political rights, Kuwaiti feminist activism is even more a result of the individual freedom women enjoy and the prominence of their public roles. Despite gender disparity in some laws and policies, other aspects of Kuwait's oil-fueled modernization have been administered more equitably. Universal education, health care and job opportunities have proven highly advantageous to Kuwaiti women, who compete successfully in the classroom and in the market. Kuwait's organic law, with its formal commitment to equality, is a feminist mainstay, providing a normative justification for women's continuing efforts to achieve equal rights under a constitution that is widely respected by the population.

Yet despite their public words of appreciation for women's resistance activities in 1990-1991, for years ruling family leaders did nothing to honor their promises of enfranchisement. In response, women stepped up their 20-year struggle. The Women's Cultural and Social Society (WCSS), the only survivor of Kuwait's earliest feminist organizing, invited liberal parliamentarians to public debates on women's political rights and organized a silent march on the premises of the National Assembly. Refusing to surrender to clamoring religious critics, women brought the debate on political rights into numerous public conferences. In 1995, Kuwaiti suffragists established a network, the Women's Issues Committee (WIC), to coordinate the many pro-suffrage activities of liberal voluntary associations such as the WCSS and the Graduates Society.

As the 1996 parliamentary election approached, the suffragist campaign intensified. The WIC urged women to stay home from work for a day and to wear blue ribbons in symbolic protest against the denial of their political rights. On election day, suffragists wearing their blue ribbons picketed polling stations and afterward, they continued attempts to bring court cases against public officials who refused to allow them to register to vote. In 1997, several WCSS board members joined a new political bloc, the National Democratic Forum, as founding members. Suffragists also lobbied for a measure to give women the right to vote and run for positions on the Municipal Council, an initiative rejected by a parliamentary committee on March 21, 2004.

Anti-suffrage forces have countered the suffragists' efforts by parading women opposed to the vote before the public. Female “antis” hurl the same accusations — that women's political rights contravene Islam or that women have all the rights they need in Islam — using the same rhetoric as their male counterparts. These arguments have been wearing thin, however. Islamist women joined liberals in pro-suffrage activism during the 1990s and their numbers rose sharply in response to the 1999 emiri decree. The conservative Federation of Kuwaiti Women's Associations revived its Women's Political Committee. Liberal activist Nouria al-Sadani established Kuwaiti Women of the Twenty-First Century to do grassroots mobilization while the WCSS, headed by Lulua al-Mulla, and WIC, headed by Fatma al-Abadalli, continued their lobbying campaigns. There was so much activity across the spectrum of women's organizations that a “Voluntary Working Group” was formed by Khawla al-Attiqi and Khadija al-Mahmeed, both Islamist activists, and Badriya al-Awadi, an attorney and liberal activist, to coordinate the efforts of all the groups working for the passage of the decree in the National Assembly.

Given the number of women involved in the suffragist movement from both the Islamist and liberal camps, it seems odd that the opponents of female suffrage could blame the defeat of the emiri decree on differences of opinion among women. But they did, for otherwise the two masculine characters who round out the cast of the soap opera might have to acknowledge their own responsibility. These characters, in the corporate persons of the parliament and the ruling family, broadly represent Kuwaiti men who, though otherwise divided, seem to be united in support of their gender interests.


“Gender interests” is a term coined by Maxine Molyneux in her examination of women's roles in the Nicaraguan revolution. For Molyneux, “strategic” gender interests are concerned with achieving power and autonomy for the group as a whole, while “practical” gender interests revolve around issues of everyday life. In Kuwait, strategic gender interests unite liberal and Islamist women seeking political and social empowerment to change laws that discriminate against them as women. At the same time, the practical gender interests of women often clash, in such things as veiling or working outside the home. Kuwaiti men have parallel strategic gender interests in preserving masculine power, along with a collection of practical gender interests in such things as escaping responsibility for tiresome household chores. For both women and men, it is obvious that the most important interests are strategic. People can compromise in decisions about who has to drive the maid to church on Sunday or take the kids to Entertainment City on the weekend. So far, however, Kuwaiti men have shown little interest in reforming personal status law to end polygyny or to make divorce equally available to husbands and wives. The prospect of opening electoral politics — one of the last remaining male-only venues — to competition from women is not likely to warm their hearts.

These gender interests are not new, of course, but they are newly visible. Before the mass migration of Islamist women into the ranks of the suffragists, masculine gender interests could be cloaked behind religious and ideological differences. Islamists and traditionalists squared off against liberals and modernists on the issue of women's political rights. The first group grounded its views in religious doctrine and Kuwaiti social mores, while the second both disagreed with these interpretations of religion and tradition and argued in support of female equality as a milestone on the road to modernity.

Class conflicts tended to reinforce this split. The merchant class was the first to educate its women, while the vibrant, oil-income-generated secular middle class valued educated women as social ornaments and economic assets. Other members of the new middle classes, along with men from economically and socially disadvantaged families, were resentful of successful upper- and middle-class women. The former were deployed by their families in strategic positions in the economy, blocking the rise of the “new men” produced by mass public education and ruling family cultivation of alliances outside the old merchant elite. The latter were more than able to compete for places on other ladders to prominence, such as admission to medical, law and engineering programs. To the representatives of socially disadvantaged men, many of whom had to rely on the mosque or the tribe as their stepping stones to power and wealth, the continual defeat of women's political rights in Parliament was one of the few ways available to put these women in their place. Meanwhile, liberal modernist parliamentarians unwilling to forego their masculine prerogatives could rely on reflexive opposition from the other side and vote for female suffrage without having to worry that it might actually pass.

This ideological division is no longer so effective at separating women, making it difficult to conceal masculinist opposition to women's rights behind the veil of Islamist-versus-liberal politics. A few pro-suffragist analyses of the November 30, 1999 parliamentary vote concentrate on this point. Political scientist Abdallah al-Shayeji, for instance, argues that the liberals voted strategically, defeating the bill yet allowing liberal and Shiite Islamist parliamentarians to maintain their public position as women's rights supporters. Liberal Ahmad al-Saadoun and Shiite Islamist Hasan Ali al-Qallaf abstained from voting, giving the appearance of a nearly even parliamentary split that could be hailed as progress in the foreign and domestic press, but still produce the outcome that most men on both sides preferred.


But another set of strategic interests cuts across this debate — the dynastic interests of the ruling family. Gender is one of the veils behind which the regime conducts its struggles against the parliament.

After liberation from Iraqi occupation in 1991, the Kuwaiti regime managed to reinstate itself virtually intact, deflecting many, although far from all, demands for greater political openness. Skillfully manipulating Kuwait's version of the culture war, much of which is conducted in the idiom of gender conflicts, the regime managed to distract both the parliament and the population. It stoked the liberal-Islamist split on morality and women's rights to draw attention away from its financial machinations and extra-constitutional encroachments on civil liberties, especially with regard to press freedom and human rights advocacy. Consequently, intra-parliamentary relations in the post-liberation parliaments were contentious. Both the 1992 and 1996 bodies were so often at loggerheads that even legislation the government wanted failed to reach the floor. Unseemly disputations within parliament were conflated with member antagonism toward the government. Some of this contention was expressed as calls for interpellaing ministers, and a few of these grillings actually took place. In the spring of 1999, the minister of justice, pious endowments and Islamic affairs became the target of an interpellation bid, ostensibly in response to an error in a government-sponsored printing of the Qur'an. Although no one really thought that the minister's failure had been intentional, most believed that a vote of confidence would go against him.

On May 3, the emir dissolved the National Assembly. Unlike the two previous times this had occurred, the 1999 dissolution was not indefinite and new elections were called within the constitutionally prescribed 60 days. During the period between the dismissal of the 1996 parliament and the election of the 1999 parliament, the emir issued 63 decrees.

The most controversial edict — that conferring full political rights on Kuwaiti women — surprised everyone, especially given the notable lack of interest the rulers had displayed in this subject previously. Some interpreted the decree as a rebuke to the parliamentary Islamists who had backed the threatened interpellation. Islamists in and out of Parliament responded with an equally surprising attack on the emir, whom they charged with knuckling under to foreign pressure, particularly from the United States. Yet there were signs that motives other than a sudden change of heart on religion — or gender — or caving in to American pressure could explain the emir's action.

The women's rights decree altered the politics of lobbying for measures dealing with other contentious issues such as privatization (another long-running Kuwaiti political soap opera) and reopening domestic oil production to foreign participation. Both were subjects of emiri decrees promulgated during the parliamentary interregnum. The opposition saw the entire ensemble of decrees as a challenge to Parliamentary authority and vowed to oppose all but the budgetary measures. Indicating at best mixed motives on the government's part was its conspicuous failure to lobby members of the newly elected parliament to support the women's rights decree. Both sides revealed their understanding that strategic regime interests were at stake, the emir by painting the parliament as anti-civil rights for opposing women's suffrage, and the opposition, through its charade on the second vote designed to convince suffragists and their supporters that liberals were not to blame for the measure's defeat.


A review of the 1999 plot line suggests how gender interests might intersect with dynastic interests in the exciting episode of the Kuwaiti women's political rights soap opera that is slated for October 2004. For example, a new government proposal for privatization (including oil privatization) is on the horizon. One's sense of déja vu is heightened by the threats from one liberal and one Sunni Islamist to interpellate a key minister, Deputy Premier, Minister of State for Cabinet Affairs and Minister of State for National Assembly Affairs Muhammad Daifallah Sharar. But there are new storylines in the pipeline in 2004. On May 27, Badr al-Nashi, secretary general of the Islamic Constitutional Movement (ICM), the Kuwaiti affiliate of the Muslim Brothers, said that he personally did not oppose women's rights and that the ICM as a whole would review its position on the matter. His announcement added to long-standing fractures in the Sunni Islamist parliamentary alliance between members belonging to the ICM nd those in the Salafi movement, and potentially in the Sunni Islamist-tribalist alliance as well.

Sociologist Haya al-Mughni, writing in the Arab Reform Bulletin, suggests that the government's latest bill for women's political rights is a strategic move to counter the opposition in the gravest threat to dynastic power since the brief days of the 1985 parliament. This threat comes from the Parliament-sponsored bill designed to push back the redistricting imposed by the emir during the first parliamentary interregnum between 1976 and 1981. Then redistricting was a last-ditch attempt to reassert ruling family power over the parliament by making it easier to manipulate elections. Ten large districts, each electing five members, were transformed into twenty-five variably sized constituencies, sliced in Tom DeLay fashion to load opposition members into as few districts as possible and salting as many districts as possible with groups seen as reliable supporters of the regime. The multiplication of constituencies in such a small country also increased the efficiency of efforts to influence election results diretly, such as through supporting throwaway candidacies to cut into support for the regime's antagonists and by making it cheaper to change election results through vote buying. The 2004 redistricting measure seeks to restore the ten-constituency model, although with districts that are substantially equal in population.

Al-Mughni argues that “the cabinet has sought to block the redistricting bill. If it passes, the government is likely to push hard for women's suffrage because it views enfranchising women as a means to mitigate the destabilizing effects that redistricting would have on Kuwait's complex political scene. The government seems to anticipate that on the whole, women will constitute a moderate, pro-government force in national politics.”

Perhaps. But women's political rights might play a different role in the pursuit of dynastic interests. Government support for suffrage can be bartered outright or sliced into “compromises” tradable for bloc support on other issues, perhaps even the redistricting bill itself. An opening for such a compromise with the ICM was made by Badr al-Nashi, who told the Arab Times: “Personally, I feel women should be given only their right to vote.” What is missing is the grand prize — the right to serve in Parliament.

What lies in store for the soap opera in the new season? Will the long-suffering Kuwaiti heroines achieve full political rights in 2004? Will the charming but faithless parliamentary liberals and their allies make good on their promises at last, or will they continue their blandishments while concealing their desire to maintain their masculine rights? Will the wily ruling family patriarch honor his own promises, or will he choose the interests of the family over the interests of the daughters of the nation? Stay tuned.


For additional background, see Haya al-Mughni, “The Politics of Women's Suffrage in Kuwait,” Arab Reform Bulletin 2/7 (July 2004).

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