Hardliners defeat votes for Kuwait's women

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The Independent Online
WOMEN CAMPAIGNERS in Kuwait yesterday suffered a frustrating setback in their long battle to secure a basic political right - to vote and stand in parliamentary elections.

The all-male parliament, elected by a minority of the two million population, threw out a decree by the Gulf state's ruling emir, Sheikh Jabar al-Ahmad al-Sabah, which would have granted suffrage to Kuwaiti women.

Hundreds of men in the public gallery - also packed with scores of women, anxious to witness an historic breakthrough - burst into applause when they heard the result.

There was male applause when a Muslim fundamentalist screamed: "Kuwaiti people don't want women's rights. Why do you want to force it on them?"

The issue has been bubbling in Kuwait for years but it came to the boil in May. Under pressure from civil rights campaigners, the emir issued a decree giving Kuwaiti women the franchise in appreciation of their "effective and important role" in society.

Though far from a model of sexual liberation, Kuwait does not impose the draconian restrictions on women's dress and rights of neighbouring Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the region. A limited number of women are in senior in government and oil business posts.

But yesterday the legislature - the National Assembly - crushed the emir's decree with a 41 to 22 vote. "This is tragic. We have scored a first in history," said Rula Dashti, a 35-year-old women's rights activist. "A parliament votes to limit democracy - what a farce."

The intensely conservative religious and tribal MPs believe female participation in politics violates the principles of Islam and Kuwait's traditions. They are backed by liberal lawmakers who support women's rights but reject the decree in a complex political manouevre aimed at registering a protest against the emir's tactics.

They were angered by his decision to issue the decree - with a tranche of 60 others -- at a time when the legislature was dissolved and awaiting elections, a move they viewed as undermining their legislature's already limited authority. But the issue is far from over.

Parliament also decided to read as soon as possible an identical replacement bill, put forward by five liberals.

This is considered to have a chance of success as the 13-member cabinet - appointed by the monarch - and 14 liberals and pro-government MPs are expected to vote in support of it.

Kuwait's women are far from alone in being denied basic civil rights. At present, only 10 per cent of Kuwait's citizens - all males - are entitled to vote.

These do not include anyone who has held citizenship for less than 20 years, the army of low-paid foreign workers, members of the armed forces or police officers.

And no citizen has the right to change the hugely powerful, hereditary head of state himself.