Hundreds of Kuwaitis join campaign for female rights

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The Independent Online
Kuwait City - Some 300 Kuwaiti men and women yesterday held a rally to demand political rights for women, who have been told they must wait until the next century before they might be allowed to take part in parliamentary elections.

The activists gathered at Kuwait's lawyers' society to demand that women be given the right to stand for parliament or at least to vote. However, thousands of professional women ignored the rally and a call for a strike.

Women make up more than 50 per cent of the 700,000 Kuwaiti population. A female civil servant who has been wearing a blue ribbon for weeks to support the campaign for political rights for women said: "I believe in it and support it, but I don't see the wisdom in a strike."

Kuwait, the only Gulf Arab state with an elected assembly, is holding its second parliamentary elections since the 1991 Gulf war on 7 October, when 50 deputies will be chosen. Activists are pressing men for the right to vote, while struggling to persuade more women to join their movement. Kuwaiti women, the most liberal in the region, run businesses, head diplomatic missions and help to run the country's oil industry.

Hind al-Idwani, one of the organisers of the rally, said the group had collected the signatures of about 600 women and 400 men in support of their campaign - "a good start if you take into consideration only two weeks of rallying support".

Only one of the 248 parliamentary candidates attended the rally. Women were urged to accept an invitation later to attend an election campaign by the left-leaning Abdullah al-Naibari, a pan-Arab nationalist. On election day, the protesters plan to march to Bayan Palace, the government's headquarters.

Kuwait's women are not alone in their 30-year-old struggle. Some of the Western powers which helped to free Kuwait from Iraqi occupation in 1991 are privately urging the country to give women political rights, diplomats said.

"If we can at least gain the right to vote in the next election [in 2000], it would be a great achievement in our region," Wafa' Atiqi, a human rights activist and parliamentary journalist, said.

The debate was revived in 1992 when Kuwait's parliament was restored but both the assembly and the government appeared reluctant to introduce the reform.

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