Women of Kuwait take part in election for first time

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The Independent Online

Kuwaitis went to the polls yesterday in a landmark election that, for the first time in the Gulf state's history, allowed women to vote and run as candidates.

Dozens of women stood in the nationwide parliamentary poll, which has challenged the status quo in the conservative, patriarchal society and allowed female voters to make their voices heard on the political stage for the first time.

One female candidate, Hind al-Shaikh, said: "I don't know how to describe my feelings; I am so happy. It's a beautiful day as women practise their right. I hope a woman makes it."

The Kuwaiti parliament passed a law in May 2005 giving women the right to vote and stand in elections for its 50-seat National Assembly. In total, 27 of the 249 people running in the election, and 57 per cent of the voting population, were women.

Voters were seen arriving at polling stations in chauffeur-driven cars and being shaded by candidates' representatives with umbrellas as they walked in the scorching sunshine.

"It feels like a wedding day," said Salwa al-Sanoussi, a 45-year-old housewife, as she arrived at a women-only polling station in Dahyia, which is one of Kuwait's wealthiest areas.

Under rules that were written and requested by hardline Islamists in 2005, men and women were obliged to vote separately.

Yesterday's election came at an important point in Kuwait's history, with government and opposition figures locked in a dispute over the best way to combat the endemic corruption in the state's politics. Many candidates, standing on an anti-corruption platform, have accused pro-government candidates of buying votes and trying to take away the power of the parliament.

The Liberal opposition figure Khaled al-Mutairi said female democratic participation would be decisive in shaping the country over the next few years. "We will either go in the direction of reform or corruption," he said.

It looked unlikely last night that any of the female candidates would win enough votes to ward off their seasoned male counterparts in their first election. Even in the event of their winning seats, the rigid political system in Kuwait means there is little chance of their making real progress towards equality in the near future.

Kuwait's parliament is controlled firmly by the emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah, who has the final word on most government policies. All of the important cabinet posts are held by members of the ruling family.

But many women are not put off, and say it is a step in the right direction for the progress of democracy. "Regardless of the outcome, all women want to show they will join the elections after they gained their rights," said Aisha al-Rushaid, who is fighting for a seat in a strongly Islamist area.