Parliament victory in sight for Kuwait's suffragettes

KUWAIT'S diwaniyas - men-only clubs - are furiously debating one of the hottest political topics in the oil-rich Gulf state since Saddam Hussein's armies were put to flight: whether to allow women the vote.

Last Tuesday some 200 women flocked to Kuwait's futuristic parliament building, where the only elected legislature in the Gulf was due to vote on the issue. But supporters of women's rights, fearing that they might be defeated, delayed the measure. It is scheduled to come up again before the 65 male MPs this Tuesday.

The Emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmad al-Sabah, favours female suffrage. Earlier this year he issued a decree allowing women to stand for public office and vote in the next municipal and parliamentary elections in 2003, for which they can start registering as voters from next February. Assuming the 16-member Cabinet endorses the proposal, the support of only a few of the dozen or so liberals in the legislature should be needed to carry it. But the liberals also object to the Emir using his powers of decree in this way, arguing that parliament should decide the matter. The resulting quarrel has raised the hopes of conservatives that votes for women can be put off yet again.

"Those women who are calling for political rights have reached menopause and need someone to remind them of God," an MP, Hussein al-Mutairi, said at a seminar held to rally support against the decree. He claimed only 10 per cent of Kuwaiti women wanted the vote. "They know that they will be exposed to public meetings with men during elections ... So how can a husband or a brother allow his wife or sister to run in elections and meet voters, which often also involves private one-to-one sessions?"

Even among the men of Kuwait, voters are an exclusive group. Stringent citizenship qualifications exclude many long-term residents; of the population of about 2 million, only 800,000 are Kuwaiti citizens, and only 112,000 of them are registered electors. Although women in Qatar were recently given the vote in municipal elections, Kuwaiti women play a greater role in public life than in most other Gulf Arab states. Unlike their sisters in Saudi Arabia, they can work alongside men and drive cars, and do not have to wear the all-enveloping abaya when they go out of their homes. Many choose to do so, however, indicating that support for female suffrage may not be universal among the potential beneficiaries.

A Kuwaiti former academic, most of whose students were women, said they were "far more conservative" than the men. Did he mean that if women were given the vote in Kuwait, they might elect an assembly which would favour abolishing votes for women? "It's quite possible," he replied.