I witnessed firsthand the Kuwaiti Parliament”s vote to grant women their full political rights. It was a historical and significant day, like I have never observed ever before. At 6:30 pm (local time), on May 16th 2005, the women of Kuwait, at last, gained the right to vote. I was honored to be seated next to two figures in the women”s movement in Kuwait, Dr. Badriah Al Awadi and Farial Al Ferij, the wife of a great individual, Abdullah Al Nibari. I also glimpsed the symbol of Kuwaiti women and culture, the great Sheikha Suad Al Sabah, who one entertained the Arab World with her poetry.
I do not personally know the Sheikha, but I enjoyed sitting in the chamber of Parliament next to Al Awadi and Al Ferij who were busy jotting down the names of MPs when the lists of names of those who supported or opposed granting women their rights was read out. Al Ferij used a red pen to tick next to the name of the opposing representatives. Meanwhile, Dr Al Awadi counted the votes on her fingers, reminding me of how my family in Upper Egypt used to praise God before consulting the rosary. It was an unforgettable scene, as Al Awadi guessed who would support and oppose the motion, before the names were even read out! Watching the vote from inside the Kuwaiti Parliament was a moment that combined spirituality and politics,
alternating between fear and hope.
In the Chairman”s seat sat Kassem Al Khurafi, the Speaker, who opposed giving women their rights. He is a member of the business elite in Kuwait, a man who knows when to play hard and when to play soft. For those not familiar with Kuwait, the Emirate is a country with a social pact ensuring a balance between tradesmen and the ruling family of Al Sabah. This changed in the 1970s when nomadic traditions were discarded in favor of urban culture.
The subsequent push by the nomadic section of Kuwaiti society to counter this growing urbanism was supported by the ruler of Kuwait, in order to strike a better balance between the business and leading elites.
This decision, according to many urban Kuwaiti citizens, had, mostly, negative consequences. It ensured the dominance of tribal forces in Parliament, accelerated the weakening of the liberal current, and even, encouraged the rise of conservative and religious extremist elements.
Liberal Kuwaiti Parliaments were thus replaced by parliaments of with diverse voices, as in the example of the representative for Keefan, an area in Kuwait dominated by Salafis (followers of a strict textual interpretation of Islam).
On that historical day, when women were finally awarded political rights, an MP rose from his seat and spoke in a language of absolutes to oppose the proposed changes. I overheard a lady from the public saying he is the Taliban representative in the Kuwaiti Parliament. Al Awadhi clarified that this Salafi MP comes from a region called Keefa, which, like the Taliban ends with the sound (an). I added that I feel worried about countries whose names in Arabic end with (an), such as Iran, Afghanistan, Sudan, and even
Lebanon, with the only exception being the Egyptian city of Aswan. Staring at the MP”s face, I saw a different Kuwait than the one I knew; a laboratory of produce extremist movements who have their origins outside the borders of the small Emirate.
Other representatives in the Kuwait Parliament spoke in favor of giving women their rights. They included Sayyid Al Saadun, Mohammed Al Sakr, Sayyid Meshari Al Angari, and Abdil Wahab Al Haroun who all stood on the side of women and supported them. Al Haroun said in his speech that a successful vote was not just about giving women their rights but also about fighting injustice and rectifying a mistake to the Kuwaiti Constitution which does not discriminate between the sexes.
For a long time, the Islamic current in Parliament that included both Sunni and Shia was strong and managed to control the debate on women”s rights. In the end, however, the women of Kuwait were victorious. As the law was passed, women rushed out of the hall and celebrated. I also saw men congratulating the female citizens of Kuwait. For their part, he Islamic MPs hurriedly left the chamber defeated. I herd one woman tell another: "Do you know why the Islamists in Kuwait will, from now on, use their hands instead
of a fork to eat? It is because the Harem in the Emirates broke their strength (fork in Arabic) in Parliament!" I laughed despite my displeasure at the use of the word "harem", only to find out later that is it a non derogatory term in the local dialect.
This was a truly historic day that was discussed over and over in social gatherings and dinner parties across Kuwait. It is important to mention the citizens of Kuwait who played an important role in making this success possible. Feminist figures like Sheikha Al Nasef, Iqbal Al Ahmad, Al Mullah Wadashti, in addition to a number of Kuwait liberals, such as Khaled Al Mutairi, the Secretary General of the Patriotic Alliance of Kuwait, and finally, the Kuwaiti Graduate Association, all contributed to this
achievement. With this vote, the Emirate has shown that it has a vibrant civil society which has succeeded, using democratic means, in fulfilling Kuwaiti women”s aspirations and supporting them in refusing to settle for less than political equality with men.
Two members from the ruling family deserve a particular mention as they lent their utmost support to the change and worked tirelessly behind the scenes in order to ensure the number of MPs required to pass the bill. They are Sheikh Ahmad Al Fahd and Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah Al Mubarak, both young and with a bright future ahead of them, trying to reach a compromise between the government, MPs, and the different social groups.
Sheikh Mohammed Al Sabah, the Foreign Minister, interrupted a visit to the USA to return to Kuwait and cast his vote and then flying back. The fact that the Foreign Minister, who is also the son of a former Prince went through the trouble to vote is truly remarkable and not previously seen in the Arab World. Some politicians, occupying less important roles do not attend sessions of Parliament, not just once but even a hundred! Perhaps Sheikh Mohammed Al Sabah”s enthusiasm could serve as a lesson for other countries in the region.
In the final analysis, however, if the ruler of Kuwait wants something, he will do it. In this case, the government guaranteed that 13 out of 14 Ministers were in favor of granting women their rights, in accordance with a the wishes of the Prince. As such, the government in Kuwait can push for reform through Parliament if the Amir of Kuwait really desired so.
This makes me wonder what precludes the Kuwaiti government from issuing laws that would transform the country into a beacon of culture in the region with liberal media laws. Granting women their political rights is a historical achievement but more reforms are needed, especially in the fields of media and the economy. In this last visit, I was the guest of Faisal Al Matu”, the Chairman of the Board of Directors of Bayan, and attended a conference organized by the Kuwati private sector. The conference, inaugurated by the
Emirates” Prime Minister, saw participants discuss ways to transform Kuwait into a center for finance, trade, and services. The presence of government figures will not, by itself, transform Kuwait into a flourishing economic centre; what would, though, is the change in the law. Kuwait has succeed withs regard to women, when will it succeed in the economic domain?