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Four Roses Bloom in Kuwait | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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As the results of the Kuwaiti parliamentary elections in the Third Constituency were announced – in which Aseel al Awadhi came second, and the news continued uninterrupted about the “hero” of the First Constituency; Massouma al Mubarak and Rola Dashti and Salwa al Jassar – I realized that Kuwait has certainly realized a great achievement not only within Gulf societies but in Arab societies as four women have reached parliament through elections. Parliament had been monopolised by men with no constitutional basis, since 1963.

These elections were unprecedented in terms of the number of successful candidates, the support that Kuwaiti voters gave to the women and the way that they broke through sectarian and social boundaries. Those who voted for former minister Massouma al Mubarak, who comes from a Shia family, come from various backgrounds. This constituency comprises of town dwellers, nomads, Shia and Sunnis.

Similarly, Rola Dashti won the votes of the Third Constituency, which has a large population of Sunnis whilst Dr. Aseel al Awadhi, a liberalist against whom a religious smear campaign was launched during the election campaigns, managed to outdo well-established, fierce parliamentarians such as Ahmed al Saadoun and fundamentalists such as Walid al Tabtabai.

Following the news of the victory of these four women parliamentarians, I remembered a conversation I had with the Kuwaiti intellectual Dr. Ghanim al Najjar, who appeared to be optimistic despite all the frustrations and the state of tension that prevailed in Kuwait where dialogue between the parliament and the government was suspended, and the Prime Minister was subjected to a torrent of interpellations, and where there was talk of the end of Kuwaiti democracy. Dr. al Najjar seemed optimistic as he spoke to me in his office and showed me the epic Kuwaiti constitution and the changes that have taken place in society and authority.

Dr al Najjar said, “I’d be happy if in the upcoming elections (the recent elections), women reach parliament. This would be an important leap that surpasses the political realm and encompasses social changes that are more significant than politics. We require every parliament to achieve an accomplishment upon which the succeeding parliament can build. The parliament before the last dissolved parliament approved of reducing the twenty-five constituents to five so as to put an end to the phenomenon of vote-buying and of people being voted in based on sectarian, tribal and familial affiliations, in the interest of political candidates with a national public agenda. In 2005, the parliament endorsed the right of women to stand in elections and to vote and all that is left is for women to reach parliament.” And this is what happened.

[He is] one of the most optimistic people and he never expected so many women to reach parliament in this manner. I remember having a conversation with Dr. Aseel al Awadhi during the 2008 elections, which she just missed out on as she came eleventh, and she was optimistic that women will reach parliament saying, “We were unlucky this time, but we will definitely make it in the next one. We have only just started and need to be patient with Kuwaiti voters.” She rejected the idea of a quota for women and never expected that the number of women entering the Abdullah Salem Hall of the National Assembly would be four. There was only talk of perhaps one or two women reaching parliament.

Dr. Rola was very optimistic about the success of women in these elections as she prepared for the recent election campaign. Dr. Rola told me that she also strongly refused the “quota” idea, arguing that if a Kuwaiti voter does not enter us into parliament without being dictated to by the government then it would better if we do not run for parliament until Kuwaiti voters are convinced of the potential of Kuwaiti women and the solutions they can bring.

I have to admit that I did not share this optimism as I expected that only one woman would win at most and this is why I was inclining towards the “quota” solution whether in Kuwait or Bahrain or elsewhere just like Jordan, Morocco and some other countries have to ensure a fixed ratio for certain segments of society, whether women or others. The aim is not to make the politically-marginalized minorities lose their right to take part in legislation and enter parliament until society becomes accustomed to this and lessens its opposition to this, which is merely psychological and illogical, and is being nourished by some men who raise religious or traditional fears.

But in reality, Kuwaiti women won the bet this time and entered parliament through the front door and not by resorting to the “quota”. This in itself is an accomplishment. These four candidates gained access to parliament purely through public election, and this opens the door to considering the changes that have occurred amongst Kuwaiti voters who once elected radicals or ultra conservatives to form the parliament majority in the dissolved parliament.

Why did voters turn a blind eye to the fatwas that were issued shortly before the elections that outlawed and sought to thwart the election of women based on the pretext that this goes against Sharia and that a woman cannot be part of public office and this includes having a seat in parliament, according to Kuwait’s Salafist Movement (other Islamists differ in opinion with regards to public office).

The position of the Salafist Movement was further reiterated by its Secretary-General Khaled al Sultan who wrote an article after the victory of Massouma, Aseel, Rola and Salwa in which he said that he was sad about what happened. According to Al Watan newspaper, al Sultan said, “In my heart I hoped that not single woman would win the parliamentary elections because I support the claim that it is [religiously] forbidden for a woman to put herself forward in elections just as it is forbidden to vote for her in running for parliament because [this is considered a form of] public office. Public office in a Muslim state, including Kuwait, is confined to men, not women.” Paradoxically, Salafist MPs lost some of their seats to women and others, as is the case with the Muslim Brotherhood MPs whose number decreased from three to one and in the past they numbered seven.

The women’s victory, and the decline of the proportion of the fundamentalist trend, is new and exciting. However, we should not make a big deal out of this “sudden” shift in the Kuwaiti society as sectarianism is still flagrant on both sides as those who lamented Imad Mughniyah reached [parliament] and those who further provoked the Sayyed al Fali issue also reached [parliament] – that is both Sunni and Shia extremists.

Some believe that it is unnecessary to make May 16 – the day that these four women won in the elections – a declaration of the end of anti-women discourse and the beginning of a new era for women and that there is a shift in thinking and the concept of rule among the Kuwaiti masses with regards to freedoms, women and enlightenment. It is true that it is a frustrating result for those who misconstrued the situation and believed that they were in control of the masses and determined their paths. Perhaps the Kuwaiti voter was motivated by the desire to punish MPs or the trends whose discourses or political performances were not convincing so they voted for their opponents – the women.

Further, what the four women have in common is their high level of education, administrative and even political expertise as Massouma al Mubarak is a former minister, activist and academic, Rola Dashti is an economist, Aseel al Awadhi is an academic and activist and Salwa al Jassar is a qualified university professor. The voters did not see in them political weaknesses; furthermore, they represent a clean slate unlike the men who have been entangled in various conflicts and wrangling that has drained Kuwait.

This article has focused on the victory of the four Kuwaiti women as it is an event that surpasses the borders of Kuwait and affects the entire Gulf. The women of the Gulf, after having gained strength and educated their sons and daughters and after having educated themselves and worked in all fields and on the international level, and after having mastered media and trade, should not be doubted. It is better to create a real practical, vibrant model for society as a whole rather than write a book or deliver a lecture on women’s public rights.

Many people in Kuwait deserve to be congratulated for this great victory from the state, which was transparent and neutral, to the youngest voter.

But two figures come to mind here; the late Sheikh Abdullah al Salem, founder of the Constitution in Kuwait, and Nuriya al-Sadani, who has been fighting for women’s political rights since the early 1970s.

There is no difference in the potential and patriotism of a man and woman; history has been a testament to this from the Queen of Sheba, Septimia Zenobia and Shaja al Durr to Benazir Bhutto, Sheikha Hasinah Wazed or Queen Elizabeth I, Victoria the Great, Catherine the Great of Russia, iron lady Margaret Thatcher or the German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Does this mean the “cloning” of the Western experience regarding women and the elimination of our own culture? Not at all. Every society has its own unique style or as the saying goes: There’s more than one way to skin a cat. But that does not mean that women should be deprived of a natural right that does not go against reason, morals or interests.