Kuwait City, Asharq Al-Awsat—Kuwaitis went to the polls this week to elect their third parliament in 17 months. Despite having the oldest and most powerful parliament in the Arab Gulf, Kuwait has a turbulent political scene: no parliament has served its full term since 2003.
With the most recent electoral cycle plagued by controversy over a reduction in the number of candidates each voter can choose from 4 to 1, Asharq Al-Awsat took a step back to examine a similar but more momentous change in Kuwait’s electoral history: the 2005 decision to allow women to stand for election.
A few days ago, Kuwait’s first woman to stand in state elections, Jenan Bushehri, gave an exclusive interview to Asharq Al-Awsat. Bushehri first ran in municipal by-elections in 2006, and also came 12th during parliamentary elections in 2012. Although Kuwait has had female parliamentarians since Bushehri first broke through the glass ceiling, Saturday’s elections are notable in that they have the lowest number of female candidates—only eight of more than 300—in any parliamentary election since 2005.
Asharq Al-Awsat: Can you tell us about your experience as the first woman in Kuwait to stand for elections?
Jenan Bushehri: I felt a desire to stand for elections from the time women were given political rights in May 2005. Indeed, I stood in municipal by-elections held after an MP from the fifth constituency was appointed as a minister. The municipal by-elections were held prior to the parliamentary elections after the dissolution of the parliament in June 2006.
Q: That must have been quite a challenge.
The real challenge was from the Kuwaiti public and whether or not it was ready to accept women as voters, candidates, and mangers of electoral campaigns. This is something that placed a great responsibility on me and my campaign team. At the time, people wondered how women could compete with men who excel in this field, particularly since this was women’s first experience [in politics] since the constitution was ratified in 1962.
I did compete with men in the elections, coming second out of six other male candidates. I recall that media outlets viewed it as a very good result given that it was the first time a woman had run, and they focused more on my coming second than the candidate who ultimately won the elections. As if it was I who won—not him!
For the record, the reason why I lost the elections is because the successful candidate had won a tribal vote, which determined the result on his behalf in advance. Following the elections, results proved that the street accepted women’s participation in elections and that men will choose women to represent them. It also proved wrong the common belief that women are the enemies of men. The fact that half of the votes I got came from men proves this.
Q: How do you assess that experience?
It was a successful one by all standards, especially since the illegal tribal vote was the reason why I lost. Therefore, despite the fact that I did not win the election, my view is that this loss had the taste of victory.
The total number of eligible voters, both males and females, was 28,188, 38 percent of whom voted in the by-election. The successful candidate received 50,436 votes while I took 30,629.
Q: What is your view of the contrasting levels of representation of women in the last three parliamentary elections?
The reason for disparity in the representation of women in the last three parliamentary elections is due to impediments and challenges that are present in the political scene. In the 2009 elections, the public atmosphere was supportive of women, leading to four women being elected as members of the parliament. However, the following elections, held in February 2012, lacked this atmosphere, leading to the failure of all female candidates.
Q: In your opinion, why has female participation in elections retreated even further in the current parliamentary elections?
This is primarily due to the major escalations in politics and the rise in radical and extremist discourse, elements of which are at odds with women’s efforts to stand for elections. Women tend to avoid extremist discourse. The Kuwaiti public’s tendency towards and preference for such discourse is something remarkable, and this is at odds with the Kuwaiti woman’s tendencies regarding participation in political and public affairs.