KUWAIT CITY (AP) – Kuwait’s only woman in politics survived a no confidence vote in parliament Tuesday averting a political crisis in this small oil-rich Gulf state where women were only allowed to participate in political life in the last two years.
Minister of Education Nouria al-Subeih received 27 votes of confidence from parliamentarians and 19 votes against, with two abstentions, allowing her to retain her post after conservatives called for her ouster on accusations of mismanagement and endangering conservative religious values.
Hundreds of her women supporters in the galleries applauded and ululated even before the result was officially announced by the speaker, Jassem al-Kharafi. “We’re so happy we can fly,” said Mona Hassan, a 52-year-old school principal, as she left the gallery.
“This is a victory for Kuwaiti women. Allow (the other) half of society work and watch the results.”
Clad in a black pantsuit, al-Subeih, who doesn’t wear the Muslim headscarf unlike nearly all women in this overwhelmingly conservative society, stood up and waved to the crowds, while parliamentarians shook her hand. Her impeachment would have prompted a crisis between the government and parliament with a large Islamic bloc. The government does not tolerate votes of no confidence in its members, and has avoided them in the past with resignations, reshuffles or just dissolving the whole legislature.
On Jan. 8 the minister had to defend herself before parliament against the allegations that she had attempted to deceive the nation when she denied a press report that three schoolboys had been sexually assaulted by an Asian worker at a state school. She explained she had been misinformed and subsequently issued an apology.
Islamist lawmaker Saad al-Shreih also accused her of not showing enough respect for Islam when she did not punish a 14-year-old girl who had allegedly drawn a cross on her religion text book and scribbled notes on it that she hated Islam. The minister told the house there was no evidence the girl had actually done that and so she was just referred to counseling.
Al-Shreih, however, still managed to gather the requisite signatures of ten lawmakers to force the no confidence vote.
Al-Subeih is a political independent, but has wide support among Westernized liberals who have dubbed her Kuwait’s “Iron Lady” for standing up to the nation’s conservatives. She started her career as a teacher more than 30 years ago.
Many women activists believe the attack against her is an attempt to remove the only female Cabinet member in a country that still does not totally accept women in politics.
Massouma al-Mubarak, the first women member of cabinet, was forced to resign her post as health minister after Islamists and conservative tribal lawmakers accused her of negligence following a fire at a hospital that left two patients dead, threatening to interrogate her before parliament.
Women were only granted political rights in 2005, though they failed to win any parliament seats in an election a year later.
Both U.S. President George W. Bush and his wife Laura during separate visits to Kuwait met with female political activists as part of the U.S. policy to promote democracy in the region.