Kuwait, the proud owner of the only elected parliament in the Arab Gulf states, has further consolidated its democratic credentials by giving Kuwaiti women the right to vote and to stand in parliamentary and municipal elections. Never mind that the right has been conferred in an arbitrary manner possible only in a dictatorship, or that the parliament in question is not a fully legislative body, or that, indeed, the right cannot be exercised before the year 2003.
The right was conferred on May 16, by a decree issued by the Emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmad al-Sabah, without reference to anyone, including his cabinet. The decree, which came after the Emir’s dissolution of parliament does not affect the parliamentary elections on July 3.
Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, the Kuwaiti deputy prime minister, showed no sign of embarrassment for the Emir’s failure to consult the cabinet when he announced that the government was happy to adopt the decree. ‘We in the council of Ministers were very happy to learn of the Emir’s desire to honour the Kuwaiti women’s role in the elevation of society’, he said.
On the same day, the Emir issued another decree providing for the establishment of the ‘High Council for the Family. Here too he demonstrated the real seat of power in the country, as he appointed his wife head of the Council.
Kuwaiti women have so far shown no sign of being excited about their new enfranchisement. Many believe that membership of the national assembly, as the parliament is called, is not politically important, others simply prefer to leave politics to men. (The two attitudes may well be linked.) Many also believe that the system of political campaigning is heavily weighted in favour of the men and it will be practically difficult for them to be elected.
Critics, both men and women, have accused the Emir of trying to make political capital having dictatorially dismissed the old parliament for daring to criticise his government. Even so, when the decree is submitted to the new parliament after the July 3 poll, it is likely to be approved as members of the assembly will be reluctant to appear to be more reactionary than the al-Sabah dynasty.
Some secular supporters of the ruling family - convinced that any real reforms will end the royal patronage they have grown so fat on - back the decree simply because they see it as a trap designed to divide and embarrass the Emirate’s Islamic movement. Others might be happy to put the Qatari and Omani upstarts put in their place. Women voted and stood in nearby Qatar’s recent municipal elections, and they sit in Oman’s partially elected advisory council.
But perhaps the sort of comment the Emir most would like is the one made by the usually critical Al-Quds al-Araby on May 17. The London-based daily praised the decree as ‘a courageous step forward deserving respect’. Kuwait’s rulers have been under a cloud of cowardice ever since their disgraceful flight abroad in the face of Iraq’s invasion in August 1990.
Muslimedia: June 1-15, 1999