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The vote that would not float: women's rights in Kuwait

Aisha Geissinger

On November 23, Kuwait’s parliament rejected the Amir’s decree that gave women the right to vote by a margin of 41 votes to 21.

It was the sort of drama that makes for good press copy, and of course the international press was there to watch it. As the result was announced, hundreds of men applauded, while a “Muslim fundamentalist” reportedly screamed that Kuwaitis don’t want women’s rights. Women’s-rights activists were also on the scene, naturally, to denounce the decision as “tragic”. ‘Liberals’ also said their piece, accusing the fundamentalists of seeking to “deny half of society the right to live.”

Of course, the global audience was salivating for more, and the Kuwaiti parliament graciously delivered. (Whoever said that Gulf hospitality is a thing of the past?) On December 1, a bill giving women the vote came before parliament again, this time introduced by ‘liberal’ lawmakers. This time it was rejected by 32 votes to 30, with two abstentions; the bill needed at least 33 votes in order to pass. Once again, the ‘liberals’ vowed to fight on, while the ‘fundamentalists’ savoured their ‘victory’.

It was a simple dramatic showdown of the sort the western media is so good at covering: the good guys (and gals) versus the bad guys. The audience was entertained, but its world-view wasn’t threatened - it knew too well how the movie would end. Of course, the bad guys - those ‘izlaamik fundamentalistz’ - would win the vote. Who says all movies have to have happy endings?

Why on earth do Muslims insist on playing these “made for TV” bad-guy roles? Is it lack of imagination? Or do some brothers believe, like US ex-president Ronald Reagan, that movie-stardom is the key to political power?

Every good movie needs a moral, and this drama has several. First, that Kuwaitis (and by extension other Muslims) won’t give women legal rights unless they are ruled by a pro-American leader such as the good Amir. Second, that any moves toward political openness in the Muslim world are dangerous unless all ‘fundamentalists’ are excluded from the process. And third, that it is only when Muslims move away from Islam and dilute it with ‘liberalism’ that any improvement in the position of women is possible.

It is on these bases that the ‘international community’ often gives its support for dictators in the Muslim world the veneer of legitimacy and justice. Dictators, of course, are aware of this and like to boast of their ‘progress’ in ‘liberating’ the women of their nations. It is most unfortunate that some Islamic activists have not seen through this game and are in fact playing along with it. In this way, they help to give ‘international legitimacy’ to dictatorships that torture, kill and persecute the innocent.

As in most movies, even those supposedly based on real-life stories, the story-line is largely fictional and owes little to reality. In Kuwait, only men over 21 who have been citizens for at least 20 years can vote. This gives an electorate of only 113,000 men! Parliament in any case has little weight. Real power lies in the kinship-ties of the upper classes, and women have a pivotal role in reproducing and maintaining these. Some elite women already have a good deal of power and prestige through their family connections, which give them access to positions such as deanships of colleges. The women who are most in need of power, such as domestic servants, would not have received the right to vote in any case because they do not meet the citizenship requirements.

The ‘fundamentalists’ , however, would have us believe that the issue is one of power and politics. Giving women the vote, they say, is opposed to our culture and religion. The Qur’an ordains that men are responsible for women (4:34). Moreover, Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala directed the wives of the Prophet to “stay in your houses...” (Qur’an 33:33). Therefore, they say, good Muslim women preserve their honour by staying out of the political realm, which does not concern them.

Such arguments are based on selective reading of the Qur’an and early Muslim history. After the revelation of verse 33:33 (in a surah revealed between 5 and 7 years after the hijra), other verses were revealed which clearly show that women have a political role: “O Prophet! If believing women come to you, taking bay’ah (oath of allegiance)... then accept their allegiance” (60:12, revealed in 8AH) and “And the believers, men and women, are protectors of one another; they enjoin the right and forbid the wrong...” (9:71, revealed in 9AH). In the time of the Prophet (peace be upon him), Muslim women took part in battles, gave bay’ah and voiced their opinions about the issues of the day. In that society, the realm of the home and the realm of politics were not separate. How could women avoid politics when Madinah was surrounded by the Ahzab, the allied pagan clans who had vowed to wipe out the Muslims? Even once this threat had passed, how could women be indifferent to the welfare of the Ummah when the Prophet (peace be upon him) had said that the Ummah is like a body - when one part is in pain all other parts feel feel it too? As Islam does not encourage masochism, it is evident that feeling the pain means that one acts to aid the injured part.

Today and in the foreseeable future, Muslim women are necessarily involved in politics for this very reason. The realm of the home is not insulated from political issues. Women are bombed out of their homes, violated in their homes by soldiers, starved out of their homes by economic sanctions. The land upon which their homes stand is taken away and given to occupiers, or to multinationals, and they become homeless.

The Islamic identity and morals of their families and children are eroded in their homes, by the media and by other non-Islamic influences and customs. This reality of Muslims today affects women in Kuwait as much as anywhere else, for national borders, drawn for the most part by departing colonialists, do not excuse anyone from the responsibilities of being a part of the Ummah. The only question is whether women are to be involved in these political struggles simply as victims, or whether they can play the active role that was theirs in early Islam.

The desire to keep women out of politics has arisen from a narrow view of power inherited from past tyrannies. Politics is assumed to involve power over others (and power to enrich oneself from the public treasury). Family dynasties will break the rules occasionally, and permit the succession of a woman if there are no suitable men for the job, because power is seen in this light. Women who seek the vote are thought to be after this type of power, and this is a reflection of the thoroughly corrupt political process in too many countries.

But the Qur’an sees power as a responsibility, a trust from Allah ta’ala. It is to be exercised with justice, and this implies that it cannot be vested in one person or dynasty. It does not begin and end with one leader, and perhaps his circle of advisors. All believers, male and female, are described as the protectors of one another, and instucted to enjoin good and forbid evil, for justice cannot be imposed by decree on society. It will only be present if the majority of people work to ensure its presence. This power is not the power to oppress, but the power to heal, to educate and to resist injustice by all reasonable means.

Whether or not a minority of women get the vote to elect a decorative parliament in Kuwait is not in itself a vitally important issue. But the vision of the ‘fundamentalists’ of the ‘honourable’, apolitical woman is an illusion that can only be sustained by the comfortably-off, and is an insult to all Muslims - men and women - who care for justice.

Muslimedia: December 16-31, 1999

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 28, No. 20

Ramadan 08, 14201999-12-16

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