Kuwait, May 16 (Reuters): Kuwait’s cabinet approved a draft law today allowing women to vote and run in parliamentary polls, moving them a step closer to full political rights they have sought for decades in the conservative Gulf Arab state.
The draft needs parliament’s approval to pass into law. A decree issued by Emir Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmad al-Sabah giving women the vote was narrowly defeated in the 50-man house in 1999 by an alliance of Islamist and conservative tribal MPs.
Kuwaiti women have been fighting for suffrage for more than 40 years, only to be blocked by Islamists and male politicians. “The council (of ministers) decided to approve the draft law and transfer it to the Emir, God protect him, in order to transfer it to the National Assembly,” a statement said.
The current parliament in Opec member Kuwait was elected in July by an elite group of males who must be 21 years or older and not recently naturalised or members of the armed forces.
The government of Prime Minister Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, the emir’s brother, has made clear it is committed to political and economic reforms in Kuwait, which has one-tenth of global oil reserves.
US-allied Kuwait says that pressing ahead with reforms is a top priority as the country promotes itself as a modern investor-friendly nation after the toppling in a US-led war last year of former occupier and Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
Leading women’s rights activist, Fatima al-Abdali, welcomed the news, adding that the issue of refusing women the vote was “sabotaging Kuwait’s image internationally”.
Islamist and conservative MPs, who wield great influence in parliament, are opposed to Western influences and may prove to be a stumbling block in the face of the new draft. “I’m hopeful,” Abdali said. “If this bill is serious and is not just a fight between the Islamist bloc and the democratic bloc, I think women can quickly gain everyone’s confidence.”
Regarded by some as among the most emancipated in the conservative Muslim region, Kuwaiti women have had to sit back and watch their sisters in other Gulf states — such as Qatar, Bahrain and Oman — make modest progress. Kuwaiti women serve as diplomats, run businesses and help steer the vital oil industry in the country of 900,000 citizens.
They constitute up to 70 per cent of college graduates in Kuwait, but account for less than 5 per cent of the country’s decision makers. Some have moved up to mid-level public ranks, but none holds a top post such as government minister.
Signs of change came last October when the government approved allowing women to stand for office and vote in municipal council elections, a move observers hailed as a first step towards granting women greater political rights.
“Kuwaiti women, yes, they want this. Especially the young generation, those in the universities,” Abdali said. “This generation already has active bodies that elect themselves in schools and universities.”
The cabinet said its decision was “in appreciation for the vital role the Kuwaiti woman plays in building and developing Kuwaiti society, her big sacrifices and the responsible role she has played in the face of all challenges the country has been subjected to in its history”.