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Victory for Kuwaiti Women By: Y. Admon
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, June 29, 2005


On May 16, 2005, Kuwait 's National Assembly (parliament) passed a bill proposed by the government to amend the Kuwaiti elections law and give women the right to vote and run for office. [1] The first article in Kuwait 's 1962 elections law had limited suffrage to men only, stating that voting was the right "of every Kuwaiti citizen from among the men aged 21 [and over]." The new article gave this right to women as well, amending it to read "every Kuwaiti aged 21 [and over]" – thus making the law compatible with Kuwait's 1962 constitution, which states in Article 29 that "All people are equal in human dignity and in public rights and duties before the law." [2]

The bill was ratified by the parliament after lengthy debate. It was passed in the first vote, on February 15, 2005; it was defeated in the second, on May 2, 2005; and it finally passed in the third, on May 16, 2005. [3]

Prior to and following the passage of the bill, there was intense public debate in Kuwait on the question of women voting and running for office. The bill's supporters argued that Kuwaiti women were, like the rest of the women in the world, entitled to realize their political rights – as they had during the early Islamic era. The bill's opponents claimed that it was the result of capitulation to Western pressure, that women's participation in elections was counter to Islam, and that women had no interest whatsoever in participating in political processes.

This report reviews the public debate in Kuwait on the issue of women participation in elections, both before and after the ratification of the amendment, along with reactions to the new amendment.

"The Time Has Come for Kuwaiti Women to Receive Political Rights, Like Every Woman in the World"

Headed by members of the Kuwaiti government, supporters of the bill stated that strengthening the status of women was part of the process of Kuwaiti development. Kuwaiti Cabinet Chairman Muhammad Sharar said: "We are not isolated from the world, and in all the countries of the world the trend is to allow the woman to participate in politics." [4]

Social and Labor Affairs Minister Faisal Al-Haji said: "The time has come for the Kuwaiti woman to receive her political rights, after women across the world have received their rights… The time has come for us to act in a positive way, and in the framework of the constitution, to anchor the woman's political rights, to actualize her role in society, and to put an end to the doubts regarding the contribution of the woman – who is considered the second half of society. Growth cannot be realized without the women." [5]

"The Muslim Woman's Participation in Political Activity During the Time of the Prophet was Clear"

The bill's supporters also claimed that according to Islam, women are permitted to participate in the democratic process. In order to promote the bill, and in order to – in the words of Cabinet Chairman Muhammad Sharar – "convince anyone who has jurisprudent reservations," on March 19, 2005 Kuwait's Fatwa and Legislation Department issued a fatwa granting the ruler the authority to decide in matters of women's participation in politics. The fatwa stated that although the issue was "controversial," "the decision of the ruler will remove the dispute regarding the issues that are subject to interpretation" because "the ruler has the authority to issue and pass laws in accordance with the existing rules." [6]

In a symposium supporting women's political rights, Kuwaiti MP Ali Al-Rashed reminded his audience that "the woman realized her political rights in early Islam, when she swore allegiance to the Muslim ruler [i.e. Muhammad] in the second Bay'at Al-'Aqaba [oath of allegiance at Al-'Aqaba] – which was not only a political oath, but was also like a fatwa, and is considered legislation." [7]

Shiite MP Yousef Al-Zalzala, formerly a lecturer at Kuwait University, said: "This issue is not connected to the jurisprudent aspect, and the religion, or the Shari'a… The 'ulema of Al-Azhar, headed by [Al-Azhar] Sheikh Dr. Muhammad [Sayyid] Tantawi, have already stressed that denying political rights for women is something that is against Shari'a." [8]

In a column titled "The Woman Has Political Rights," Bashar Al-Sayegh, columnist for the Kuwaiti daily Al-Siyassa, wrote: "During the era of the Prophet and the era of the [righteous] caliphs, the Muslim woman played a prominent role in setting out the policy of the Muslim state at that time. The Koranic text ' And the believers, men and women, are guardians of each other; they enjoin the just and forbid the evil [9:71]' proves that the opinion of the woman is no different [in importance] than that of the man, and that the woman is [man's] partner in determining what is permitted and what is prohibited in society. All Koranic texts agree that the woman is equal to the man in rights and obligations… Similarly, the Muslim woman participated in the oath of allegiance to the Prophet in the two bay'as – the first and the second – at Al-'Aqaba.

"The modern sense of the oath of allegiance [to a ruler] is elections. If the woman did not have the right to vote and to participate in the political process, then the Prophet would have settled for an oath of allegiance from the man, without [that] of the woman…

"Woman's political rights are not strictly a women's issue; rather, they are linked to the liberation of half of society and the liberation of all society. That is, the realization of full democracy, and the political participation [of the woman] as voter and as candidate, will complete her natural role in society." [9]

In her column in the Kuwaiti daily Al-Qabas, attorney Badriyya Al-Awdha wrote: "The Muslim woman's participation in political activity during the time of the Prophet was clear, and was manifest in the women's ba'ya to the Prophet, since they saw him as leader of the Muslims. [This participation] attests to the woman's independent personality and to the fact that not only is she not subjugate to the man, but that she swore allegiance [to the ruler] just like the man…" [10]

The Bill is a Western Attempt to Pressure and Ruin Kuwaiti Society

Opponents to the bill argued that the bill was the result of capitulation to pressure by the West, which seeks to change the structure of the family in Kuwait. A prominent opponent of the bill, Islamic Party MP Daifallah Buramya, launched what he called a "religious parliamentary attack" on the "so-called political rights [of women]." In a symposium that he organized, titled "According to Islamic Jurisprudence, the Woman Has No Political Rights," Buramya said that "by pressuring the Arab and Gulf countries, the Western countries are trying to impose the violation of Islamic law in order to ruin the society." [11]

Islamic Party MP Ghanem Al-May' told Al-Rai Al-'Aam:"We must pay no attention to the external demands that call on us to give women political rights. They must know that the situation of women in Kuwait is better than their situation in the advanced democratic countries. The issue goes beyond engaging in voting or candidacy for parliament; the [Western] goal is comprehensive social change [in Kuwait] that will influence the structure of the Kuwaiti family and the relations among its members." [12]

Granting Political Rights to Women is Against Islam

The bill's opponents also argued that Islamic jurisprudence bans women from participating in politics, based on a 1985 fatwa issued by Kuwait's Fatwaand Legislation Department, which determined that membership in parliament is a type of public post to which women may not be appointed. [13]

MP Daifallah Buramya told Al-Rai Al-'Aam that Islamic jurisprudence bans political rights for women and that "the so-called [granting of] political rights to the woman must be opposed, as stated in the [1985] Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs fatwa." He said that several Hadiths and Koranic verses prove that "[the fact that] women were not appointed to leadership posts [was] not because of their reduced value, but in preservation of their honor." [14]

Islamic Party MP and Parliamentary Human Rights Committee Chairman Walid Al-Tabatabai told Al-Rai Al-'Aam that he was against the bill because "[it grants] public authority to women, and Islam forbids the woman's appointment [to public office]." Nevertheless, he noted that he would support changing the bill "to enable [women] only to vote" but not to run for office. [15]

The secretary of the Association for Protecting the Principles of the [Muslim] Nation, Muhammad Haif Al-Matiri, said: "There is no instruction by the Prophet Muhammad, nor by the four Righteous Caliphs, and no historical documentation, that a woman was appointed to a public post during the period of the Muslim state." [16]

"Women are Completely Uninterested in Participating in Political Processes"

The bill's opponents also argued that women had no interest in participating in political processes. In a symposium against the bill, MP Buramya said: "In the elections of the Kuwaiti Journalists Association, out of 460,000 women, [only] 830 voted. This proves that women are not interested in participating in political activity." [17]

Likewise, Salafi Islamic Union Spokesman Salem Al-Nashi stated: "The union is against giving political rights to the woman, both for voting and for being elected… Five studies published by official and government institutions, including Kuwait University, have shown that the Kuwaiti woman has no interest whatsoever in taking part in political activity." [18]

Reactions to the New Amendment: "[This Legislation is] a Victory for Kuwait and Democracy"

Along with the anticipated criticism from opponents, the amendment was welcomed by other members of the government, as well as by some columnists, and by women's rights activists.

High-ranking government officials expressed their satisfaction at the bill's passage, seeing it as the realization of democracy in Kuwait. Kuwaiti Prime Minister Sabah Al-Ahmad stated: "We are satisfied with the result. I hope that the Kuwaiti woman will be a help to the men in developing the country… The government now has the right to appoint a woman as a government minister." [19]

Prime Minister Al-Ahmad also rejected the accusation that Kuwait had capitulated to external pressures, saying: "Granting political rights to women is the will of the Emir of Kuwait [Jaber Al-Sabah], and not the result of an external will." [20]

Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister Nawwaf Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah congratulated Kuwaitis "for believing in half of society, that is, the woman, for receiving her political rights," [21] and noted that the Interior Ministry was taking the necessary measures to register over 200,000 women voters for the February 2006 elections. [22]

Kuwaiti Parliamentary Speaker Jassem Al-Kharafi said, "Parliament's agreement [to the amendment] is a victory for Kuwait and for democracy, and a response to the will of the Emir… After the vote [granting] political rights to the woman, there is now nothing to prevent the Kuwaiti prime minister from appointing a woman as minister in his government… He also has the right to appoint a female member of the current municipal council." [23]

The Kuwaiti government's intention to appoint women to public posts was actualized on June 5, 2005, when engineers Fatima Nasser Al-Sabah and Fawziya Al-Bahar were made members of the new Kuwait City municipal council. Engineer Al-Sabah said she was "proud and happy about the appointment," which, she added, was "a responsibility I aspire to carry out conscientiously, for Kuwait." Energy Minister Ahmad Al-Fahd congratulated the two appointees, and estimated that their appointment would "affect Kuwait in a positive manner." [24]

On June 12, 2005, a month after the ratification of the bill, Kuwaiti Prime Minister Sabah Al-Ahmad announced the appointment of Kuwaiti women's rights activist Ma'souma Al-Mubarak, a political science lecturer at Kuwait University, to the post of Minister of Planning and Administrative Development. Prime Minister Sabah Al-Ahmad said: "We see a Kuwaiti woman's appointment as a government minister as an important step that we had hoped to realize – and today we witness the realization of this wish…"

Commenting on her appointment, Minister Al-Mubarak said that she was honored to be "the first woman minister in the history of Kuwait," and added that she "hoped that the experience of appointing a woman to this kind of post will serve as a source of strength and as proof of [women's] contribution. [The goal] of my being a minister is to prove the capabilities and ambitions of the Kuwaiti woman, and her role in the building and development of this homeland." [25]

Kuwaiti Women's Rights Activists: An Historic Day in the Life of Kuwait 's Women

Kuwait 's women's rights activists welcomed the new amendment, and saw it as historic. They said that the day of its ratification, May 16, would be an historic day in the life of Kuwait's women – and all the more so because the date also marked six years since the 1999 order by Kuwaiti Emir Jaber Al-Sabah to accept a bill giving women political rights; the bill, however, was defeated by the parliament. [26]

Latifa Al-Sabah, who is the wife of Kuwaiti Crown Prince Saad Al-Abdallah al-Sabah and who is chairwoman of the Parliamentary Women's Affairs Committee and president of the Kuwaiti Union for Women Societies, welcomed the new amendment and expressed hope that "the Kuwaiti woman will help in actively developing the homeland." [27]

Following the passage of the amendment, a number of Kuwaiti women activists announced their intention to run in the 2007 elections. [28] One of them, 'Aysha Al-Rashid, said that she intended to open an office in her home for persuading voters that "the woman is capable of participating in the political arena." [29]

Columnists: This is the First Link in the Chain of Reforms

Support for the bill and the amendment was also expressed by Kuwaiti columnists. Sami Nasser Khalifa wrote: "Granting political rights to the woman – to vote and to be elected – is considered one of the most important historic achievements, which we must only support and welcome because this is the right that Allah determined and that has been anchored in most of the constitutions in the world, and also because it is a high-quality and unique addition that deepens the democratic process in which the representation of the people is lacking… This, in my view, is the first link in the chain of genuine political reform, which we hope that the government and parliament, acting together, will adopt." [30]

Columnist Faisal Al-'Olati wrote in Al-Rai Al-'Aam: "I would like to congratulate our sisters upon receiving their full political rights. Similarly, I give a bouquet of red and white roses to every Kuwaiti woman to mark this happy event for us all. We wish success to every woman candidate for parliament and for the municipal council. I ask the woman to place at the top of her agenda [the goal of] helping her [Kuwaiti] sister persecuted by the government. I hope that laws in favor of the Kuwaiti women will be passed, such as, for example, a law enabling a Kuwaiti woman married to a non-Kuwaiti man to own an apartment, a law giving Kuwaiti citizenship to the children of a Kuwaiti woman and a non-Kuwaiti father regardless of the father's citizenship, and [a law enabling] the sons of [these] Kuwaiti women to join the military." [31]

*Y. Admon is a Research Fellow at MEMRI


[1] Al-Rai Al-'Aam (Kuwait), May 17, 2005.

[2] Al-Siyassa (Kuwait), May 17, 2005. For the Kuwaiti Election Law, see: http://www.majlesalommah.net/run.asp?id=39; for the Kuwaiti constitution, see: http://www.majlesalommah.net/run.asp?id=6.

[3] Al-Rai Al-'Aam (Kuwait), May 17, February 16, May 3, 2005.

[4] Al-Rai Al-'Aam (Kuwait), February 23, 2005.

[5] Al-Rai Al-'Aam (Kuwait), March 7, 2005.

[6] Al-Siyassa (Kuwait), March 20, 2005.

[7] Al-Siyassa (Kuwait), March 3, 2005. The Ba'yat Al-'Aqaba was an oath of allegiance given to Muhammad by 73 men and two women from the Arab tribes of Aws and Khazraj in the 13th year of the Hijra.

[8] Al-Siyasssa (Kuwait), March 3, 2005.

[9] Al-Siyassa (Kuwait), February 28, 2005.

[10] Al-Qabas, (Kuwait), February 27, 2005.

[11] Al-Rai Al-'Aam, (Kuwait) March 3, 2005.

[12] Al-Rai Al-'Aam, (Kuwait), February 27, 2005.

[13] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), March 20, 2005.

[14] Al-Rai Al-'Aam (Kuwait), March 3, 2005.

[15] Al-Rai Al-'Aam (Kuwait), February 22, 2005.

[16] Al-Rai Al-'Aam (Kuwait), March 3, 2005.

[17] Al-Rai Al-'Aam (Kuwait), March 3, 2005.

[18] Al-Rai Al-'Aam (Kuwait), February 22, 2005.

[19] Al-Rai Al-'Aam (Kuwait), May 17, 2005.

[20] Al-Rai Al-'Aam (Kuwait), May 17, 2005.

[21] Al-Rai Al-'Aam (Kuwait), May 17, 2005.

[22] Al-Rai Al-'Aam (Kuwait), May 18, 2005.

[23] Al-Rai Al-'Aam (Kuwait), May 18, 2005.

[24] Al-Rai Al-'Aam (Kuwait), June 6, 2005.

[25] Al-Rai Al-'Aam (Kuwait), June 13, 2005.

[26] Al-Siyassa (Kuwait), May 17, 2005; Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), May 20, 2005.

[27] Al-Watan (Kuwait), May 18, 2005.

[28] Al-Quds Al-Arabi, (London), May 31, 2005.

[29] Al-Rai Al-'Aam (Kuwait), May 21, 22, 2005.

[30] Al-Rai Al-'Aam (Kuwait), May 20, 2005.

[31] Al-Siyassa (Kuwait), May 20, 2005.




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