Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Women unchained: Kuwait comes of age, 35 to 23

Welcome to modernity, Kuwait! Posted by Hello

As I reported here a couple of weeks ago (see also here for a comparative shot of Kuwaiti legislators), conservative elements in the Kuwaiti Parliament recently blocked an effort to give women the right to vote in city council elections. Yesterday, however, Parliament took the more positive, and quite surprising, measure of giving women the right to vote in all elections. As the Times reports:

Kuwait's Parliament granted full political rights to women on Monday, making way for them to vote and run for office in parliamentary and local elections for the first time in the country's history. The surprise amendment to Kuwait's election law ends a decades-long struggle by women's rights campaigners for full suffrage, and promises to redefine the city-state's political landscape...

Parliament met Monday to discuss legislation introduced two weeks ago allowing women to run in city council elections. But in a surprise move, members of the cabinet opened the session by proposing a complete amendment of the country's election law, which had permitted only men to take part in the country's powerful Parliament.

The government also invoked a rarely used "order for urgency" to push through the legislation in one session, despite heated debate by Islamist members.

By Monday evening, legislators had passed an amendment that removes the word "men" from Article 1 of the elections law, with 35 voting in favor and 23 against. But Islamist legislators, apparently trying to appease their conservative voting base, included a requirement that "females abide by Islamic law." The implications of that clause were not immediately clear, though women's advocates were saying it might just mean separate polling places for men and women...

The prime minister, Sheik Sabah al-Jaber al-Sabah, a member of Kuwait's ruling family, has been under growing pressure to allow women's suffrage and is believed to have forced the measure through ahead of a planned trip to Washington. He is widely expected to appoint a woman as minister of health in coming weeks.

Although women can now run in all elections, the legislation was passed too late for them to run in the council elections next month. The soonest they will be able to run in any election is 2007, when parliamentary elections are scheduled.

This wonderful development speaks for itself. But let me make one point: Bush supporters who retroactively (and revisionistically) argue that the Iraq War was motivated by a commitment to the spread of democracy in the Middle East (because the argument that a tyrant with WMDs needed to be toppled is no longer valid) are claiming, and will continue to claim, that this development is yet another "ripple" caused by America's successful invasion and occupation of Iraq -- Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon was one, they claim, and this surely is another. Such rhetorical cause-and-effect may be easy political fodder, lapped up by true believers, but, as usual, it oversimplifies what is an otherwise profoundly complex development for which Bush cannot legitimately take any credit. Long-terms goods, such as sustainable democracy in Iraq, may yet come of America's experiment with regime-change and nation-building, but, if anything, the botched occupation has strengthened fundamentalist entrenchment, not weakened it. No, there is simply no such causal link between Iraq and yesterday's development in Kuwait.

Not that I usually succumb to what Martin Peretz in The New Republic called "the politics of churlishness" -- I can at least agree that Bush deserves some credit for pursuing, if mostly in speech, the democratic transformation of historically undemocratic parts of the world, especially the Middle East. But, in this case, the truth is against him (and his rabid supporters): The 1961 Constitution, for example, forbids gender discrimination, and the royal family has been pushing for women's suffrage since at least the late-'90s. Moreover, whatever its occasionally illiberal tendencies, Kuwait is one of the more westernized and reform-minded of the Arab states (think Jordan and Qatar), and the prime minister had repeatedly stressed his determination to give women the vote.

Women's suffrage in Kuwait will no doubt become yet another piece of the American political game, mostly with Bush and his supporters using it to justify an unpopular war and to boost his sagging approval ratings. But credit must go where it is truly due: to the women of Kuwait, who for generations have been struggling to achieve the basic right of any democracy, namely, the right to vote in free elections. Their victory is for them, and for the people of Kuwait, not for partisan Republicans who care more about the electoral success of their party than about real democratic transformation.

Bookmark and Share