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In Liberated Kuwait, Some Still Lack Right to Vote

Despite their bravery during Iraqi occupation, women find that the political emancipation they were promised remains out of reach.

March 09, 2003|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

KUWAIT CITY — One of the proudest stories told by Kuwaiti historians is about the bravery of Kuwaiti women during the brutal seven-month occupation by the Iraqi army in 1990 and 1991.

Although Kuwaiti men were forced to hide to avoid arrest, women staged street protests and smuggled food, information and weapons to resistance fighters. Covered head to toe in the traditional abaya, they moved silently but boldly throughout the occupied country, defying roadblocks set up by Iraqi soldiers. Some were raped and killed.

A national museum dedicated to the history of the occupation and liberation lavishly praises these women. Each year, as part of the Liberation Day celebration on Feb. 26, the story of their courage is retold.

But bravery during war has not led to political emancipation for Kuwaiti women.

Twelve years after a U.S.-led military coalition freed their country, women here are still denied the right to vote in legislative elections or to hold legislative office. Political power continues to be held exclusively by men -- despite post-liberation promises by the ruling family.

"After liberation, we thought we'd have our rights immediately because we did a hell of a good job," said educator and feminist Khawla Ateeqi, 58. "But it hasn't turned out that way."

The emir, Sheik Jabbar al Ahmed al Sabah, proposed in 1999 that women be given the right to vote and hold office by 2003.

But his proposal was narrowly defeated in the National Assembly, 32-30, by a coalition of Islamic fundamentalists and politicians from districts dominated by traditional Bedouin tribesmen who believe that voting rights for women would undermine male dominance in the family.

Now, as the U.S. assembles a military force in the Kuwaiti desert for a possible war with Iraq, which President Bush has said would spread the cause of democracy in the Middle East, Kuwaiti feminists are hoping that worldwide media attention on their nation will help their cause. The issue of women's rights is expected to come before parliament after the midyear elections.

"With the media here, it will be hard for the men to keep women from their rights," said Iqeal Ahmed, 44, editor of Al Bayt Al Methaly, a monthly magazine devoted to interior design. "Nothing happens quickly in this country, but slowly we are educating both men and women."

A leading Islamic political leader, however, says that the women's movement is actually losing strength in Kuwait and that recent support for the movement by U.S. officials will backfire and harden the stance of those opposed to granting political equality to women.

"The liberals are trying to change the identity of Kuwaiti culture, and the Islamists are trying to keep the identity of the conservative Kuwaiti people," said Abdrazzak Shayji, 40, a law professor at Kuwait University and spokesman for the Islamic Salfia political movement. "We refuse to bow to American pressure with their pushy attitude."

Shayji and other Islamic leaders were furious about a recent trip to the U.S. by a group of Kuwaiti women. The trip was sponsored by the U.S. State Department and Vital Voices, a Washington-based foundation dedicated to helping women gain political power.

In New York and Washington, the women met with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-New York), former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Lynn Cheney, wife of Vice President Dick Cheney. They took part in sessions on how to organize, set political goals and use the media to get their message to the public.

"They are interfering with Kuwaiti administration," Shayji said.

Although they lack the right to vote, women are assured of equal pay and equal job opportunities under Kuwaiti law. They can also initiate divorce proceedings, although property settlements favor the husband. Under Kuwaiti law, when a couple divorces, the man retains the family home.

Women serve in high-level appointed governmental posts, including as ambassadors, and as executives in education and business. Women drive, often as fast and recklessly as the men (Kuwait has one of the highest freeway fatality rates in the world as a percentage of population). There are no "religious police" who tell women how to dress or act in public.

Still, the parliament voted to segregate the sexes at public schools, including Kuwait University.

Lujainj Salah, 27, an advertising executive, is confident that change is coming. She notes that the courage of Kuwaiti women during the occupation was in keeping with tradition.

"Kuwaiti women have always been strong," she said. "Before oil was discovered, women did most of the work. The men were at sea looking for pearls or trading with India, and the women became self-sufficient."

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