April 26, 2006
Small Steps in the Gulf toward Emancipation
Democracy in the Middle East? We can’t rule it out just yet. In happier news from the region, earlier this month, Kuwaiti women casted votes in an election and presented candidates for the first time. This comes less than one year after winning full political rights in the oil-rich Gulf state. This election for a municipal court is being seen as a litmus test of how women might fare in next year’s parliamentary elections.
Two of the eight candidates who ran for a seat in the district of Salmiya were women. Jinan Boushehri, 32, is a chemical engineer who heads the municipality’s food testing administration. Khalida al-Khader, 48, is a physician and mother-of-eight.
Hopefully this trend continues in Kuwait and next year women will be present at the parliamentary level. I think it’s interestin to follow this and see if Kuwait could serve as an example for other countries in the Gulf region. I hope this serves as a step toward democracy and granting of political rights to women in the Middle East. When Condi or Karen Hughes travel in the region on their PR campaigns of how great modernization is and why they should embrace Western principles, they should capitalize on what’s coming out of these elections in Kuwait. I would think women identify as a group first, then by ethnicity, religion or nationality.
Sheikha Hussa, Vice-President of the Women’s Commission in Kuwait, recently said at a press conference she hoped Kuwaiti women would move further along the line to take up roles in local and national politics.
“We see that among Kuwait women we have a minister, the Minister of Planning, and we are looking forward to having more than just one woman in the new Cabinet. We are also looking forward to having more women Ambassadors and we hope there will be several women in those posts.”
I see this as a sign of women taking a more active role throughout the Gulf. Hussa also said she was not completely satisfied with the status for women in Kuwait. She desired additional progress in the areas of the legislature and the judiciary.
“We see all the Gulf nations are pushing the woman forward and empowering them. This is what we are looking forward to, the empowerment of women economically, and also having them involved in the legislative process, where they would be able to participate in committees and legislate alongside men.”
Just as some background information, Kuwait is a constitutional monarchy ruled by the al-Sabah family. The emir elects the prime minister and the Council of Ministers. Attempts by the ruling family to change the male-dominated legislative structure finally succeeded in May 2005. It had been blocked for six years by tribal and Islamist members of the National Assembly. It was the first Arab country in the Gulf to have an elected parliament. Adult men and women are allowed to vote and stand in elections but forming political parties is illegal.
Meanwhile in neighboring Saudi Arabia, last year’s municipal elections were at best symbolic as they were inconsequential for local governance. In an op-ed column originally published in the Wall Street Journal, Ibrahim Al Mugaiteeb, a reformer and human rights activist, wrote that the liberalization accomplished so far has yet to allow ordinary Saudis to exercise basic human rights
“Very few of the recommendations emerging from the so-called National Dialogue sessions — such as setting up women-accessible family courts, or licensing all legitimate NGOs — have come to fruition.”
For more information on political developments in the Gulf region, BBC has a multimedia feature on its site called How Democratic is the Middle East? There’s a map of the region, including the Maghreb countries and Iran, and it has a blurb on each country’s political system.
This is one of the items on the BBC site.
Small Steps to Democracy in the Gulf?
- Bahrain: Constitutional monarch, universal suffrage, political parties banned
- Kuwait: Constitutional emir, first elected parliament
- Oman: Absolute monarch, elections to consultative bodies
- Qatar: Constitutional emir, first to allow women’s vote in municipal election
- Saudi Arabia: Absolute monarch, consultative elections, but no women’s vote
- United Arab Emirates: Federation of unelected sheikhs