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Women’s Vote Will Change Kuwait

July 5, 1999 GMT

KUWAIT (AP) _ With ballots in Kuwait cast and counted, colorful carpets were being rolled up, chairs and benches carted off and politicians’ tents packed up and put away.

The plush tents are a pre-election tradition in Kuwait, sites where men gather for lively political debate and friendly chatter over refreshments or elaborate buffets. Chances are the collapsible men’s clubs be unfolded again ahead of 2003 elections, but this traditional society knows some adjustments will be required.

The liberal parliament elected Saturday appears certain to pass a controversial decree allowing women to vote and run for office beginning with the next election. Although Kuwaiti women mix with men in many aspects of life _ women hold several key academic and private sector jobs _ politics has been off-limits.

In some ways, changes already have begun. One candidate this year invited a woman to deliver the opening speech for his campaign _ a first in Kuwait.

Women, albeit in numbers far fewer than men, attended political forums sponsored by candidates, many of which advertised separate seating for women.

At one such presentation inside a liberal candidate’s tent, 18-year-old Lamees and three friends sat down on the back bench of the women’s section with 21 other women, many of them relatives of the candidate. Space was generous between the women and about 200 men gathered.

The four, fully covered in their long abayas, watched through filmy black veils as a female professor and a male Islamic scholar debated women’s rights. They arrived late and slipped out early, but that they came at all would have shocked some who oppose women’s suffrage _ including Lamees’ parents and brothers.

``They don’t know that I’ve come to the tent,″ said Lamees, who was reluctant to have her last name published. ``They think I should come maybe after four years because there are too many men now. Maybe in four years there will be more women.″

There are many different ideas of what campaigning will look like in 2003. Some say women candidates may have to start small while Kuwaiti men as well as conservative women adapt to new political realities.

``I think it will be in her garden, in her home. In the beginning, it will be more conservative ... but in the future it will be easier for women to hold bigger campaigns,″ said Dr. Farida al-Saleh, a pathologist.


Some solutions, however, rankle women who have broken barriers and mix with men in professional or academic settings.

In the waning days of the campaign, Iqbal al-Issa, principal of a girls’ high school, was among 40 women who sat in a tent watching liberal Ahmed al-Rubei on closed circuit television take questions from some of the hundreds of men seated outside.

``We couldn’t discuss our issues and ask questions,″ al-Issa said. ``We are going around in a vicious circle. Who is to break it? We need courageous women.″

The current system, though slowly changing, stretches back to elections held a year after the 1962 Kuwaiti constitution set up what is now the only parliament among the six Gulf Arab states. Its roots are in segregated social events, such as wedding parties for men and women.

``Things definitely will change,″ said Massouma al-Mubarak, a political science professor and the first woman to announce plans to run for parliament in 2003.

She is confident that women will vote _ but is worried that the men in their lives will try to influence their decision.

``They will push her to vote, and unfortunately they will continue to brainwash their wives to vote for what they want, not for what she wants. That’s why we have to educate women,″ she said.