Kuwaiti women hope to enter parliament



Kuwaiti women are optimistic of winning seats next month when they contest legislative elections for only the second time, but analysts believe their chances are slim for lack of political support.

None of 27 female candidates who contested the previous general elections in June 2006 was successful, but a number did make an unexpectedly strong showing despite having little time to prepare for the polls.

"I am really very optimistic about the chances of women winning seats in this election as political awareness has increased," Salwa al-Jassar told AFP after registering to contest the May 17 elections for the 50-seat parliament.

"My optimism is based on facts, not illusions," said the US-educated activist who heads the Centre for Enabling Women and who is standing for the first time.

Kuwaiti women won the right to vote and run for public office in a landmark vote in the conservative Gulf state's parliament in May 2005, after a struggle lasting more than four decades.

Since then, two women have been appointed to the oil-rich emirate's cabinet. One, former health minister Maasuma al-Mubarak, was forced to quit last year under pressure from Islamist MPs.

"I believe women have little chance of reaching parliament this time, but it will be a good opportunity for them to gain much-needed political experience," political analyst Nada al-Mutawa said.

Since these are early polls, called after the emir dissolved parliament in March, political groups are opting for well-established veteran male candidates, forcing women to run as independents, Mutawa told AFP.

The only exception has been the liberal National Democratic Alliance which is fielding university professor Aseel al-Awadhi alongside seven male candidates.

"This is certainly a good beginning for accommodating women in politics. It will encourage other women to join the mainstream political groups," said Mutawa, also a university professor.

Under the new system, the number of electoral districts has been reduced to five from 25, increasing the number of voters fivefold.

Analysts believe this will make it difficult for independents to win because candidates will need the backing of political groups or major tribes.

Political parties are banned in Kuwait, even though several political groups act as de facto parties.

"Independents, both men and women, will have a difficult time winning under the new system," Mutawa said.

Although Kuwaiti women constitute 43 per cent of the national workforce of about 324,000 – the highest proportion in any Gulf Arab state – only a few hold top positions in government.

Candidate and activist Abdulaziz Makki Juma believes the only way women can win seats is through a quota system.

"I have no doubt that the only way for women to win seats is through a quota system. They are being fought by some Islamist groups like the Salafis and Muslim Brotherhood," he said.

"The problem also is that women voters do not vote for female candidates," he said.

Women constitute 55 per cent of the electorate, down from 58 per cent in the previous election. In 2006, official figures showed that most women voted for men.

The number of eligible women voters is 200,500, as against 161,200 men. This is mainly because military personnel, almost all male, are barred from voting.

But Mutawa said the quota system is not popular in Kuwait, and candidate Ghanima al-Haidar (pictured above), contesting for the second time, said she does not support such a system either.

"It is a failure system... Women should win on their merit and competence and I am sure they will do so," Haidar told AFP.

Twenty-eight women signed up as candidates before registration closed on April 23.

Women candidates have again had little time to prepare for the polls because parliament was prematurely dissolved, as was the case in the 2006.

Candidate Sameera al-Shatti said the male mentality meant women's chances of electoral success were slim.

Men "think that women should follow them. Local laws also give preferential treatment to men," she said, referring to citizenship and housing.

Some women candidates are highly qualified. Rula Dashti has a doctorate from Johns Hopkins University in the United States, Fatima Abdali holds a doctorate in environment studies, and Khaleda al-Khader has a doctorate in public health.

The women candidates include lawyers, businesswomen and activists. (AFP)