Four Kuwaiti women made history on May 17th by winning seats in their country’s parliamentary elections. Their victory was made all the more delicious because the fundamentalists who had long opposed women’s suffrage simultaneously lost several of their seats in the Kuwaiti parliament. And just as women faced down the fundamentalists in Kuwait, they will eventually win in Saudi Arabia.
It’s wonderful to see the power of women put the fear of God into countries. At least that’s how I like to explain Saudi Arabia’s decision to delay municipal elections for two years.
It’s all Kuwait’s fault. Kuwaiti women, to be precise, four of whom made history on May 17 by winning seats in their country’s parliamentary elections. Their victory was made all the more delicious because the fundamentalists who had long opposed women’s suffrage lost several of their seats in the Kuwaiti parliament.
The very next day, Saudi Arabia extended the mandate of municipal councils by two years to give time to “expand the participation of citizens in the management of local affairs.” By the accounts of several activists, those local councils are useless. They were the result of the kingdom’s brief, first fling with democracy in 2005, and five women announced their candidacy. But those first nationwide elections were deemed off limits to women by ultraconservative clerics.
Ever since, Saudi women and their supporters have continued to hope that King Abdullah — who is regarded as an ally — would open up the 2009 poll, slated for October, to women. So you can imagine how nervous the Saudis got at the sight of four newly minted Kuwait women parliamentarians.
For years, Islamists in Kuwait’s parliament — from the same brand of ultraconservative Salafi Islam prevalent in Saudi Arabia — stood in the way of women’s suffrage. Women finally won their political rights in 2005, but failed in two subsequent elections to win seats in the 50-member parliament.
But with neither quotas nor the backing of political parties, the four successful women in last week’s elections proved that even once-conservative voting habits can change.
Islamists lost eight of their seats in parliament in a stinging rejection of their attempts to control Kuwaiti society, where they have in recent years succeeded in banning coeducation at universities and restricting public entertainment. They had also wanted to implement Islamic law.
I am always stunned at the pontification of analysts who claim that Muslims want Islamists to run their societies for them. Muslims want choice, just like everybody else.
In countries where Islamists are the only alternative to a dictator, that’s not choice, but a protest vote against the system. Given a choice, Kuwaitis picked four women parliamentarians in a country where just four years ago women had no political rights.
Saudi Arabia knows too well the ideas that Saudi women can pick up from their Kuwaiti sisters.
In the aftermath of Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, many Kuwaiti men and women fled the violence by getting into their cars and driving to neighboring Saudi Arabia.
Forty-seven Saudi women famously violated the kingdom’s ban on driving by taking to the wheel in a convoy through the capital Riyadh. They were denounced as whores in mosques, banned from working for two years and had their passports temporarily confiscated.
To this day, the country whose oil reserves fuel most of the world’s cars continues to deny half its population the right to drive a car, to vote and to run for office.
Just as women faced down the fundamentalists in Kuwait, they will eventually win in Saudi Arabia. Brave Saudi women are increasingly speaking out, whether online, where they comprise more than half the kingdom’s bloggers, or through underground basketball and soccer tournaments that flout the ban on women in public sports.
The backlash will be ugly, just as it was with the women who drove in 1990. Soon after King Abdullah appointed the kingdom’s first woman deputy minister earlier this year, conservative clerics called for a ban on women in media.
But the religious hardliners are making Saudi Arabia a laughingstock. A Saudi judge told a seminar on domestic violence earlier in May that it was okay for a man to slap his wife for lavish spending, What kind of justice can women expect from a judge like that?
Like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait is a Muslim majority country. So when those Saudi clerics who stand between women and their political rights claim to be upholding “Islam,” point to neighbor Kuwait and ask “whose Islam?”
Point to Rola Dashti, Massouma al-Mubarak, Salwa al-Jassar and Aseel al-Awadhi — Kuwait’s new women parliamentarians — and say “Muslim Women Can!”
(Photo: Ra’ed Qutena)
Mona Eltahawy is an Egyptian-born writer on Arab and Muslim issues. This article was originally published in the International Herald Tribune/New York Times and is reprinted with the author’s permission.