Magazine article UNESCO Courier

All Roads Lead to the Franchise

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

All Roads Lead to the Franchise

Article excerpt

ISABELLE ESHRAGHI IS A FRENCH PHOTOGRAPHER. HAYA AL-MUGHNI IS A KUWAITI SOCIOLOGIST AND AUTHOR OF WOMEN IN KUWAIT: THE POLITICS OF GENDER (LONDON: SAQI BOOKS, 2001).

Since the end of the Gulf War, Kuwaiti women have stepped up their campaign for the right to vote. Even the most ardent Islamist activists espouse the cause, touting a different vision of women's role in Muslim society

Fifty years ago, few Kuwaiti women received more than a basic religious education. Those from wealthy households were confined to their courtyards, in a section of the house without windows so their voices could not be heard from the outside. Women from more modest households fared slightly better: some worked as midwives, marriage brokers, dressmakers and Koranic teachers who used their homes as schools, while others were peddlers or market traders. In public, however, all women had to cover themselves in long black cloaks (the abbayat) and veil their faces with thick black cloths, the boshiat.

Change was prompted by Kuwait's transformation from a small seafaring community relying on maritime trade to a major oil producer after 1945. Such rapid economic expansion created a demand for an educated workforce and the state made education available to all Kuwaiti citizens. The educated woman became a symbol of modernity, an icon of the modern state. The new generation removed the traditional black veil, enrolled in higher education and competed with men in the labour market. By the 1990s, Kuwaiti women made up 35 percent of the workforce, with a vast majority employed as teachers, doctors, engineers and lawyers.

Despite these strides, Kuwaiti women continue to be legally defined as family members, whose rights and responsibilities are circumscribed by their roles as mothers, wives and daughters. Although the constitution does not discriminate between women and men with respect to their citizenship rights, a number of laws passed since its adoption are discriminatory. The 1962 Election Law, for example, restricts the right to vote and run for office to Kuwaiti men.

After the Gulf War, the Kuwaiti women's movement brought the voting issue to the forefront, providing the ground for an alliance between Islamist and liberal women activists. Suffragists invoked the heroic roles of women under Iraqi occupation, the sacrifices of female martyrs and wartime hardships as justifications for gaining political rights. Women inside Kuwait had participated in armed resistance and risked their lives smuggling food, money and medicine through military checkpoints. Many were caught, tortured, and killed.

But whatever the sacrifices made and stereotypes challenged, the all-male parliament remained reluctant to extend to women full citizenship rights, theoretically guaranteed by the constitution. In November 1999, an Islamist-tribalist coalition succeeded in defeating a decree issued by Kuwait's ruler, Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmed al-Sabah, which would have granted women the right to run for office and vote in parliamentary and municipal elections.

Opponents appeal to narrow interpretations of religious law to justify the denial of citizenship rights to women. But the real impetus for their actions is a deep anxiety over a sluggish economy and changing gender roles. Climbing unemployment among Kuwaiti youth has raised questions about male identity as a breadwinner. Masculinity appears to be in crisis. Women are not only beginning to dominate some sectors in the labour market, they are also moving into positions of power in government and industry. The president of Kuwait University, the under-secretary in the ministry of higher education, and the managing director of the oil industry are all women. …

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