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Kuwaiti Women Win First Parliamentary Seats

May 21, 2009 by  


The Associated Press

kuwait Kuwaitis elected female parliament members for the first time and rejected a number of Islamic fundamentalist candidates in a weekend vote that many hoped would bring stability to the country’s rocky political scene.

Women gained the right to vote and run for office in 2005 but failed in two previous elections to win seats in the 50-member parliament.

Four women were elected in Saturday’s vote, according to official results read out by judges on state-owned television on Sunday.

Kuwait has led the region in giving its people democratic rights. It has an elected parliament that wields considerable power, but the cabinet is still chosen and led by a ruling family that holds ultimate power.

Radical religious politicians have fought against extending political rights to women. And at the same time, they have pushed for full implementation of Islamic law, or Shariah, in the oil-rich U.S. ally.

“This is a message that the Kuwaiti society has started to move away from such movements that are based on hatred,” said political commentator Sami al-Nisf.

Many voters also said they were tired of years of political uph eaval sparked by parliament’s frequent attacks on cabinet members, which often led to attempts to impeach ministers.

Saturday’s election was the outcome of one such confrontation, which prompted Kuwait’s ruler, or emir, to dissolve parliament and call the vote, the second time that has happened in a year.

Al-Nisf said the roughly 40 per cent turnover in the election, which produced 21 new faces in parliament, was a sign that voters were tired of the confrontational style of some politicians.

Two of the roughly half a dozen lawmakers who have often sparked instability by attempting to publicly question cabinet members lost their seats.

“There is a signal from voters that grillings have lost their glitter,” said al-Nisf.

Such instability has virtually frozen development at a time when Kuwait is grappling with the global financial crisis and falling oil revenues, which account for 90 per cent of government income.

“Frustration with the past two parliaments pushed voters to seek change. And here it comes in the form of this sweeping victory for women,” said one of the women elected, Massouma al-Mubarak, who was also the country’s first female cabinet minister.

Her supporters celebrated with fireworks and drove her home in a motorcade of honking cars like Kuwaitis normally do after weddings.

The 62-year-old political science teacher, who once complained that she could not vote while her male students could, score d the most votes in her district.

All of the female winners have PhDs from the United States. Among them is economist and women’s rights activist Rola Dashti, who battled in court for political rights for Kuwaiti women years before the legislature approved the suffrage bill.

The other two women are education professor Salwa al-Jassar and philosophy professor Aseel al-Awadhi.

Newspaper columnist Al-Nisf said the win by female candidates was an achievement to be proud of not only in Kuwait but around the region.

“They made it without organized political parties supporting them or a quota system. This is a huge leap forward for Kuwait’s democracy,” he said.

The poor results for fundamentalist Muslims, he said, represented a rejection of their efforts to push for social restrictions. They have succeeded in banning coeducation at universities and clamping down on public entertainment.

Those politicians won 16 seats on Saturday, down from the 24 seats they held in the previous house. While Islamists from the country’s Shia minority kept their five seats, Sunni religious groups lost eight seats in a sizable rejection by voters.

Meanwhile, liberal politicians who call for economic reform, more openness to the West and more freedoms gained one seat for a total of five.

Kuwait has no officially recognized parties. Candidates either belong to political groups, run independently or represent their tribes.

© The Canadian Press, 2009

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