By HASSAN M. FATTAH
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates, May 3 - Conservative lawmakers in Kuwait's Parliament on Tuesday created a constitutional roadblock that effectively killed a measure that would have allowed women to participate in city council elections for the first time. Hours later, the elections were called for June 2.
The action eliminates any chance that women will be able to take part in elections for another four years, when city council seats are again up for grabs.
The legislation initially was passed by Kuwait's 64-member National Assembly on April 19, but in accordance with Kuwaiti law faced a second vote for ratification on Monday. But Parliament ended in deadlock on Monday when 29 members abstained and only 29 voted for it, leaving the legislation just shy of the 33 votes needed.
Efforts to resume voting on the measure on Tuesday failed when opponents argued that it had already been rejected and that any new vote would therefore be unconstitutional. In a surprise move, the prime minister, Sheik Sabah al-Jaber al-Sabah, shelved the issue for two more weeks. Because the elections were called under the existing law, women are barred from participating in the coming municipal elections even if the measure ultimately passes.
While the city council holds little political significance, winning the right for women to run for office there was seen as a first step in gaining the right to run for Parliament.
The prime minister, who is a descendant of the ruling Sabah family, had promised in the past to push through full political rights for women during the current parliamentary term, which ends in June. He said he would appoint a female cabinet minister once women get suffrage.
Women's participation in politics has been a divisive issue in Kuwait for years, and in recent months has grown heated as advocates for women, backed by international pressure, appeared to make strides. Bahrain, Qatar and Oman have all held elections in recent years, and all have allowed women to vote.
Kuwait's elected Parliament exercises a great deal of control over the government. But while the Kuwaiti Constitution gives equal rights to men and women, the country's election law bars women, along with men in the police and military, from voting. That limits the voting base to only 15 percent of the total population of 950,000 Kuwaitis.
Women would essentially double that base, and redraw the country's political map in the process. But conservative and tribally backed members of Parliament say Islam and Kuwaiti custom bar women from holding that much power.
"The parliaments of most other Muslim countries don't have as much power as we do," said Waleed al-Tabtabae, head of Parliament's human rights committee and a fervent opponent of the measure. "We have no problem with women voting, but we do have a problem with women standing for elections. Islam dictates that the head of the nation must be a man, and we are technically the head of the nation here."
Numerous Kuwaiti women hold high government posts, including the ambassador to the United Nations, Nabeela Abdulla al-Mulla.
Advocates for women contend that their opponents are simply trying to keep their seats. For many lawmakers, the difference between winning and losing can come down to a few votes, and a strong women's vote would threaten the existing order.
Wednesday, May 04, 2005
Thanks to Erin for turning me on to this story...