For Women in Kuwait, a Landmark Election

By Faiza Saleh Ambah
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, June 29, 2006

KUWAIT CITY, June 28 -- Rola Dashti, an economist running in Thursday's parliamentary elections, the first to include women, smiled and sprang up from her seat when she spotted a group of supporters standing at the transparent plastic sheet that serves as a door to her campaign tent.

Dashti kissed and hugged them -- three elementary schoolgirls wearing "Vote for Rola Dashti" stickers on the front of their shirts -- as a camera crew making a documentary about her moved in to record the image.

"It makes me very happy to see girls involved like this," said Dashti, a leading activist who fought a decade-long campaign for female suffrage. "They said to me, 'We hope you win.' "

But whether or not Dashti garners a seat in the balloting -- the first in which women may vote and run for office since elections were introduced here more than 40 years ago -- the 42-year-old single woman will still emerge a winner, her supporters say.

Dashti's work on the front lines of the suffrage movement -- lobbying politicians, leading demonstrations, organizing workshops and suing the government for the right to vote -- was crucial to placing women's rights center stage in this small conservative country and in persuading parliament last year to allow women to participate in the political system. She endured insults and taunts, and lost business and friends in the process, but broke down barriers and inspired a generation of women with her courage and resolve, those close to her say.

"It takes a lot of guts in this male-dominated society to stand in front of parliament in an orange T-shirt, holding a huge banner asking for the right to vote," said Ashwaq al-Mudaf, 33, a civil engineer. "Our society was not used to that kind of behavior. But Rola didn't care about her image or her business or anything, she was willing to do whatever it takes to get the vote." Inspired by Dashti, Mudaf ran for the board of the Engineer's Society last year.

Last month Dashti, who heads the Kuwait Economic Society, became the first Kuwaiti woman to register as a parliamentary candidate. About 25 women out of a total 250 candidates are vying for seats in the 50-member parliament. Because men in the military and police cannot vote, 57 percent of the country's 340,000 eligible voters are women. Voters in each of the 25 constituencies will elect two candidates.

Dashti's constituency, No. 10, has close to 16,000 voters, the majority of them women. But how the vote will go is anyone's guess. Dashti has focused her campaign on the economy, unemployment and combating corruption and has a five-point strategy she plans to turn into bills in parliament. Dashti simplifies her message so that voters can understand how parliament affects their lives, she said.

At an all-male salon, or diwaniyya , recently, Dashti, who doesn't usually wear the traditional black cloak, slipped one on over her two-piece suit out of respect for some of the conservative elders before entering the room. Her brother Jamal, who is her campaign manager, handed out fliers to the dozens of men gathered.

"Who is Rola Dashti, and what will she do for you?" she began. "I am your sister and your daughter. I will improve your standard of living. I will ask the government to give its small contracts to young Kuwaitis to increase their income, I will set up a housing fund for widows, divorcees and unmarried women who lack financial support. I offer you bills of law, not slogans."

One of the guests, his hands folded over his chest, nodded his head silently.

She repeated her short speech to four different salons that evening before returning to her headquarters after midnight.

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