No Women Chosen in Kuwait Vote

By Faiza Saleh Ambah
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, June 30, 2006

KUWAIT CITY, June 30 -- Despite braving searing heat and turning up in the tens of thousands, Kuwaiti women, voting for the first time, chose not to put a woman in parliament in Thursday's elections.

According to partial returns reported Friday morning, none of the 27 women in the field of 250 candidates won a seat -- a result that was not unexpected, even though nearly 60 percent of the Kuwaiti electorate is female.

Originally scheduled for next year, the elections were brought forward in May after Kuwait's emir, Sheik Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, dissolved parliament following widespread calls for electoral reform. As a result, the women "had no political experience, no political groups backing them, and only one month to prepare their campaigns," said Madi al-Khamees, owner of al-Hadath newspaper.

"If they start preparing from now," he said, "they might make it in the next elections," scheduled for 2010.

Despite what some saw as a setback for women, their mere presence in this month's elections has changed the emirate's political landscape, analysts and candidates said.

"Women's participation in this election will transform the way parliament works," said Adnan al-Shatti, a child psychologist who ran for office.

"All the candidates were forced to consider women's issues in their campaigns because the women now have a lot of political weight," said Shatti, who handed a stack of leaflets to his daughter to distribute at the entrance of the Muhammad Abdul-Wahhab Middle School for Girls, one of the polling stations set aside for women.

Many male candidates, even conservatives who had opposed women's suffrage for years, made extra efforts to woo the female vote, Shatti and others said.

Basil al-Rashid, who ran against several of the strongest female candidates, said he concentrated during his campaign on female voters.

"I met with women many times and asked them about their needs and what was important to them," said Rashid, a former member of parliament seeking reelection. "They are a very important constituency, and their issues will be highlighted in the next parliament."

Outside the polling station, Rashid's supporters, dressed in orange T-shirts and colorful head scarves, opened car doors for women coming to vote and offered to escort them under silver umbrellas to shield them from the blazing sun. "Vote for Basil al-Rashid, he deserves it," they said, handing out long-stemmed roses. When Rashid walked into the polling station, he was greeted with ululations. "Basil, Basil, Basil," his supporters shouted as they threw rose petals at him.

Inside, women stood sweating in hour-long lines, fanning themselves with fliers and leaflets on the hottest day in Kuwait this year -- around 120 degrees.

Hanan Ashkanawi, a 25-year-old administrator, said she felt it was important to show up at the polls today. "We have been asking for the right to vote for years and, thank God, they finally gave it to us. I had to come to prove that women were serious," she said.

Rabah Ali Boubian, 58, a homemaker in a wheelchair, said that despite her infirmity, the heat and the crowd, voting was an opportunity she was not willing to miss.

Others seemed to feel their presence at the ballot box was almost a mystical experience. Khulood al-Feeli, a communications specialist and activist who had fought for women's rights for more than a decade, said she felt she was creating history as she was voting. "I got goose bumps standing in front of the ballot box. I was in awe, and all the long years of struggle and the demonstrations flashed through my mind," she said.

But candidate Rola Dashti, out soliciting votes till the last moment, said she wanted women to think of the future. Dressed in a rose-colored suit, she handed out small bottles of water to women standing in the long lines and paused beside a young girl named Nabila who was there with her mother.

"I want your support," she said, standing in the middle of a crowd of women. "Make your vote count today. Do it for Nabila," she said as she held up the girl's hand. "For Nabila," she repeated.

Political analyst Ghanim al-Najjar said that although no female candidates made it to parliament, the elections were a positive step for women. "This was a completely novel experience for the [female] candidates and voters," he said. "They were up against seasoned veterans. But it was constructive because it gave them good experience and training."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company