When Lulwa Al Mulla first tried to participate in Kuwaiti politics 24 years ago, she and four friends would park outside tents where male-only campaigns and debates were held, fiddling with their car radio knob to listen in. Relegated to the sidelines, they were curious, frustrated and desperate to crack the barrier shutting them out of politics.
"Our numbers grew, and we started breaking these taboos and walls -- just by being there," Mulla said during a visit to Washington this week. She traveled here with three other Kuwaiti female activists to promote the milestone reached last month when the country's parliament passed legislation allowing women the right to vote and run for public office.
"Just imagine how we progressed," she recounted. "After a while, they started reserving a small area inside those tents for us. With time, we were grudgingly allowed to be part of the discussions." In the most recent election, "we sat side by side with the elite," she added, referring to men.
When the bill passed on May 16, Mulla said, she and other female activists stood up, breaking into applause from benches at the rear of parliament. "We started singing Kuwait's national anthem at the top of our lungs. Ministers and deputies remained silent at first, but then they joined in," Mulla recalled with a proud smile.
What was hard, she acknowledged, was that despite being one of the most advanced countries in the Persian Gulf, Kuwait was one of the last to grant women political rights. She said the progress made by women in other Middle Eastern countries made a deep impact on her and other Kuwaiti activists.
"You cannot help but be moved by the changes in your environment. What happened in Lebanon really affected us," she said, referring to the popular uprising last spring against Syrian domination of the neighboring country. "Is it possible to stand by and watch Iraqi women massively head to the polls, conquering the threat of terrorism?"
Although Kuwaiti women agitated in vain for their rights for many years, there is no doubt that times in the region are changing, Mulla explained. "They call it winds of change, and we are blowing along with them," she said optimistically.
Mulla began her university studies at the Beirut College for Women in 1968, a time of ferment that she described as very formative.
"The liberal atmosphere there affected me immensely," she recalled. "I was part of the Arab Cultural Club there. I attended all their lectures and took part in demonstrations. I helped organize carnivals to raise funds for Palestinian refugees. When I returned to Kuwait to be married, I continued my activism at university and ran for the student council."
Mulla and her colleagues have no illusions about the challenges ahead, however, including the dual battles to raise awareness of women's rights and win acceptability, she explained.
"Kuwaiti women are already active at universities, in companies and chambers of commerce. What is new is that everyone has to accept the fact that women will not only vote but they will be running for seats in the parliament," she said. Many Islamic lawmakers consistently opposed a royal decree issued in 1999 calling for equality in political life, and in some homes, conservative tradition must still be overcome, she added.
"We really have to work hard to convince women and men of the importance of their participation and cooperation," Mulla said. "Change is never easily embraced. We will learn much by 2007," when national elections will next be held, "but until then we have to organize workshops, prepare manuals and guides for the electorate."
The move toward political change in the region, she said, is developing its own momentum in Kuwait. Some members of the hard-line Muslim Brotherhood are changing their views and beginning to map out strategies for gaining the support of female voters. One of the group's female members is even thinking of nominating herself for the 2007 election.
On May 16, several lawmakers who had vocally opposed the equality decree in the past voted for it. Mohammed Abdullah Mubarak, a member of the royal family and adviser to the Foreign Ministry, was recently quoted as saying, "I am against the rights of women. Even if my mother were to run, I would be opposed." But there are now rumors that even he has come around.
Mulla emphasized that the Kuwaiti constitution ensures justice, freedom and equality to all citizens. She played down the importance of a clause in the new electoral law stipulating that female candidates and voters should stick to "Islamic guidelines."
"Maybe it is too early to tell, but will the parliament be different from all other institutions where women show up and work without Islamic cover?" she asked. "Our constitution guarantees such personal rights. This clause is not a real issue. It is the last card our opponents have to slam on the table."