Kuwait: Kuwaiti women break the bonds of religion and patriarchy

Pretoria News
First came a letter carrying a stern warning: "Quit the race, or else." Next, unidentified attackers cut up and sprayed insults over campaign billboards.
But Aisha al-Rushaid - one of 32 women making history by running in Kuwait's June 29 elections - vows to pursue her quest for a seat in parliament by taking part in the first general election since the Gulf Arab oil producer granted women suffrage last year.
Rushaid is one of several women candidates who have received threats or seen their billboards mutilated during the campaign to elect a new 50-seat house to replace the all-male parliament dissolved by the emir last month.

A journalist and businesswoman in her forties, Rushaid says she hopes to win one of the two seats in Kaifan district, a stronghold of ultra-conservative Islamists who follow a strict interpretation of sharia and say it is un-Islamic for women to run for office.

"This is war, they want Aisha to quit the race," said campaign worker Hamad al-Enezi, referring to what he called a concerted sabotage effort.

At least two other women candidates said their billboards had been mutilated, including Fatima al-Abdali, one of two women running in the mainly Shi'ite Muslim Shaab area. She said rivals who felt threatened by her might be behind the vandalism.

"I have the strongest CV. I am a threat," she said.

Another candidate, Nawal al-Bakheet, said a man claiming to be a police officer called her and tried in vain to convince her to withdraw, threatening her with a fabricated case if she did not. Nevertheless, none of the women felt they needed police protection.

On the streets of Kaifan, Rushaid's face has been cut from many of her posters while others have been slashed to pieces. On other posters, the assailants drew moustaches and beards on her face with insulting graffiti.

One message read: "We don't want you."

Rushaid said four young men spotted damaging her billboards had been arrested and would be prosecuted. She said a man with a long beard and Islamist-style robe delivered a letter to her house in April telling her it was a woman's duty to stay at home and not to imitate men by campaigning for office.

"The letter advised me to withdraw my candidacy or else," she said. The man is being prosecuted and has confessed to trying to discourage women candidates from running.

"These are similar to al-Qaeda practices," Rushaid said.

Nonetheless, she says she doesn't need bodyguards and feels safe.

"I think I am able to defend myself," she notes in a campaign leaflet.

Kuwaiti women are traditionally more liberal and educated than their Gulf Arab counterparts, but until last year they lagged behind some of them in political rights.

Both lawmakers who represented Kaifan in the previous parliament - Waleed al-Tabtabaie and Adel al-Saraawi - were among 24 Islamist and conservative tribal MPs who voted against granting political rights to women last year.

Running as an independent, Rushaid faces a formidable challenge from Saraawi and Tabtabaie, an Islamist who says he is opposed to women running for office, but not to them voting.

Both men belong to established political groups who draw thousands of supporters - men and women - to their rallies.

But Rushaid believes women will support her.

"Everyone is rushing to win women's votes and support but Kuwaiti women are aware and won't be swayed," she said.

"I am running in the toughest constituency, but I feel that women in Kaifan support me," she said in the air-conditioned tent that serves as her campaign headquarters in Kaifan. "There are people here who want things to change. I'm optimistic I'll be able to compete for one of those two seats."

About 340 000 voters, of whom 195 000 or 57% are women, are eligible to vote on June 29.

Rushaid said she believed women voters would bring about big changes in the assembly where Islamists dominated with a 15-strong bloc.

The assembly has been a powerful body that frequently clashed with the government, dominated by the ruling Sabah family.

"The results will disappoint them ... Women won't vote based on the wishes of husbands, fathers or brothers," Rushaid said.

She promised to shed light on women's issues which she said were ignored by the former male-only house. These include domestic violence or discrimination in public or private sector jobs, she says.

"I feel that democracy has gained a second wing," she said when she registered her candidacy in May. "We have tried men for a long time and it's time to give women the opportunity."

June 27, 2006