Female Candidates Shake Up Kuwaiti Elections

Voters in the oil-rich Gulf Emirate of Kuwait go to the polls. Candidates are vying for 50 seats in Parliament. For the first time, women are allowed to vote and run for office. Female candidates have struggled to gain recognition but their efforts, and an anti-corruption movement, have shaken up the quiet country.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Today is Election Day in Kuwait. All 50 seats in the Kuwaiti Parliament are up for grabs, and for the first time women can not only vote but run for office. The decision to open up the political process is having a big effect on a tiny country with a lot of oil.

NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Kuwait City.

PETER KENYON reporting:

At 10:00 o'clock in the evening the temperature stubbornly refuses to dip below 100 degrees as Kuwaitis gather in and around huge tents scattered around the capital to hear what their candidates have to say.

Mr. FAISAL AL-HYAT: (Foreign language spoken)

KENYON: Faisal al-Hyat talks of democracy and constitutional reform before rose and white-robed Kuwaiti men. It's a familiar scene except for a new section at the back where Kuwaiti women and their daughters mingle and talk about their first election day.

Unidentified Woman: Ladies, very nice of course. For forty years now, it's the first the first time for us. And even then, the numbers for ladies who are voting is more than men.

KENYON: It's true that there are more women registered than men for this election, in part because they were automatically registered after winning the right to vote, unlike the men. But first time voter Hoda El-Sarafta(ph) doesn't think any of the 28 women candidates will win this time because after decades of waiting it's all happening to fast.

Ms. HODA EL-SARAFTA (Kuwaiti Voter): In my opinion, no. No. Because they are not ready yet. It's only one month. Maybe the next time, maybe.

KENYON: She is referring to the fact that elections for Parliament were expected to held in 2007. But because of a clash over electoral reform issues, the Amir abruptly dissolved Parliament and call elections with only about five weeks notice.

One of the highest profile women candidates, Rola Dashti, says in addition to the time crunch, she is facing other pressures. Her posters and banners have been vandalized. She is rebutting what she calls false allegations that she says are being spread by her religious critics. But Dashti says her frustrations are more than overcome by the sight of Kuwaiti women embracing their new rights.

Ms. ROLA DASHTI (Candidate): We're seeing thousands of women coming out to listen to candidates, despite a lot of people wanted to marginalize her, saying that she will only obey her husband or her father or her brother. No, women wanted to make up her mind so she's coming and listening and asking questions and reading, and this is very positive step.

KENYON: The Kuwaiti political establishment is also having to make a few adjustments.

Mr. ADOS SARAWI(ph) (Candidate): (Foreign spoken)

KENYON: Islamist candidate Ados Sarawi(ph) draws a mostly male audience to his campaign tent with giant screen broadcasts of the latest World Cup Soccer match. But he's spending more of his time talking about women's issues and women's rights. Sarawi says initially he opposed women having the vote, let alone running for office, but now he's changing his views.

Mr. SARAWI: (Through Translator): From an Islamic point of view, the woman doesn't have the right to be elected, but she has the right to vote. And this is actually what I'd rather see. From a legal point view, however, women can now do both, and I don't think that will change unless we change the Constitution.

KENYON: Political scientist Ghanim Al-Najjar at Kuwait University says he's not surprised to see Islamist candidates rushing to set up women-friendly political events.

Professor GHANIM AL-NAJJAR (Kuwaiti University): Politics is not religion. If he was a candidate against women voting and now he is running after women, that's the nature of politics.

KENYON: At the campaign tent for one female candidate 75-year-old Sabika Al-Harib(ph) leans on her cane. Dressed entirely in traditional black and wearing a head scarf, she says she never thought she would see this day come.

Ms. SABIKA AL-HARIB (Voter): (Through Translator): I'm so happy. I wish all the women could get into Parliament. The men have all the power. Maybe these women will do something, change some things that should have been changed a long time ago.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Kuwait City.

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