Kuwaiti Women Vote, and Run, in Elections

Women in Kuwait vote in parliamentary elections for the first time in the history of the emirate. In addition, the candidates vying for seats in the legislature included 28 women.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

In Kuwait, women are voting for the first time and turnout is heavy. The conservative, petroleum rich emirate is allowing women to take part in a nationwide Parliamentary vote. And some women are vying for seats in the legislature. Even though few, if any, women are expected to win, Kuwaiti women say it's an historic day, the first step towards bringing women's issues into the spotlight.

NPR's Peter Kenyon joins me now from Kuwait City. Peter, you visited a number of polling stations today. What was it like out there?

PETER KENYON reporting:

Well, first of all, Michele, it was extraordinarily hot, temperatures up close to 120 degrees. Thousands of volunteers were on hand, worried about fainting and other medical problems. But, generally, the mood was very festive, especially at the women's polling stations. They're segregated here. At the men's stations, the mood was generally accepting, although there was some grumbling about women no longer being confined to the home, where they thought they ought to be.

But at the women's voting stations it was very celebratory. And because of a quirk of the registration process here, all the women who gained the vote recently were automatically registered. So there were actually more women than men registered for these elections today. But even so, most women I spoke to agreed that with only five weeks in this campaign, it was likely to favor the more established, incumbent lawmakers, all of whom, of course, are men.

But several of the women voters I spoke to said win or lose, it was a permanent victory for women's rights today that won't be taken back. And they're confident that they'll make up a sizable percentage of the Parliament before too long.

It was most interesting speaking with some of the older women. I spoke with a few in their 70s. They were among the earliest voters this morning. They said they were just glad they lived long enough to see the day.

NORRIS: Peter, what about younger Kuwaiti women? Were they also out in large numbers?

KENYON: Very large numbers and this, actually, is what's encouraging a lot of women's rights activists here, the huge interest in politics among the younger generation. The voting age is 21, but vast numbers of teenage girls also turned out. They were volunteering for campaigns, both male as well as female candidates. The Kuwaiti media noted that young women here who have been stereotyped as pampered, interested only in shopping, began to shed that image in this past month.

NORRIS: This election comes as part of a broader struggle over reforms in Kuwait. Just how democratic is this country and what issues will the new Parliament face?

KENYON: Well, Kuwait calls itself a constitutional democracy. Of course, the Amir and the ruling family pretty much run everything, if you ask any Kuwaitis that question. Electoral reform is a big issue itself. It was the crisis over that, how many voting districts Kuwait should have, that prompted the Amir to dissolve the Parliament and call these snap elections. Now, in the short term, that meant the newer candidates, including all the women, had just five weeks to learn how to run a campaign.

But once this new Parliament convenes, the issue of electoral reform will be back on their laps. The current system's under attack as open to corruption. We did hear a number of allegations of vote buying in this campaign. But, in general, Kuwaitis say it all boils down to a power struggle, with the Parliament demanding more independence and authority and the ruling family divided over how much power should be ceded to the lawmakers.

As more women are elected to the Parliament, as analysts expect they will be, Kuwaitis say it'll be interesting to see if their issues - education, economic equality and things like that - come to the fore. They're certainly getting an unprecedented amount of attention in the campaign.

NORRIS: Peter, just quickly, how closely is this election being watched elsewhere in the Middle East?

KENYON: Well, it is being watched. The media from many other Gulf and Arab states are here. It's obviously not unprecedented in the region. .any other area states already allow women to vote in national elections, the big exception, of course, being Saudi Arabia. But for this very conservative, tiny emirate, it is certainly a big symbolic victory and it could turn into something much more in the future.

NORRIS: Thank you, Peter.

KENYON: You're welcome, Michele.

NORRIS: NPR's Peter Kenyon speaking to us from Kuwait City.

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