At the Kuwaiti parliament last week, a crowd gathered quickly, noisily, in one of those convulsions of public feeling that impel strangers to converge on a single spot. They were not there to protest. Dancing, singing and launching fireworks, some 300 men and women came to celebrate a breakthrough political victory. After a nine-hour parliamentary debate, and six long years of delay, a bill granting women the right to vote and to run for public office finally passed. "Our hearts are overflowing with joy and happiness," exulted Fayza al-Awadhi, a member of the Kuwaiti Women's Cultural & Social Society.
Giving women the vote was first debated in 1999, but was blocked by conservative Islamic members of the all-male parliament. Even last week, more than a third of members voted against the reform, even though the government had made concessions to soothe them, including the introduction of an amendment to stipulate that women voting or running for office must abide by Islamic law. Now, Prime Minister Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah can expect an especially warm reception when he travels to Washington next month. The U.S. had been pushing Kuwait, one of its staunchest allies in the Middle East, to allow its female citizens to participate in political life. Saudi Arabia is the only country in the Gulf that entirely excludes women from the political process, although full equality is still a long way off in most of the region. Opponents of the Kuwaiti reform lament that the country will soon lose its traditions. "This vote is against the will of the Kuwaiti people. It aims at changing the identity of the society," said Waleed al-Tabtabai, a parliamentarian strongly opposed to the law.
Al-Sabah has indicated that he will appoint women to his cabinet, and Kuwaiti activists are pressing for more reforms to ensure women get a fair deal in parliamentary elections scheduled for 2007. Campaigners fear that conservatives in the parliament could still push through legislation to force women running for office to wear the veil. Still, they acknowledge they've won an important battle. "There is nothing that prevents women from full political participation," says Najla Alial Naki, a female Kuwaiti lawyer. "Finally, democracy is now complete and Kuwait can move forward."