Sunday, May 17, 2009

Kuwait Elections: A Win for Pragmatists, Not Just for Women

Elza S. Maalouf

As an Arab woman today, I am feeling elated about the four Kuwaiti women who won seats in the Parliament. This is an event that the whole region should be proud of. Four competent, well educated and accomplished women won on their own merit. One of the first MPs is the former Minister of Health Massuma al-Mubarak and the two University professors Salwa al-Jassar and Aseel al-Awadhi in addition to economist Rula Dashti.

Informed by Kuwaitis on the ground, I have been following the events leading up to these elections and searching for the underlying codes that prompted the change to happen. This change included over the years a democratic participation of Bedouin tribes, Shia minority and Islamic extremist movements like HADS (Hizb Al Dusturi Al Islami-Constitutional Islamic Party), Salafis along with the original families of Kuwait who came from Hijaz, and now women. The leaders in Kuwait, influenced by Arab Nationalism (led by Jamal Abdel Nasser at the time) and Kuwaiti visionaries, recognized the change of the dynamics in Kuwaiti society and expanded the representative branch to include members of the new movements. Unlike the other frequently praised democracy of Lebanon which was influenced by the French colonialists -who supported the Maronites- and based purely on sectarianism. The Iranian-Syrian intra-secterian interference in Lebanon is keeping the sectarian parliamentary system in place, and in the process denying Lebanese their quest for a progressive nation.

The women suffrage movement in Kuwait was not initiated by women only, it was supported and led by progressive men as well, who believed in equal participation in public service. It was so recent that they gained the right to vote, yet they historically played a central role in the development of the country.

The Role of Women in Kuwaiti History

A quick look back at the cultural codes that led to creating a stratified democracy in Kuwait, one that fits the value-systems of the state. Along with my readings on this Constitutional Monarchy Emirate to be precise), I was briefed on the critical role that women played in Kuwait since the inception of the Emirate. Kuwaiti men were the early traders of the Arabian peninsula, trading Indian spices, pearls and dates from Iraq with Europe and India. Kuwaiti innovation in the building of ships allowed them to go farther than any traders in the region. Men spent more than 9 months away from home, and women had to be in charge of the extended family which lived together in an extended family compound. These women developed a very effective system to run the large household using humble means to keep the family properly fed, healthy and thriving. Kuwait became a Matriarchal based society out of necessity. With the discovery of oil in the early 50's , girls schools were built next to boys schools and fathers insisted on sending their daughters along with their sons to be educated in Syria, Lebanon and Egypt. Today, many young Kuwaiti men and women are graduating from Ivy League schools and going back to their country to help run the affairs of their country and start successful businesses.

Unlike in any other Emirate or Monarchy in the region, Kuwaiti women became business leaders and were appointed to high ranking positions in the public sector since Kuwait's independence in 1961. Today, Kuwaiti women enjoy equal pay in the private sector as well.
Of course, Kuwait has its long laundry list of problems starting with the "Bedoun" (In Arabic the word means "the ones without") In this case the ones without a Kuwaiti nationality, limited rights of foreign workers and the list goes on... An article written by Next Generation Fellow Sula Al-Naqueeb at our Center for Human Emergence explains further these complex issues in Kuwait.
Women were only granted the right to vote in 2005 after a long struggle with Islamists' influence. This right has long been denied to women for the fear that women in the Bedouin and Islamist communities will be forced by their husbands to vote for the candidate that the male in the family chooses. That will not be a true win to women's suffrage. In 2006 two women ran for parliament and failed. This 2009 election season each of these four women won by a landslide compared to their next opponent. Islamists lost 10 seats and only held on to 11 from the original 21. The seats held by Shiite MPs -- Shia are 1/3 of the population -- increased from 5 to 9. Liberals won 8 seats gaining 1. Analysts say that this parliament might be dissolved if it shows any signs of adopting extremist views. The Emir has done this a few times before when Islamists and few other MPs wanted to prosecute cabinet members on ungrounded basis in most cases, just to disrupt the democratic process and gain fame.

Islamist Defeat

The Islamist defeat marks a significant tipping point in the conflict between Muslim pragmatists/moderates and the zealots in the Middle East. A behind-the-scenes conflict has been brewing the last two years between Nationalists and Progressive Kuwaitis on one side and Islamists on the other (both Sunni and Shia extremists). Here are some events that shifted power away from extemists:

When Imad Mughnyia, one of Hezbollah's notorious leaders, was assassinated in Syria, two Kuwaiti Shiite MPs organized a commemoration in Kuwait. This act aggravated most Kuwaitis since Mugghnia and Hezbollah were responsible for hijacking a Kuwaiti airliner in 1984, and were setting up secret Hezbollah cells in Kuwait.

Other Sunni-Islamists MPs sided with Hamas during the Gaza/Israel war, and demanded that citizens not celebrate the Kuwaiti National day in alliance with Palestinians in Gaza. That would have been respected by all Kuwaitis, even though they have a bad history with the Palestinians who sided with Saddam Hussein during his invasion of Kuwait in 1990. However, what tipped the situation was that those same Islamists who forbad Kuwaitis from celebrating their national day in the streets, were secretly filmed dancing the Dabkeh (traditional Palestinian dance) with Hamas supporters. (This was seen as hypocritical since Islamists shun any type of music or dance considering it haram -- forbidden). Kuwaitis who saw this footage on Scope Satellite TV, called in the TV's talk shows and expressed their anger at Islamists. One woman suggested that all Kuwaitis take to the streets and their rooftops and shout "Allah Akbar" in objection to Islamists hijaking their country, an act they once performed in defiance of Saddam's invading forces. The next day many people did just that. This same act of defiance against the internal invasion of Kuwaiti freedoms eventually led to the unseating of extremist MP's.

Indigenous Exercise in Democracy

Why am I mentioning these details? In a region in danger of falling prey to extreme ideologies spun by the likes of Al-Qaeda, Hizbullah, Syria, and Iran, and a failed attempt at democratization by the West, this indigenous exercise in democracy is a model that could be fostered in other parts of the Middle East and the Muslim World and a worthy lesson in Memetics for the West.

For a two week period before the elections, the Emir opened his palace to the people, asking them to share their suggestions for much-needed changes in the distribution of electoral regions. The Emir, like every ruler before him, kept an age old tradition in opening his palace, and visiting the Dywanyias of the founding families of Kuwait. Dywanyia is an added section to many homes in Kuwait where men gather to discuss politics, religion, social issues, poetry, and philosophy -- depending on the inclination of the household. For the first time in recent history, women sought the all-male Dywanyia as one of their platforms to present their agendas. What started as a daring attempt by 2 women candidates in 2005 grew into a synergistic movement in 2009. Massuma Al-Mubarak was surprised to see that many Dywanyias took the initiative to organize events for her. In most other Dywanyias she had to ask. A patriotic super-ordinate goal prompted men to open their sacred Dywanyias to women!

The Emir's public space and the changing roles of Dywanyias are a great model of how Kuwait kept its tribal traditions and included them to serve the progress of the country.

When I read in Western newspapers an open or underlying criticism of the fact that the Emir still appoints the cabinet, I cringe at the sheer ignorance of cultural codes that we so frequently miss in diagnosing young democracies. Kuwait's Parliament is one of the strongest democratic bodies in the Arab world, but when it is manipulated by Islamists who have been gaining more power after the Iraq war, it becomes imperative for the ruler to have the last word. Moreover, this ruler has a system of accountability inside Kuwait represented by the heads of the different clans. Now who wouldn't want a democracy a la Kuwait in Afghanistan?

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