Kuwait: A report on the struggle for women’s political participation

Last month, on the 19th April, lawmakers in Kuwait agreed to allow women the right to vote and run in local council elections – a bill that passed on a 26-20 vote, with three abstentions [1].
Kuwaiti women were ecstatic – women have been fighting since the 1960s for political rights, in a country where women’s rights are comparable to those in Saudi Arabia.
With just one more session of voting to solidify the decision, and the final word resting in the hands of Kuwait’s emir (Prime Minister), pro-women’s rights Sheik Jaber Al Ahmed Al Sabah, women were as close as they were ever going to be to political participation.

On May 2nd, parliament ended in a deadlock when 29 members abstained and 29 members voted yes, leaving the bill just four votes shy of the 33 required for it to pass [2]. Elections were called hours after the legislation was blocked, and now Kuwaiti women will haveto wait another four years for a chance to take part in elections.

This is incredibly disappointing news for Kuwaiti women. In 1999, two women’s rights decrees were quashed: the first one because it was signed when the legislature was not in session; and the second bill was narrowly defeated by tribal and fundamentalist lawmakers within the parliament [3]. In 2004, feminists in Kuwait reopened the debate on women’s rights, hopeful that rights for women could be extended to political participation because Kuwait has “prided itself on being a standard setter among the Arab monarchies on the Persian Gulf” [4]. It has been argued, however, that the National Assembly elected in 2003 has few men committed to women’s rights [5].


Formally, the government is supportive of the political participation of women in Kuwait, but informally, like the decrees that were defeated in 1999, women’s rights discussions tend to aggravate parliamentary divisions and act as a catalyst for factionary dissent, rather than being fully recognised as a political issue. Tétreault asserts that it is the circumstances under which women’s rights decrees are issued, that can determine the outcome for Kuwaiti women – not necessarily opposition to women’s rights itself [6]. A potential cabinet reshuffle or parliamentary dissolution could be the reason why this latest bill on women’s rights was defeated. Kuwait’s emir has shelved the issue for the time being, similar to a bill on the consolidation of small districts in Kuwait, which would reduce electoral corruption, and has been a divisive issue in parliament since 2004.

Some members of parliament, however, are opposed outright to women holding power in Kuwait. The head of the parliament’s human rights committee Waleed al-Tabtabae was quoted as saying “We have no problem with women voting, but we do have a problem with women standing for elections. Islam dictates that the head of the nation must be a man, and we are technically the head of the nation here” [7].

The Kuwaiti Constitution gives equal rights to men and women, except in election law, where women and men in the police and the military are prevented from voting. Reportedly, this reduces the voting base to just 15 percent of the population, and if women were granted the right to vote, this base would double [8]. With the difference between winning and losing a seat in parliament reduced to just a few votes, granting women the right to vote could result in a threat to the status quo – something that many men do not want.

The greatest opponents of women’s political rights come from Sunni Islamists, who played a pivotal role in the liberation of Kuwait from Iraq, and ‘traditionals’, who remain closer to their tribal origins than people living in the urban areas [9]. These two groups constitute a vast majority of parliament members and are hence a formidable barrier for women to cross. Kuwait’s emir, however, promised the women of Kuwait that he would push through full political rights for women during this term. Now that elections have already been called, this promise has fallen aside.


Women are frustrated and tired of their unsuccessful efforts in getting the law changed to include women’s political participation. Bahrain, Qatar and Oman have all allowed women to vote in elections in recent years [10]. Many will now turn back to civil society to facilitate change and institute societal reforms on human rights, based on the premise that because women are citizens of Kuwait, they must have the same rights as citizens who are men.

Previously, women focused their campaign on their efforts during the Iraqi occupation to justify full political rights. In 1992, women were the first to mount anti-occupation demonstrations and “were active in the resistance, transporting weapons and leaflets as well as food…Women who were caught doing these things were tortured and killed, their bodies thrown in front of their families’ houses” [11]. Now women are taking a rights-based approach to their campaigns, based not on their behaviour as good citizens, but rather their identity as citizens which is the same identity that Kuwaiti men possess. Women’s rights activist Rola Dashti has expressed her frustration over the recent events, exclaiming “nothing is easy for Kuwaiti women” [12]. Women will continue to fight, however, and with renewed motivation and strategy, they are hopeful that they will be granted their rights.


[1] China Daily 2005. “Kuwait nearing voting rights for women”. April 20, 2005.
[2] Aljazeera 2005. “Kuwait fails to pass women’s vote bill”. May 2, 2005.
[3] See Note 1.
[4] Tétreault, A. 2005. “Women’s rights and the meaning of citizenship in Kuwait”. Tharwa Project, February 10, 2005.
[5] Ibid.
[6] See Note 4.
[7] Hassan M. Fattah “Kuwaiti women denied right to run in elections”. New York Times, May 5, 2005.
[8] Ibid.
[9] See Note 4.
[10] See Note 7.
[11] Refer to Note 4.
]12] See Note 2.