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They've Kuwaited Long Enough

What's stopping Kuwait's women from voting?

11:57 PM, May 4, 2005 • By PETER BERKOWITZ
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None of the dozen female students I talked to sitting at tables in the shade in the university court yard seemed particularly troubled by the exclusion of women from politics. A first-year student in the social sciences, dressed in the traditional dark Islamic cloak and head scarf, said she was not at all concerned that after graduation she would enter a world in which she could not vote. "We have everything we need," she told me, arms-crossed and nervously amused. And indeed, Kuwait's massive welfare state is among the most generous on the face of the earth.

Hanady, also a student of the social sciences, wears a colorful blouse, designer sunglasses, and head scarf. She said she would "love to have women vote," but felt it "not that important" because women in Kuwait already have all rights.

A law student, dressed in a bright red blouse, jeans, and without head covering, did not want to give her name but said that it bothered her that women lacked the vote, that in fact a majority of women wanted it, and that as a lawyer she would be active in seeking it.

Aisha, dressed traditionally with only her face--featuring flashing and carefully made-up eyes--visible, said that she was in favor of women voting in national elections but against their running for office. "It has never been our culture," she explained, "that women lead. Women always depend on others." The playfulness of the smile that danced across her face as she spoke prompted me to ask about the leadership exercised by Kuwaiti women doctors, lawyers, and business executives. To which she replied that a pregnant member of parliament would be a joke. It was of course the reply of reaction, but her smile and insouciance suggested that in uttering it she was having a laugh not with, but at the traditionalists.

The next day I visited with students at the brand new American University of Kuwait, a small private liberal arts college, the first of its kind in this country. The students do not represent a cross section of Kuwaiti society, but the wealthier, more cosmopolitan section they do represent is articulate, impatient, and struggling to find its own way between tradition and freedom.

Several of the women--they could have passed for American coeds--observed that Kuwait was moving through a period of rapid change. For the tastes of these students, however, it was not rapid enough. One woman wearing a head scarf diffidently approached me at the end of the discussion. "Can I tell you something about our parliament," she shyly and smilingly asked. "It really sucks."

So what do Kuwaiti women want? Hard to say among the young women to whom I spoke, whose opinions diverge sharply. This, perhaps not coincidentally, is a telltale sign of the growth of freedom.

Peter Berkowitz teaches at George Mason University School of Law and is a fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution.