June 29, 2006

Women contest Kuwaiti election for first time

By Haitham Haddadin and Yara Bayoumy

KUWAIT (Reuters) - Kuwaiti women voted and competed for
office in parliamentary elections on Thursday for the first
time in the Gulf Arab state.

"I don't know how to describe my feelings, I am so happy,
it's a beautiful day as women practice their right," female
candidate Hind al-Shaikh said. "I hope a woman makes it."

Parliament passed a law in May 2005 giving women the right
to vote and stand as candidates in elections for the 50-seat
National Assembly of the oil-producing country.

Officials said about 250 candidates were standing,
including 28 women determined to make headway despite daunting
odds against them beating seasoned male opponents, many of whom
are former parliamentarians seeking re-election.

Official news agency KUNA said turnout was estimated at
between 15 and 35 percent by noon. Polls close at 8 p.m. local
time (1700 GMT) and results could start being announced hours

Men and women braved temperatures of around 50 Celsius (122
Fahrenheit), voting in separate stations across the
conservative state as Islamists, who reject female suffrage,
had demanded.

Campaigners handed out to voters roses or water bottles
with candidates' photos printed on them.

"The participation of women has added a new spirit to the
march of democracy in Kuwait," Prime Minister Sheikh Nasser
al-Mohammad al-Sabah said during a visit to a polling station.

Women can vote and stand for election in four of the six
countries in the largely conservative, patriarchal Gulf Arab
region. They are banned in Saudi Arabia, where women's rights
remain limited, and there are no political elections in the
United Arab Emirates.

The poll was called after Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah
al-Ahmad al-Sabah dissolved parliament last month following a
standoff between the government and opposition over electoral


A report by Washington-based consultancy PFC Energy said
the next parliament could pose as many problems for the
government as the previous one.

"There is a real sense of uncertainty on this occasion
about how the crisis will resolve itself, and the election
campaign has been the fiercest in recent memory," it said.

The opposition accuses some members of government of trying
to turn parliament into a rubber-stamp assembly through
vote-buying. But the officials dismissed the charges and the
government says it is committed to reform in U.S. ally Kuwait.

The opposition is a loose alliance of pro-reform ex-MPs,
Islamists and liberals, tolerated in Kuwait which bans parties.

Many experts say voting by powerful conservative tribes and
Islamists will hurt the chances of women candidates, who say at
least one of them may win as women are 57 percent of the
340,000 eligible voters.

"How can I be any happier with all these women here to
vote? I have faith in them," said female candidate Rola Dashti,

Experts say female candidates have a slim chance given
their political inexperience, stiff competition from men and
the conservative mindset of many voters, including other women.

"Women should not be in parliament fighting like men," said
Lamiaa Khaled, 50, a housewife in conservative Islamic attire.

But Aisha al-Rushaid, a woman running in an Islamist area,

said: "Regardless of the outcome, all women want to show
that they will join the elections after they gained their

(Additional reporting by H. Hashim Ahmed and Mahmoud Harbi)