Women shut out in Kuwait’s parliamentary election

Summary: no women were elected to the Kuwaiti parliament but an organisation set up to get women elected says the setback will only serve to toughen its resolve.

“We named the platform Mudhawi, an old and traditional Khaleeji name, as we wanted to give it an identity. When you think of the name Mudhawi you think of the sister, mother, supporter and wise woman. We want all women running to know that Mudhawi is here to help and support her.”  Leanah al-Awadhi, quoted in Gulf News 20 September, 2020.

Kuwait’s parliamentary election on 5 December saw 342 candidates, including 31 women running for 50 seats.  44 incumbents ran, but just 19 were re-elected. Despite the largest number of women contesting in Kuwait’s parliamentary history no women were elected.

A woman voting in Kuwait’s parliamentary elections

That could be viewed as a huge setback for Mudhawi’s List, an online platform designed to help women candidates run for elected office. But when Alanoud Alsharekh, who co-founded the List was contacted the day after the election she was anything but downbeat.

She told Arab Digest “it was to be expected, there was no chance with the situation as it is.” Alsharekh pointed to a system where “sexism is well entrenched” and one where voters followed tribal, Islamist party or sectarian lines.

Mudhawi’s List offers support, encouragement and strategies for women seeking election in a country that, despite having a parliament in place since 1963, gave women the right to vote and run for office only in 2005.  Admittedly, for the Gulf, that was a significant breakthrough. But since then very few women have succeeded in winning seats.

Alsharekh places responsibility for that on a system and a political structure that views women’s aspirations to leadership roles with deep suspicion. She calls it a “power network” rooted in conservative tribal, religious and social attitudes that tilts the field away from women.

She argues that the state needs to intervene: “it is irresponsible to think change will happen organically” simply because women were given the right to vote. Alsharekh, an academic and businesswoman, says it is a fallacy to assume that women will vote for women. So, she says, a positive intervention is required from government and that is to establish a quota whereby a number of seats in Parliament must be held by women. “It’s very simple,” she says. Having said that, Alsharekh notes that the government whilst intervening elsewhere declines to step in and take a stand on a quota: “when we speak about gender representation the government says ‘no that is intervention in the democratic process’. So it seems there are selective interventions in the democratic process.”

And now that Kuwaiti voters have elected an all-male parliament an intervention that bolstered women’s representation looks even more unlikely. That does not deter Alsharekh. Mudhawi’s List is a grassroots movement that views not just seats in parliament but all elections as opportunities to engage the struggle and advance the cause. So the list is targeting all elective offices be they boards of co-operatives, sports clubs, chambers of commerce, municipalities or student unions. She calls them gateway positions. Mudhawi’s List treats them as building blocks: “we need to work on all elective offices; if we ignore the gateway positions and then turn to parliament the same thing is going to happen as happened yesterday.”

Meanwhile, the new all-male parliament has its own daunting challenges, chief among them Kuwait’s ailing economy. The IMF has estimated that it will contract by more than 8% in 2021, a victim like all hydrocarbon producing states, of the double whammy of the global slowdown caused by  Covid-19 and low oil prices. The previous parliament, exercising its negative power, declined to pass a bill that would enable the government, carrying a debt load of US$46 billion, to borrow on global markets. And foreign direct investment remains parlously low. A recent study from Santander notes two key reasons why: “a tormented political life” that makes structural reform difficult to secure and “extreme dependence of the economy on the performance of the oil sector and in particular on the price of a barrel of oil.”

Without the twin boosts of foreign borrowing and significantly higher levels of FDI, Kuwait’s Vision 2035 programme to diversify the economy away from oil dependency will continue to stutter. How the recently installed Emir Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Sabah will handle a fractious parliament, a troubled economy and regional security issues remains to be seen. Were he to reflect on the fact that leaders who have handled the pandemic best – like Germany’s Merkel and New Zealand’s Ardern – are women, he might be advised to seek some of his answers in Mudhawi’s List.

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