Kuwait witnessed a decline in female participation in political life, as Saturday’s parliamentary election saw all 28 women candidates lose, leaving the National Assembly without females despite the fact that they constitute 52% of eligible voters.
In 2005, the National Assembly gave women the right to vote and to run for office, but female participation has been decreasing. Out of 15 women who ran in the 2016 election, only one, Safa Al Hashem, won a seat (she was first elected in 2012). This time around, she lost her re-election bid.
Nada Al Mutawa, a Kuwaiti analyst, researcher and a columnist at the Al-Jarida newspaper, told The Media Line there were several factors behind the absence of a single female in the new parliament, chief among them that it was an unequal competition, as men started this race in the early 1960s, “while women were only given a chance to prepare in the mid-’90s.”
Mutawa, who is also a member of the board of trustees at Kuwait College of Science and Technology, explained that a second principal reason for the result was the lack of access for women to diwaniyas, or decision-making gatherings, which remained reserved for men. “Therefore, men surpassed some women in terms of decision-making, candidate selection and preparations.”
Diwaniyas are the core of social, business and political life in Kuwait, places where discussions are held, associates introduced, alliances formed and similar networking activities undertaken. They play a big role in election campaigns.
Thirdly, Mutawa pointed to the lack of organization prior to the election, “and by organization, I mean choosing a small number of women to run, while concentrating on having them win and enter parliament.”
She indicated that a large number of women ran in this election, where despite their abilities and their unprecedented academic and educational credentials, they lost as they lacked the requisite organization.
Additionally, Mutawa said that due to the global coronavirus pandemic, women were unable to properly communicate with voters and promote their electoral programs. “Social media was the only channel for women to communicate, and it was filled with bullying. In this respect, we need a law to protect women’s privacy, especially on social media channels, to fight a large number of fake accounts that were created to bully women.”
Women’s activism should not end because of the loss of parliamentary representation, she said. On the contrary, women must work, starting today, to change the laws. “Losing the seat doesn’t mean ending political work for women in Kuwait, it’s a beginning point for them to prove themselves and participate in committees and law concerning women,” Mutawa elaborated.
In 2009, four women secured seats in the Kuwaiti legislature, a figure that declined to only three in 2012, and the 2013 parliament saw only two out of eight female candidates win.
Dr. Ayed al-Manaa, a Kuwaiti academic and political researcher, explained to The Media Line that the dominance of male culture was behind the results, as women voted for men and men voted for men as well, which had to do with the cultural heritage in the country.
“If half of the 52% women voters voted for women, we would have had half of the lawmakers be women,” he said.
Manaa clarified that naturally, the majority of women preferred men to rule them, where even in the Western world, women’s representation remained limited and smaller than men’s representation. “Male congresspeople outnumber congresswomen in the US, and also [among members of parliament] in the UK. So what do you expect from Arab societies, despite the fact that Kuwaiti society is open, relatively speaking?”
Perhaps women were not convincing to the Kuwaiti voters, although in more than one constituency there were candidates with great qualifications, “but they weren’t lucky, where the only female lawmaker we had, has lost her seat,” he continued.
He added that women were not different in their suggestions from others in terms of female-related issues “such as marriage, childhood, divorce and other matters. They discussed general topics, not related to them,” Manaa said.
The country is divided into five constituencies, each of which elected 10 deputies. A total of 326 candidates competed to win 50 seats in the parliament. In addition, up to 15 appointed government ministers will be ex officio members.
Sami Abdullatif al-Nesf, a former information minister, told The Media Line that in general Arab societies were male-dominated, which prevented women being represented in political life, not only in Kuwait, but also in Egypt, Lebanon and North African countries. This “has driven countries like Egypt in the ’50s to adopt a quota system that guarantees women a certain number of seats; the same is the case in Lebanon.”
A woman rarely wins office in the Arab world unless she is connected to a large, powerful family, “and Kuwait isn’t outside this unfortunate context, which was reflected in the decrease in female representation despite the large number of women who ran in the election,” he said.
Nesf suggested that to change the situation, Kuwait either needed to adopt a quota system to secure women’s representation in political life or to change the culture.
Moreover, he also said that men managed to communicate with voters through diwaniyas, which were mainly for males. “In addition, we have an issue in Arab societies that women vote for men, where the number of women voters is larger than that of male voters.”
He concluded that women’s representation in parliamentary councils was very important, as it helped them secure their rights by passing permanent legislation “which will help push women into functional centers that usually undermine their rights.
“It’s unfortunate that qualified women lose against men, some of whom can barely write,” Nesf said.