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War Experiences Mobilizes Kuwait’s Women To Campaign for Vote

February 3, 1992

KUWAIT CITY (AP) _ During the Iraqi occupation, Kuwaiti women were gunned down in protest marches and smuggled money and weapons for the resistance.

A year later, they’re fighting another campaign - for the right to vote.

″Before the war, Kuwaiti women really didn’t know what they were capable of,″ said Sundus Hussein, a computer programmer. She is an organizer of the campaign.

During Iraq’s 1990 invasion, petroleum engineer Sara Akbar helped organize about a dozen Kuwait Oil Co. employees who kept enough oil pumping to maintain the machinery and keep the emirate in electricity.

″I know men who wouldn’t step out of their houses for the whole seven months″ of the occupation, she said, pulling sharply at the white scarf veiling her hair according to Islamic custom. ″I knew then that women should have more share of the work ... Everybody should have a chance.″

Kuwait’s seven opposition groups have been sympathetic and most have added women’s rights to their platforms. For the first time, secular and Islamic women’s groups are working together toward winning the vote.

But women were barred from registering this month to vote in October’s parliamentary elections - the first since the emir, Sheik Jaber al-Ahmed al- Sabah, suspended the body in 1986 after vociferous criticism of government ministers.

The initial goal of the women’s campaign is to collect 100,000 signatures on a petition supporting their demand for the vote.

They face a formidable battle in this conservative society because many men and some women oppose the idea.

″Kuwait is an Islamic country and women have to defer to Islam in their private and public affairs,″ Bahija Behbehani, a female junior college professor, wrote in a recent opinion column in the newspaper al-Qabas.

Kuwait has long had a tradition of being more tolerant than other Persian Gulf states. Many Kuwaiti women look at neighboring Saudi Arabia - where women can’t drive and must be fully veiled in public - as backward.

But women point out Kuwait lags behind Arab countries like Egypt, Algeria, Libya and Syria where women can vote and have been appointed government ministers. Even neighboring Iran, whose 1979 Islamic revolution put women into mandatory Islamic dress and policed public mingling, has women in parliament.

There are Kuwaiti women prominent in most fields. Women run banks and computer firms. A woman was just named managing editor of the newspaper Al- Watan.

But no woman has risen higher than assistant undersecretary in any government ministry, and women don’t get as many benefits as men, such as scholarships for study abroad.

Under Kuwait’s arcane citizenship laws, only those Kuwaiti men who can trace their ancestry in Kuwait back to 1920 are eligible to vote. That’s only 90,000 people in an emirate that has an estimated population of 1.2 million.

The women’s movement estimates as many as 100,000 women would be eligible to vote if the franchise was extended without further changing citizenship laws.

Women first started protesting in the 1960s, but social tradition and a ban on political groups blocked their efforts.

″They still haven’t gotten their act together,″ said Dr. Rasha al-Sabah, a university professor and cousin of the emir.

She took the radical step of opening to women a weekly diwaniyya, the Arabs’ informal discussions on current affairs held in homes and traditionally a male preserve.

A host of celebrity guests, including former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, have used the meeting to speak for women’s rights.

But Dr al-Sabah’s movement has not attracted a following outside her university colleagues.

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