Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Democracy 'a la Koweit'

Note: Despite being published in May 23rd Newsweek issue, this article is obsolete since yesterday. By passing 'Women's Rights' Bill, Democracy 'a la Koweit' became different.
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Letter From Kuwait: Equality, of a Sort

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By Carla Power
Newsweek International

May 23 issue - Getting to the heart of Kuwaiti democracy seems hilariously easy. Armed only with a dog-eared NEWSWEEK ID, I ambled through the gates of the National Assembly last week. Unscanned, unsearched, my satchel could easily have held the odd grenade or an anthrax-stuffed lunchbox. The only person who stopped me was a guard who grinned and invited me to take a swig of orange juice from his plastic bottle.

Were I a Kuwaiti woman wielding a ballot, I would have been a clearer and more present danger. That very day Parliament blocked a bill giving women the vote; 29 M.P.s voted in favor and 29 against, with two abstentions. Unable to decide whether the bill had passed or not, the government scheduled another vote in two weeks—too late for women to register for June's municipal elections. The next such elections aren't until 2009.

Inside the elegant, marbled Parliament itself, a sea of mustachioed men in white thobes sat in green seats, debating furiously. The ruling emir has pushed for women's political rights for years; ironically, the democratically elected legislature has thwarted him. Traditionalists and tribal leaders are opposed. Liberals fret, too, that Islamists will dragoon their multiple wives into voting, swelling conservative ranks. "When I came to Parliament today, people who voted yes didn't even shake hands with me," said one Shia cleric. "Why can't we respect each other and work together?"

Why not indeed? By Gulf standards, Kuwait is a democratic superstar. Its citizens enjoy free speech (as long as they don't insult their emir, naturally) and boast a Parliament that can actually pass laws. Unlike their Saudi sisters, Kuwaiti women drive, work and travel freely. They run multibillion-dollar businesses and serve as ambassadors. Their academic success is such that colleges have actually lowered the grades required for male students to get into medical and engineering courses. Even then, 70 percent of university students are female.

In Kuwait, the Western obsession with the higab feels overwrought. At a fancy party for NEWSWEEK's Arabic edition, some Kuwaiti women wore them. Others opted for tight, spangled, sheer little numbers in peacock blue or parrot orange. For the party's entertainment, Nancy Ajram, the Arab world's answer to Britney Spears, sang passionate songs of love in a white mini-dress. She couldn't dance for us, alas, since shaking one's booty onstage is illegal in Kuwait. That didn't stop whole tables of men from raising their camera-enabled mobile phones and clicking her picture.

You'd think not being able to vote or dance in public would anger Kuwait's younger generation of women. To find out, I headed to the malls—Kuwait's archipelago of civic freedom. Eager to duck strict parents and the social taboos of cruising, young Kuwaitis have taken to Bluetoothing one another in cafes, beaming flirtatious infrared e-mails to one another on their cell phones. At Starbucks in the glittering Al Sharq Mall, I found only tables of men, puffing cigarettes and grumbling about the service. At Pizza Hut, I thought I'd hit pay dirt after encountering a young woman who looked every inch the modern suffragette—drainpipe jeans, strappy silver stilettos and a higab studded with purple rhinestones. But no, Mariam Al-Enizi, 20, studying business administration at Kuwait University, doesn't think women need the vote. "Men are better at politics than women," she explained, adding that women in Kuwait already have everything they need. Welcome to democracy, Kuwaiti style.

© 2005 Newsweek, Inc.

© 2005 MSNBC.com

URL: http://msnbc.msn.com/id/7856373/site/newsweek/

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