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Last Updated: Tuesday, 27 June 2006, 08:08 GMT 09:08 UK
First for women in Kuwait election
By Julia Wheeler
Gulf correspondent, BBC News

Kuwaitis go to the polls on Thursday to vote in elections for a new parliament. It is the first time that women in the country have been able to both stand and vote at national level.

A poster of election candidate Aisha al-Rasheed is defaced in Kuwait City
Not everyone is happy women are participating in the vote
Despite Kuwait having the oldest parliamentary tradition in the Gulf, dating back to the early 1960s, it is one of the last to allow women to vote in national elections.

This has been an embarrassment for many Kuwaitis who have enjoyed perceiving themselves as leading the way in terms of suffrage.

Ironically, it has been Kuwait's tradition of parliamentary democracy and its adherence to this principle which has helped postpone women getting the vote.

Moves towards women's representation in other Gulf states have been brought in from above by the ruling families of the countries, rather than from below by the people themselves.

However, in Kuwait, the existence of an established parliamentary system has meant that traditionalist MPs had a means of voting against the move.

So it was that in 1999, the then Emir, Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmad al-Sabah, saw his royal decree in favour of women voting rejected by the National Assembly.

Islamist and tribal MPs voted it down, arguing the move was anti-Islamic and against the traditions of Kuwaiti society.

The struggle by women's rights activists - male and female - continued for a further six years until a bill calling for universal suffrage was passed in parliament.

Analysts believe the eventual winning of such rights in this more democratic way means they are now more legitimate in the eyes of Kuwaitis than if they had been imposed from above.

International pressure

The other states of the southern Gulf are watching the elections in Kuwait carefully.

The region is a patchwork of political rights, with populations enjoying a spectrum of freedoms - all of them limited.

Kuwait's ruler Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah
The vote's effect on Kuwait's rulers will be watched closely

These countries do have one thing in common though. They are all moving in the same direction - towards greater representation for their people.

This is partly a result of international pressure - particularly from the US - and presence in the region.

It also stems from other 21st Century factors, not least the opening up of the media - and hence the debate - through satellite television.

All Gulf countries except Saudi Arabia now have female representation at the ministerial level.

Bahrain, Oman and Qatar have already allowed women to vote in elections at the national level.

In Bahrain, women have been included in the appointed legislatures by the rulers. While in Oman, women have been elected to the lower house of parliament.

The highly conservative Saudi Arabia does not allow women to vote in its limited elections, but they did have a say as candidates and voters in the Chamber of Commerce vote in Jeddah, in November last year.

In the United Arab Emirates there are no elections, although those now being promised will include women as equals with men.

Royal watchers

Not everyone in the Gulf wants to see parliamentary democracy Kuwait City-style.

For some this is too confrontational, too aggressive.

Indeed, that confrontation is the very reason for the elections at this time at all.

They were due to be held in 2007, but the Emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah, dissolved parliament after liberalist MPs appeared determined to push for electoral reform - and to call the prime minister to account on the issue.

The dissolution of parliament in Kuwait demonstrates that here, as everywhere else in the Gulf, the ultimate word goes to the ruling families.

Royalty across the region will be taking note of the way these Kuwaiti elections play out.

The ruling families want to gauge what difference women having the vote will have on the complexion of Kuwait's National Assembly.

They will also be looking to see whether the emir and his prime minister will make concessions to the rebels whose moves created this early election in the first place.

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