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Study: Modest Public Support for Women's Rights in Kuwait
Kuwait's parliament agreed March 7 to a request from the government to examine a bill that would grant women political rights. The right of women to vote in Kuwait would be consistent with the country's constitution, which provides men and women with equal rights. Since Kuwait's founding, however, women have been completely excluded from voting in elections.
The Freedom House study, "Women's Rights in Focus: Kuwait," finds that while there is general support for women's voting rights, women's rights advocates have a major challenge in changing societal biases about women serving as political leaders and addressing shortcomings in Kuwait's overall democracy.
The full study is available online.
"While Kuwaiti women have made substantial progress in education and work, they remain completely locked out of the country's political process, and now they are boldly making their voices heard," said Freedom House Executive Director Jennifer Windsor. "This research shows that Kuwaitis, women and men, generally support a woman's right to vote, but it also reveals obstacles to further progress for the protection of women's rights in the country, including societal biases against women serving as political leaders and continued unequal legal rights for women."
The study is one component of Freedom House's forthcoming "Survey of Women's Rights in the Middle East and North Africa," a project to facilitate and support national and international efforts to empower women in the region.
Focus groups were conducted with a cross section of Kuwaitis in Kuwait City and Al-Jahra July 17-21, 2004. The research captured views from an equal number of women and men in eight focus groups. Half of the groups were composed of participants aged 20 to 29; participants in the other half were aged 30 to 44. The study was intentionally biased towards the younger generation in order to measure the emerging attitudes that may impact longer term trends in the country. Groups were also stratified according to martial status. Half were from Bedouin areas, which are typically more rural, and half from urban areas (Kuwait City).
Among the study's key findings:
Young Bedouin men are the strongest opponents of women's voting rights; unmarried urban women are the strongest supporters;
Granting women the right to present themselves as candidates in elections is more controversial than giving them the right to vote, with some men and women saying it might be contrary to Islamic precepts to allow women to hold senior public offices;
Kuwaitis are generally skeptical about government, feeling that it is largely unaccountable and that true power rests in the hands of elite families;
Women's rights advocates are generally viewed as elites operating without an organized base, presenting challenges for further advancement of women's rights; opponents of women's political rights are better known;
Kuwaitis made clear that they believe Islam imposes certain red lines on women's rights;
Both men and women expressed reservations about outside organizations assisting the cause of women's political rights;
The study outlines a series of recommendations to help Kuwaiti civic groups, the Kuwaiti government, and international women's rights advocates,
Examine arguments of the opponents of women's political rights carefully in order to develop more strategic and effective messages in favor of women's full political rights;
Provide specific examples of women serving as effective and capable leaders when creating messages advocating for women's full rights to run for office and serve as leader;
Keep in mind other challenges that women face beyond the lack of political rights, including continuing shortcomings in their legal rights;
Develop public awareness programs on the problems of domestic violence.
Directed by Brian Katulis, a research consultant with Freedom House, the study was designed to give greater voice to the Kuwaiti public. Focus Marketing Consultancy, a market research company based in Kuwait City, conducted the focus groups.
Mr. Katulis will share the findings of the Kuwait report and explain recent developments in the country, including the historic March parliamentary vote on Women's suffrage, on March 21 at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC. The event is scheduled for 12:00 -1:30 PM. Commenting on the report's findings will be Kelley Jones, the National Democratic Institute's Senior Resident Representative in Kuwait, and Neil Hicks, Director of International Programs for Human Rights First and noted commentator on civil society in the Persian Gulf. RSVP to: [email protected].
Freedom House is an independent watchdog organization that supports democratic change, monitors the status of freedom around the world, and advocates for democracy and human rights.