/ 22 March 2006

First woman candidate breaks taboo in Kuwait

The first woman ever to contest elections in the conservative Persian Gulf state of Kuwait has launched her campaign by breaking a 44-year-old taboo in bringing male and female voters together.

Hundreds of men and women attended the landmark event late on Tuesday which was held according to Kuwaiti tradition in a huge tent where they listened to Jenan Bushehri who is vying to win a seat on the municipal council.

It was the first time women have attended an election gathering in Kuwait since polls were held in this oil-rich emirate in 1962, and the first campaign event ever to be addressed by a woman.

Men and women were, however, made to sit slightly apart from each other, although under the same tent.

“I promise I will not disappoint you if you elect me,” Bushehri said in her address.

Kuwaiti women were granted full political rights in an historic vote in Parliament only in May 2005. The government subsequently appointed two women members in the municipal council and named the first woman minister.

Bushehri is being challenged by 11 candidates, including another woman, in the April 4 by-election for the only seat up for grabs in the district of Salmiya, some 15km south-east of Kuwait City.

The seat fell vacant after municipal council chairperson Abdullah al-Muhailbi was appointed municipality and environment minister in the new Kuwaiti cabinet formed last month.

The other woman candidate is Khaleda al-Khader, a physician and mother of eight.

Both women belong to the minority Shi’ite Muslim community who make up about 30% of the native population but are just under half the number of voters in the constituency.

The number of voters in the district was increased by almost 130% to 28 000 after women were allowed to vote.

Wearing the hijab, the Muslim headcover, Bushehri (33) called on the audience to fight sectarianism and tribalism and pledged to combat red tape and corruption, allegedly rampant in the civic body.

Bushehri, who is married with two daughters, holds a masters in chemical engineering and is working on her doctorate. She heads the food-examination department at the municipality.

The council — a civic body that carries out tasks such as city planning, organisation and regulation of housing — has 16 members, 10 of whom are elected and the rest appointed by the emir.

The interior ministry in January completed the registration of some 195 000 women voters to raise the number of eligible voters to 334 000 in the Gulf Arab state, which has a native population of just under one million.

At least five Kuwaiti women have publicly announced plans to contest the next parliamentary polls in July 2007. — AFP