Kuwait: The Struggle for Women's Suffrage

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1 Jan 2001

Kuwait is the one remaining country in the world where only men have the right to vote. Women in Kuwait are denied the opportunity for political participation although women hold positions such as Director of the University of Kuwait, Kuwaiti Ambassador to Austria, and Under-Secretary of Higher Education within the Ministry of Education. On 16 May 1999, the Emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Jaber Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, issued a decree granting women full political rights to vote and to stand for office. On 23 November 1999, the National Assembly rejected the decree by a two-thirds vote. Many liberal members and religious moderates voted against the decree on the grounds that it was an unconstitutional use of the Emir’s powers as it was issued while the National Assembly was not in session. Following the vote, a bill identical to the Emir’s decree was submitted for consideration but was narrowly defeated by a vote of 32-30 on 30 November 1999. In July 2000, five members of the National Assembly again presented a bill in Parliament to amend Kuwait’s electoral law, granting women political rights. The bill is pending and has not to date been considered by Parliament.

The members of the National Assembly who oppose granting women suffrage often cite religious and social reasons for their opposition. The BBC Radio's World Service quoted Mr. Ahmad Baqer, a member of the National Assembly who opposed the bill, as saying, "the men take the responsibility for politics, and the women take the responsibility for the family." Mr. Baqer also was quoted in Al-Qabas, a Kuwaiti newspaper, as saying, ". . . Islamic teachings were provided by God for your own good. Controlling yourself, curbing your sexual desires, wearing the veil, and refraining from mingling with men unless it was within the dictated limits are all rules for your own good that I wish women' s organizations were focusing on rather than being preoccupied with the fight for political rights." Another lawmaker who rejected the bill, Saadoun al-Otaibi, was quoted in a New York Times article, published on 20 December 1999, as saying: "How would you have expected me to feel if a candidate called to tell me, 'I need to speak with your wife and daughter.'"

On Tuesday, 1 February 2000, the first day of the annual voter registration period, hundreds of women marched to the registration centers and demanded to be registered as voters (see photo above). They were not allowed to register and subsequently filed several lawsuits against the government. The plaintiffs urged the court to overturn the decision denying them the right to register to vote and to find Article 1 of Law No. 35/1962 of the Election Law, which denies women this right, in violation of the Constitution of Kuwait. On 8 March 2000, the Administrative Court heard arguments in the first case. On 29 May 2000, the Administrative Court dismissed several cases on procedural grounds and referred the remaining five cases to the Constitutional Court. On 4 July 2000, the Constitutional Court dismissed four of these cases on procedural grounds. The one remaining case, brought by Mr. Adnan Al Issa on behalf of his female relatives, was dismissed on 16 January 2001. No explanation has been given for the ruling.

The denial of women's political rights violates several articles of the Constitution of Kuwait. Article 6 provides that "the system of Government in Kuwait shall be democratic, under which sovereignty resides in the people, the source of all powers." Article 7 of the Constitution provides that "justice, liberty and equality shall be the pillars of society." The guarantees of democracy and equality are also set forth in Article 8, which provides that the state shall ensure "equal opportunities for citizens," and Article 29, which provides that "all people are equal in human dignity and public rights and duties before the law." Although Kuwait has ratified the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the Government made reservations to both treaties noting that the treaties are inconsistent with Article 1 of its voting law, which denies women suffrage. In March 2000, the United Nations Human Rights Committee, which reviews implementation by governments of their obligations under the ICCPR, urged the government of Kuwait to "take all the necessary steps to ensure to women the right to vote and to be elected on equal footing with men, in accordance with articles 25 and 26 of the Covenant."

The suffrage movement in Kuwait has a long history. In 1971, following a conference on women's issues in Kuwait, a bill was submitted to the National Assembly granting full political rights for women. The bill was only supported by 12 of the 60 members of the Assembly. Subsequent legislative initiatives for women's suffrage were introduced in 1981, 1986, 1992, and 1996, but the political support has never been strong enough to pass a bill granting full political rights to women. In 1994, the Women's Issues Network (WIN), a coordinating committee for 22 non-governmental organizations, launched a Blue Ribbon Campaign in support of women's right to vote and to stand for elected office. The Campaign aims to raise public awareness about the exclusion of women in Kuwait from political participation. On 28 October 2000, a public demonstration was held in front of the National Assembly at the commencement of its fourth session, calling for the amendment of the Election Law to give women the right to vote. The women and men who participated in the demonstration were prohibited by security officers from entering the building.

Although in November 1999 the National Assembly again denied women suffrage, the 32-30 vote was the closest in Kuwait's 37-year parliamentary history. Despite the vehemence of the opposition, the movement for women's suffrage is gaining support and Kuwaiti women are hopeful that they will soon win their long-awaited political rights. In October 2000, the National Assembly reconvened. In considering the bill that was introduced in July, its members will once again have an historic opportunity to change the law so that no country in the world denies only women the right to vote.

What You Can Do: 

Please write to the Emir of Kuwait acknowledging his support for women's political rights and urging him to exercise leadership with members of the National Assembly to ensure the passage of the pending bill granting women the right to vote and to stand for elected office. Please also write to the Speaker of the National Assembly expressing your concern about the vote denying women suffrage and your disappointment that he himself voted against the bill. Urge him to support the pending bill and to use his leadership role in the National Assembly to secure enough votes to ensure its passage. In your letters to these officials, please cite the equality provisions in the Constitution of Kuwait and note that the electoral law is incompatible with these provisions, as well as international law. Urge them to respect the principles of democracy by granting women the right to vote and to stand for elected office.

Please address your letters to:

HH Sheikh Jaber Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah
Emiri Diwan
P. O. Box 799
13008 Safat
Fax:(965) 539 3069

Jassem Al-Khourafi, Speaker of the National Assembly
National Assembly (Majlis Al-Ummah)
P.O. Box 716
13008 Safat
Fax: (965) 242 1948 / 243 6331