Kuwaiti women vote for 1st time; female candidates fall short

(DIVERSITY) (PHOTOS) (HAS TRIMS)

By Hannah Allam and Miret el Naggar

McClatchy Newspapers

(MCT)

KUWAIT CITY Thousands of Kuwaiti women rejoiced Thursday as they voted for the first time in historic parliamentary elections, though early results indicated they threw their newfound electoral power behind incumbent men rather than taking chances on first-time female contenders.

Black-draped women clapped and chanted outside several polling stations, celebrating as Kuwait joined the long-awaited spread of women's suffrage throughout the conservative Persian Gulf. Women's participation helped boost voter turnout past 70 percent, though none of the 27 female candidates was ahead in their districts, according to incomplete results aired Thursday night on Kuwaiti television.

Rula Dashti, considered a symbol of the battle for women's suffrage, had garnered just 61 votes in her district in early returns.

To many Kuwaiti women, however, the thrill of finally having a say in their nation's future was victory enough for now.

"I don't even feel the sun!" said Wadha al-Shimmari, a 52-year-old mother of nine, as she stood in the searing midday heat after voting for a woman. "It's as if I'm newborn. I've waited 52 years for this day."

The Kuwaiti parliament last year granted women full political rights, and female candidates prepared to run in elections scheduled for 2007. When a dispute over electoral reform paralyzed the government, the Kuwaiti emir dissolved the legislature in May and held early elections.

The shortened campaigning period hurt women's chances of winning seats in the 50-member legislature, political observers here said.

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Nura al-Azmi, 24, said she stayed awake the entire night before the vote, mulling which hopefuls were most capable of doing battle in Kuwait's tense political climate. In the end, she decided against voting for a woman for fear a female legislator's views would be overlooked in a male-dominated assembly.

"Men are more powerful in the parliament, so they'll be able to do more to represent us," al-Azmi said.

Caravans of chauffeur-driven luxury cars jammed the streets as they dropped off women to vote at segregated polling sites. Campaign workers wielding parasols against the blazing sun jostled for their attention, wooing them with promises of greater freedoms.

Women's rights were among the top issues for voters in Sabah al-Salam, where dozens of low-income widows and divorcees live in free government housing. One of the district's most popular candidates incumbent Saadoun al-Utaibi was visibly startled when he visited a polling place and was surrounded by women chanting his name.

"I want equality between men and women!" al-Utaibi shouted to his cheering supporters. "I'll help allocate more money for your children. I'm going to change the laws to help single women."

The atmosphere was far more muted in Umm al-Himam, an intensely tribal and religious area 45 miles south of the capital where authorities have arrested suspected al-Qaida operatives. The vast majority of women wore full veils that covered their faces.

Yet even Umm al-Himam had a woman's name on the ballot Layla al-Rashid, a lawyer though local pressure prevented her from putting her photo on campaign posters. Even so, incomplete returns showed her with 500 votes.

(El Naggar is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from MCT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): KUWAIT

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