KUWAIT CITY (WOMENSENEWS)--If Salwa Al-Jassar wins an election on May 17, she could become one of the first women to win a place in Kuwait's 50-seat National Assembly.
But the 49-year-old Al-Jassar emphasizes that a woman's right to run for office--legalized just three years ago--and her ability to do so are two different things.
A standard qualification for any politician in the heavily clannish process, she says, is membership in one of the country's prominent families.
And for the 28 women running in this election--which will replace a government dissolved by the emir in March--that's doubly true.
"My family's support will take care of 70 percent of my campaign since I come from an elite but a traditional family of Kuwait that has the social power," Al-Jassar said in a recent interview in her office in Hawally as she fixed her black headscarf on her Persian blue shalwar suit. "If a family does not support, then voters' common argument is why should we support?"
Her husband and brother are managing her campaign, which in accordance with Kuwaiti law restricts flyers and posters on the street but allows them as newspaper ads or at campaign headquarters.
Al-Jassar, chair of the nongovernmental Women Empowerment Center in Al-Yarmouk, said she prepared for more than five years for this run to represent the second constituency, a prosperous central metropolitan area of Kuwait City.
She wants to join the National Assembly because she feels women should be involved in the decision-making process.
The U.S.-educated professor of education at Kuwait University, whose resume includes a stint on the committee for women's affairs in the previous parliament, says her family--among the traditional elites here--is her best political asset. And, in this, she doesn't see herself as so unusual.
"I ask why Mr. Clinton stands beside Hillary Clinton during her speeches," she says, referring to the presidential candidate. "It is because if you want to appear strong, you have to be strong from within; within your family."
Fatima Al-Abdali, a journalist, environmental engineer and activist for women's rights, is running to represent the first constituency, which is located largely in the eastern part of Kuwait City.
"Family plays the highest role," Al-Abdali agrees. "If they are supportive, they can attract others."
The Kuwaiti work force is 32 percent female, according to 2001 statistics from the United Nations Development Program, and female literacy is 91 percent, which is the highest among Arab nations. But the strong customs of the country pose a barrier to women's political entry and advancement.
Diwaniyas are a prime example.
Traditionally these were tents with pillows that served as the office from which the emir, or head of state, would address citizens' concerns. Today they are buildings throughout the country--commonly with exquisite interiors--where Kuwaitis gather in their free time to talk, watch television or play cards.
Political candidates set up their own diwaniyas. Often these are huge air-conditioned outdoor election tents along major thoroughfares where candidates mingle with voters, who often partake of free buffets.
But despite the central role of diwaniyas in the political culture, female candidates cannot enter them unless they are accompanied by men.
"Although I work with men, I cannot go to diwaniya alone since women aren't supposed to," said Al-Abdali.
If women do manage to breach the all-male National Assembly it's questionable how much influence they could have in a political system bogged down by power struggles, resignation of governments and frequent dissolution of parliament by the emir, who controls the appointment of the prime minister. The latest dissolution is the fifth since Kuwait's independence from Britain in 1961.
The Geneva-based Inter-Parliamentary Union says Kuwait's rank is among the lowest worldwide with regards to the percentage of women in ministerial positions at 6.7 percent. In 2005, Kuwait appointed Massouma al-Mubarak as its first female cabinet member as planning minister and minister of state for administrative development affairs.
In 2006, 27 women also ran for parliament in the first election open to female candidates but none managed to win.
Tribal politics are another factor hindering women's entrance to the male-dominated political realm.
Although it's not legal, tribes and sects often hold their own nominating processes to ensure against vote-splitting in the official election.
"These tribes take women in buses and ask them to choose their male candidate," said Al-Abdali. To withstand the pressure, she says a woman needs a strong faction holding together around her.
To curb tribal politics, the National Assembly in 2006 reduced the number of electoral districts to five from 25. The idea was to make fewer, bigger districts that would dilute highly local tribal allegiances and make candidates more responsive to voters' needs.
Now voters cast their ballots for their top four candidates and the top 10 candidates in each district wins a seat.
But women's rights advocates say the reform makes it harder for women to break in. In the smaller districts of the past, women would have run in smaller fields, which would have improved the mathematical odds of success.
In the larger district system, however, fields are larger and the female-to-male ratio is lower, reducing women's chances in a society deeply skeptical of women's right to run government. Focus group studies conducted by Freedom House have found that many Kuwaitis think it is un-Islamic to elect female leaders.
Aisha Al-Rushaid, a political activist, journalist and a businesswoman in her 40s, ran for parliament in 2006, the first year it was possible for women to participate. She made a name for herself by breaking the social prohibition against women going to diwaniyas alone. As part of her failed bid, she says she campaigned alone at diwaniyas throughout Kuwait City.
This time, after the hate mail and defaced campaign posters of her previous effort, Al-Rushaid has chosen not to run again.
Instead, she is trying the more typical route for women: selection, not election.
"I am not running for elections because they are thinking of selecting me as a minister," Al-Rushaid said.
Sharmeen Akbani Gangat received her master's degree in international affairs from Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs in New York City. Prior to Columbia, she was a radio producer with United Nations Radio in New York. In March 2008, she traveled to Kuwait to cover this story.
This story, part of our New Writers Program, was funded by the McCormick Tribune Foundation.
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