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Woman’s voice goes from bad to worse ‘Majority in numbers but minority in rights’

IN Kuwait, across the Middle East, and North Africa, there is a patriarchal system that tends to favour men both at home and the workplace. Some women have done their best to change this. They have faced the traditional juggle of managing family and work life, but still found time in their packed schedules to campaign for women’s rights. And it is not easy in a situation where people have little tolerance for women activists. Women are shown more support in a traditional role of a caregiver rather than when they challenge the system. In 2005, Kuwaiti women were re-granted suffrage rights with governmental support, and the unrelenting struggle of activists. But since then, has there been any change in the role women play in politics and society? With 53% of Kuwait’s local population women, what advancements have been made in the sphere of women’s rights?

In Insight, Arab Times discussed these issues with fiery political and social activist Dr Fatima Al Abdali. An HSE – Specialist (Health Safety Environment) and one of the leading lights in the country’s women’s movement, Dr Al Abdali ran for Parliament in 2006 and 2008. The winner of several local and international awards, she has projected the role of Kuwaiti women at local and international events. Firm, insightful, outspoken, and articulate, Dr Al Abdali is a formidable, fearless campaigner for what she deems right. According to Dr Fatima Al Abdali, the struggle for women’s rights in Kuwait is a political one aimed at realigning equations of power, status and inequalities. Here, she speaks of her disappointment with the system, and analyses the forces at play creating hurdles for women at the political and social front.

Question: Has there been any change in the role women play in society and politics, since they got their right of suffrage in 2005? Do women have a stronger voice now than before?
Answer: There are two voices at play here. One is the voice at the decision making level, and here I am talking about politicians or members of Parliament and there is the other level, which is the public level. At the public level, the voice is far less than before. Earlier, this was a vital voice, a strong demand from the right people, and it was voluntary always. At any time, we, the activists were there, from different organizations, from the media, providing a strong, loud voice as the public. In those days, this voice was supported by the government. But in recent years, this voice has lowered; in fact it has gone into whispers. In those days, politicians and members of parliament showed us support but not anymore.
Before 2005, our main issue was increasing the percentage of women in decision making and leadership. In fact, in 1995, the United Nations in Beijing set a target of 33% women in leadership. We know, however, that participation of women in decision-making is low not only in Kuwait, but throughout the world. Things have gone from bad to worse. So the voice has not only gone down, in fact, there is only silence.

Q: What is the reason for this?
A: I really don’t know. It is like being anesthetized. The whole of Middle East has turned numb. In 2005, the UN while studying the percentage of women in leadership found that all countries have gone backwards.

Q: And this despite the fact that an Arab woman got the Nobel Peace a few years back?
A: She did get the Nobel Prize, but her country has not improved the condition of its women. And I think the prize was politically motivated. She is a good activist, maybe she deserved it, but the political situation helped. But your point is valid. Although an Arab woman got the Nobel Prize, yet their situation has not bettered. But then the situation is not better anywhere. No country has reached the 33% aimed at by the UN.
As far as Kuwait is concerned, the situation is getting worse. In 2005, the overall percentage of Kuwaiti women in leadership was around 4% and now it is far less. And we are not talking about political leaders here, but about decision makers in general.

Q: Why is this so?
A: There are three factors to blame. I strongly blame the government. In 2005, the government helped us get the right to vote, but since then there has not been a single public campaign to raise the status of women and increase public awareness about gender equality. Not many people know that often women are better than men. Women do much better than men in education; they get the ranks, and they get better evaluated at work. Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that women are better than men, but yes, they are equal in most respects. But as I said earlier, the government did not help with a single campaign on women’s issues. They did not help us send effective politicians to the Parliament. Think about this, the government appoints Ministers and six members in the Municipality Council, but since 2005, the government has appointed only two ministers and two or three women to the Council, and this year, there are no women. So we are going backwards. I think the government needs to have a strategic plan for its women. It needs to be a good role model to promote the advancement of women.

Q: And what are the other factors you mentioned?
A: The other factor is the public. On the 16th of May 2005, the day we got our rights, we were in the Parliament from 7 am to 7 pm. When we came out, some women came over and congratulated us and said: ‘khallas. Your role is finished. Your job is done.’ I said: ‘What are you talking about! Our role has just started.’ What right did we get in 2005? What is the use of that right if we cannot successfully elect women to the Parliament? We are more than 53% of the population; let us elect at least 20%, if not 30% to leadership. In hindsight, I tell myself perhaps those women were right. It looks as if society just wanted to change the law from ‘every Kuwaiti man 21 years old has the right to vote’ to ‘every Kuwaiti 21 years old has the right to vote’. That’s it.

Q: You mean to say it is people who do not want change?
A: Absolutely. And I also blame our politicians. In 2006 and 2008, we did not send a single woman to the Parliament. In 2009, a few women managed with support from the government. We were very optimistic. We thought these women would influence and change society, but, unfortunately, the attack on them was so strong; they could not fight back. They could not impress that women could be strong leaders. Individually, they were good speakers, but together they left no impact inside the Parliament. They were attacked from all sides, and no one helped them. Not even the women activists. You know, for the past twenty years, I have been asking for a quota system for women. Some of these women who became ministers and parliamentarians were in favour of quota, but they turned against it when they went into Parliament. Today most of them are out.
I believe there is a strong culture against women. Women are put under the microscope. Society makes a huge hue and cry even if she makes a small mistake. It is not the same with men.

Q: The intentions were all right. The 2005 decree gave Kuwaiti woman unprecedented access to political power and opened doors that were previously closed. What went wrong? Did the 2005 decree have any benefit?
A: One benefit was that the law was changed. I believe the constitution was always fair, but the law of election was not. After 2005, there was an alignment between the law and the constitution. The other benefit was that we could have women leaders in the Parliament. At present, however, both the women leaders in Parliament are under pressure. I had suggested forming an all women’s party during the elections, but everybody refused. Everyone was left to her own campaign, program,luck and to whether the government liked them or not , or whether they had rich families to back them. As far as elections are concerned, I tell you there is corruption. I went through this and I can say from firsthand experience, there is corruption. If you are honest, strong and clear, you will fall.
That is why when women went into Parliament they had a big challenge to prove themselves as strong leaders, but they failed. They did not even succeed in making the committee on women in the Parliament, a permanent committee. And because it is a temporary committee, we do not have one in this Parliament. While the committee was working, they gave women very small benefits, but they failed to increase women in leadership because today we are less than 4%.

Q: Was that one issue they took up?
A: No, they didn’t take up the issue at all, but they dealt with other social issues such as Kuwaiti women married to non- Kuwaitis, or problems faced by divorced women in the country , or the equality of women as far as housing rights are concerned . These are all social issues, not politically relevant. I agree that a social window can take you to a political house, but don’t close the door. They closed the door and opened small windows. They gave us small benefits. And mind you, even then there were so many restrictions on these situations that barely some women will get their rights.

Q: So it was very superficial?
A: Very superficial. Don’t get me wrong. These are very important social issues, but the real thing that can make women strong is increasing the number of women in the Parliament , in the government and other positions of leadership. Why? Because the UN said that women are less corrupt and more dedicated, and I feel this is because women have spent less time in the dirty world of politics. A woman is constantly under the microscope, and because of that she is scared. She thinks about the husband, brother, children and the extended family, neighborhood and society. She worries about what they will say about her, but with men it is different. There is a saying in Arabic, “Al-Rayyal Shayel Aiba”. This means if you are a man, you can get away with anything. From the beginning, this has been drilled into us. If a woman is strong in her place of work, she is branded aggressive, but if a man does the same, he is looked on as a real decision maker.
I constantly ask myself why it is getting worse. We are going backwards. Young women today do not want to join politics. Their priorities are different; they want to be in fashion, beauty and selling cupcakes. They are put off with the way women are treated in politics. We have to work really hard to make the new generation believe that women can make a change; that women can protect women. We are the majority in numbers, but a minority in rights.

Q: Why do women fail to get votes?
A: There are several reasons. Since 2005, neither the government nor the NGOs worked towards changing society’s perception of women. Women have not been able to prove their leadership. Moreover, out of 30 women who ran only one-third were really competent and deserving. I say it openly and without any shame. It is these women who affected the perception of women in politics. Nobody knew who these women were. They had done nothing. They had no educational background, no history of activism, but because the constitution allowed them to run, they ran for election.

Q: So they damaged the image?
A: Yes, they damaged the image completely. People did not want to vote for these women. They got 20 to 30 votes in the elections. Earlier, those who wanted to stand for elections could pay 50 KD and stand for election. Now it has been raised to 500 KD. You know it was like anybody could pay 50 KD and run. Your pictures would be up; you would be all over the media. All of a sudden, you could be a celebrity overnight, whereas others worked hard as activists for 20-30 years to reach that stage.

Q: Did you have it easy when you decided to join politics?
A: No. It was not easy. There was a lot of pressure on me at my workplace. By the way, last month the government decided that anyone completing thirty years of service in a government job should retire. I was among some hundred leaders in the oil sector who were told to go, this despite my seven years spent on my PhD on a very rare specialization; despite making millions of dollars in different projects in the oil sector. When they made this law they didn’t differentiate between those who deserved to stay and those who didn’t. How do you encourage young people to trust the government and contribute to their country if you remove the leaders summarily? I am the one who established the system to change the Environmental and Health culture in the oil sector. I think the government has not been smart because this generation who are now out were the best educated in Kuwait, they went through the invasion, they are very loyal to the country, and they helped rebuild Kuwait after invasion. They took these people out on a three week notice. However, I may be down but not out. I have joined a new project through which we will be able to do something good for Kuwait.

Q: What is this project in which you are involved?
A: It is a voluntary project which will turn into a big national initiative for the development of Kuwait. It is called “Kuwait is the Capital of Oil in the World”.

Q: Is it an NGO?
A: It is an NGO, but it is more than an NGO. It is a group made of specialized people from different disciplines such as oil, environment, economy, law and engineering. We want Kuwait to become an industrial nation producing petrochemicals rather than just producing and exporting oil. A barrel of oil is cheaply produced and sold depending on the current oil prices, which is constantly fluctuating. But when you establish industry, you can plan the added value and sell oil products at a higher price. This shift requires a strong infrastructure, good strategic plan, and we are working on that.

Q: When did this project start?
A: It started with Eng. Ahmad Al-Arbeed, who was the C& MD of KOC. He launched this idea on twitter two years ago. Soon he started attracting the right people adding up to almost 200 volunteers. And since we are focusing on women in this article I would like to add that out of the 200 volunteers, 21% are women.

Q: Why did you join this project?
A: I saw the women’s movement going backwards in Kuwait, so I diverted to another area to prove that public service can be from any angle.

Q: You came from an ordinary family. Did you have the backing other people had?
A: No, I did not come from a rich family. My parents supported me to get a higher education,but my family name was not a big one that could support me in the diwaniyas and the government. I am a self made woman, and I became one with full support of my parents and family.

Q: Why do you think you lost out in the elections?
A: Same reason I mentioned before. The government didn’t want strong women. If you are a strong woman, you are labeled aggressive. I think there was a strong campaign against me because they saw I was strong, and vocal in defending people.
When they asked me to evaluate women parliamentarians, I said it’s too early, but I can today. This is the first time, and I say it loudly that the parliamentarian women did not support the status of women and that’s why you see only one or two in Parliament today, and maybe we will end with no one.

Q: Is there any hope?
A: Very little hope with the current situation , but if you remember my logo in the election was the thumbprint of change, but we have to work towards it.

biography

Former Senior Specialist (Health, Safety & Environment) Health, Safety and Environment (HSE) Group: Kuwait Oil Company (KOC)
A running Candidate for the Office – Kuwaiti Parliament (2006 and 2008).From 1992-2006 one of the activists for Women Rights in Kuwait. The Activities which concluded with the Change of the Kuwaiti Election Law in May 16th, 2005 to include     women in the Political /Parliamentary Practice
Professional Specialization: HSE Impact and Risk Assessment in Petroleum Industry. Environmental and Health Management Systems. Exposure & Health Impact & Risk Assessment of Environmental —Stresses and Contaminants, mainly Environmental Hazards from Industrial Wastes & Emissions. — Marine Pollution and Fate of Crude Oil. Chemical Oceanography. Eco-Toxicology. Environmental and Analytical Chemistry.
Academic qualifications include PhD in Environmental Health Sciences with a Major in: Environmental Chemistry from The University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA.
MSc in Environmental Health Sciences from University of Michigan, USA.
Academic and Professional recognition includes:
Reporter and the Head of the Health Consultancy Committee for HH the Amir- President of Kuwait Research Committee/ Amiri Secretariat (1992-1993)
Member of the Executive Committee of The Third World Women Scientists Organization-Elected at the TWOWS Meeting at Cairo representing the Arab Region (1993-1998)
Coordinator for the Oil Sector in Preparation of the EPA Environmental Strategy (2000-Present
Honorship & Awards include:
2004-C&MD HSE Award for Supreme Winner in KOC for the HSE Management System Awareness Campaign
2005-C&MD HSE Award for an Innovative Procedure for Biocide Filling.
2007-Committee Contribution Reward (CCR) from the KOC Chairman & Managing Director for the excellent achievements of the South & East Kuwait Land Rehabilitation Committee.
2007-Distinguished Arab Women Award From Arab Women Studies Center Arab Union. For the Distinguished Social Scientific Political work in Kuwait. The Finest Award Given in the Arab World among 10 Women (Results from 720 competitors in Year 2007).
She was engaged in the Civil Disobedience during Resisting the Iraqi Regime Occupation to Kuwait.

  By Chaitali B. Roy
Special to the Arab Times


By: Dr Fatima Al-Abdali

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