Kuwaiti women still struggle to find ‘rightful place’ in political narrative

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Kuwaiti women still struggle to find ‘rightful place’ in political narrative

Leannah Alawadhi and Dalal Boresli, co-founder of Mudhawi’s List, a forum that empowers and supports Kuwaiti women running for elected office.

Who is Mudhawi? I had asked. Dr AlanoudAl Sharekh, the quiet, unassuming award-winning academic, activist, and founding member of Abolish 153, had quietly explained that Mudhawi is a traditional name from the Arabian Gulf region. It conjures up an image of a wise woman open to embracing all. While working on my first book, ‘Women of Kuwait: Turning Tides’, I realised that strength and leadership in Kuwaiti women are deeply ingrained in their DNA irrespective of stereotypes, education, and socio-economic standing. It is rooted in the ‘Mudhawis’, the wise old women who kept the home fires burning and looked after their fl ock when Kuwait was emptied of ablebodied men who sailed the seas for months, either pearl diving or trading. These ‘Mudhawis’ took on the mantle of leadership and strength for months.

Despite being unschooled, they made up for it with their wisdom, fortitude and instinct. And sadly, despite this rich legacy of ‘Mudhawis’ centuries later, Kuwaiti women still struggle to find their rightful place in the political narrative of their country. Women are indeed underrepresented in political offices almost everywhere around the world.

According to UN Women, only 26.5 per cent of parliamentarians in unicameral or bicameral legislatures are women, an increase from 11 per cent in 1995. Globally there are 22 states where women account for less than 10 per cent of parliamentarians in single or lower houses, including one lower chamber with no women at all.

These figures are from a January UN 2023 report. According to the UN Women, at the current rate, gender parity in national legislative bodies will not be achieved until 2063, even though the United Nations has strongly advocated for Women’s equal participation and leadership in political and public life as essential to achieving Sustainable Goals development by 2030.

According to a report published in the European Journal of Political Economy, equitable representation of women in politics has induced changes in parliamentary deliberations, policy choices, and a better provision of public goods. Under representation affects policy choices, potentially reducing women’s welfare and overall community development. In Kuwait, the amendment in the Election Law No.35/1962 in 2005 opened the door for female participation in parliamentary and local elections. In 2009, for the first time, women won 8 per cent of the seats in a highly contested election.

But Kuwaiti women’s representation in parliament declined considerably, and in 2020, 29 female candidates campaigned for seats, including Safa Al Hashem, the only sitting MP, with none succeeding. It was a big blow.

The 2022 elections saw two women, Alia Al Khaled and Jenan Bushehri, win, signalling Kuwaiti women’s return to parliament. Recent political upheavals saw these two women exit parliament, and once again, uncertainty dominated. On June 6, elections in Kuwait saw the return of only one woman to the parliament. “I believe the voting behaviour this time will be different,” Leannah Al Awadhi, cofounder and program manager of Mudhawi’s List, had predicted last week.

Mudhawi’s List was founded to support Kuwaiti women entering politics. In 2020, DrAlanoud Al Sharekh, Leannah Alawadhi, Dalal Boresli, Iman Dashti and Asrar Hayat launched ‘Mudhawi’s List’, an online platform that aims at supporting women running for elected office by linking them with volunteers and in-kind donation providers. The forum backs women candidates with essential campaign services and raises awareness about women’s importance in leadership positions. Looking back at the recent election results, the forum has its work cut out for the future.

“Mudhawi’s List helps female candidates gain visibility and educates voters on all available options for women running for office. We also connect those candidates who need help with creatives and volunteers to assist them with their campaigns through a database that the platform compiles,” Dr Al Sharekh told me in an earlier interview. Recent political happenings have proved that structured and continuous training and awareness provided by Mudhawi’s List is required not just for women who want to join politics but also for the general public to make them more politically conscious. Dalal Boresly, a cofounder of Mudhawi’s List, while speaking to Arab Times, says their participation in #EKWIP Empowering Kuwaiti Women in Politics planted the seed of Mudhawi’s List.

“As part of the EKWIP programme, Emily’s List in Washington invited us to a gala dinner. At that dinner, we discussed doing something similar in Kuwait,” recalls Dalal. Emily’s List is one of the most significant resources for women in politics in the United States. They train and empower women to run, win and change the world. Leannah Al Awadhi liked Emily’s List because men and women worked side by side to bring about changes. “They support anyone with aspirations to run for office,” she says. Although, Leannah still remembers the initial criticism Mudhawi’s List faced with their support of all female candidates. “When we started Mudhawi, we could not cherry-pick candidates. Even now, we don’t have enough female contenders to choose from. Once we have enough women running, and it becomes a fair game, which is a long way ahead, we can cherry-pick candidates we want to shed light on.” Although Kuwaiti women have moved towards modernisation at a greater speed than their counterparts in other Gulf States, a significant gender gap exists in the higher echelons of leadership, especially in politics.

Despite an available talent pool with skilled and qualified women, there is, unfortunately, a confidence gap, perhaps even an ambition gap inspired by social conditioning and a lack of resources that keep Kuwaiti women away from public service. Women have the skills and talent to run, but they need help to transfer them to the political realm, and that is where Mudhawi’s List hopes to play a part. Speaking about the limited political representation of women in Kuwait, Dalal observes, “We still don’t have acceptance from the society for a woman to be in parliament. To a certain extent, women are accepted in higher positions in corporates and ministries, but people don’t accept the idea of having a woman in parliament.” Dalal went on to voice what some senior women’s rights activists had shared with me earlier. “Regarding Kuwaiti women who have already reached these positions of power, people believe or assume they did not achieve anything. But this is not true. We have a research team working on this information.

They check the laws that women parliamentarians have supported, and there are many.” Leannah Al Awadhi believes that comparing male and female parliamentarians in Kuwait regarding achievement is unfair. “It is a very unfair comparison to make. You cannot compare the progress of hundreds of men in office for 60 years to the ten years that women have been allowed in office,” she says. Leannah also believes it is the lack of unity among the liberals in Kuwait that do not support the cause of women in politics. “I believe that all the Liberals in Kuwait are not united like they used to be in the past. They are all very scattered, and it is bad for women,” says Leannah. Both Dalal and Leannah also draw attention to another critical issue associated with women politicians, the issue of digital harassment and cyberbullying that acts as a deterrent for women wanting to enter politics in Kuwait.

The digital harassment of women refl ects existing patterns of violence and discrimination against women and girls in politics and elsewhere. “One of the things that women face when they reach positions of power in Kuwait is that they are always put under the spotlight,” says Leannah. “Women politicians anyways are more prone to cyberbullying than their male counterparts. In Kuwait, it just happens 100 times more.” Female candidates lack some of the essential advantages that men take for granted, not just in terms of social bias and access to infl uence but also in terms of fewer opportunities to practice politics, opportunities that lead to gateway positions that then springboard most men into office, like boards of sports clubs, NGOs or coops, municipality councils and student unions. Even those lucky or strong enough to gain experience usually lack funding and find it challenging to build the right networks and capacity to run and win.

Mudhawi’s List guides capable women to become more productive as politicians. “One thing that we think is super important is how we present ourselves as leaders,” says Leannah. “Compared to our male counterparts, we need to fight more on our online presence. So we put the candidates in touch with media creators and content providers.” Traditionally, women are restricted from visiting male diwaniyas. However, this has recently changed, with female politicians turning to their families for support. “To run for elections, you need male allies,”explains Dalal. “You need your family’s blessings. So most women who made it to the parliament campaigned in diwaniyas with their brother, husband or father.”

According to Thuraiya Al Hashemi, former Visiting Fellow of The Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, despite efforts to promote women’s presence in government and elected legislative bodies, women across the GCC countries face several challenges in realising gender equality, including patriarchy, religion, culture, and lack of political awareness, often among women themselves. In Kuwait and the GCC, women voters are heavily infl uenced by their husbands, fathers, or brothers due to a lack of political awareness among Kuwaiti women. However, more women would vote independently if they had a better understanding of the political system and vote for candidates who advocate for their rights. Fifteen women entered the fray this year.

“The political situation is unstable. In less than three years, we had three elections. People tend to get fed up,”Leannah says. Last year was good for Mudhawi’s List, as two of the three female candidates they supported made it to the parliament. “The candidates last year had their A-game on. They were fighting hard, and we did our best for them.”But this year, results have been disappointing, with only Jenan Bousheri making it to the parliament. “It saddens me,” said Leannah when asked about the result. “However, I am not surprised about the outcome of having one woman in office. I think this further highlights the fact that we need more women to run for office for a more inclusive parliament.” In the future, Dalal Boresly and Leannah Al Awadhi hope to see more deserving and capable candidates enter the fray. They want to motivate and educate the public to make the right choice for candidates who deserve their trust. It is a long and challenging journey, but like the ‘Mudhawi’ whose tired but brave eyes scanned the horizon for the returning ships, they will do all to succeed. By Chaitali B. Roy Special to the Arab Times

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