Women in black who want to vote

Observations on female suffrage

Early last Monday morning, some of the 500 men and women chanting outside Kuwait's national assembly fell silent. At the rear of the demonstration - which involved Kuwaitis in jeans, trainers and the trendy tight blue T-shirts of the women's rights movement - a group of 30 women had arrived, their bodies completely covered in traditional black abayas, their faces obscured by niqabs.

There had been rumours that Islamists would send a crack team to disrupt this demonstration in favour of votes for women, and this looked like it. I was the first to approach the women, but, shy of foreigners, they squealed and scattered, increasing the fear that under the conservative garb lay conservative minds. But eventually a veteran Kuwaiti suffragette asked them straight: "Are you in support of giving the vote to women or against?" One woman came forward: most were there in support, she said, a few had come to make up their minds.

The incident illustrates the peculiar tensions in Kuwait, which has been a nominal democracy for more than 40 years but still bars women from voting (as well as some men, including members of the armed forces), and does not allow political parties. When US-led forces drove Iraq from Kuwait in 1991, it was amid promises of political equality: during the first Gulf war, it had been too dangerous for men to leave home and women had taken charge. Since then, however, the Islamists have won out.

In a report just launched by the actress Meryl Streep, the UN has put Kuwait among a "dirty dozen" of countries, most of them completely non-democratic, that have no women in parliament. Elsewhere in the Gulf, Bahrain, Oman and Qatar have enfranchised their women, albeit within more limited democracies. When Streep said that "a woman cannot vote in Kuwait and she cannot drive in Saudi Arabia", she drew a comparison that pains many westernised Kuwaitis.

Kuwaiti women often wear trousers, drive cars and travel abroad without the permission of their menfolk. They make up 63 per cent of university graduates and hold top jobs in the oil industry and diplomatic missions. With cabinet approval, parliament is now debating another bill to enfranchise them. The Emir backs the bill, as he backed another in 1999, which was defeated by two votes.

Yet Islamists are tightening their grip on Kuwait. They have 21 out of 50 MPs and have succeeded in segregating education (Kuwait University has essentially two campuses: one for men, one for women) and adding Islamic belligerence to textbooks. They look poised to ban school music lessons.

While an Islamic/tribal alliance scuttled the 1999 bill, it may not do so this time. A new Islamic party - the Umma party, influential with the hardliners - has emerged and supports votes for women.

Indeed, Islamists could well be strengthened by women's suffrage. Ghadeer, a student of political science, said: "If we are successful and women get the vote, we are aware that Islamic politics will increase." Islamists, she said, "address women's concerns about the family and will get many female votes".

But in the long term, Ghadeer hopes that as women become more involved in democratic debate, they will vote as men do.