Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Democracy advances in the Mideast

Kuwaiti women went to the polls for the first time on Wednesday, in a by-election viewed as a test case for the full parliamentary elections in 2007.

The election also featured another first: female candidates.

The May 2005 decision [to let women vote] sparked widespread debate about women's roles in politics, with some conservative Islamist members of Parliament arguing that women should not be allowed in Parliament without wearing the Islamic hijab, or head covering.

The landmark political participation of women in Kuwait's election Tuesday is part of a regional trend in the Arab Gulf states, where women are growing more publicly vocal about political matters.

Qatar recently announced that it would hold first ever parliamentary elections in 2007, in which women will be allowed to vote. These modest political gains mark a dramatic shift for a region where many women still cannot even leave their homes, take a job, or go to school without the permission of their father or husband.

These are baby steps, to be sure. Both Kuwait and Qatar are still ruled by unelected emirs, and there are still plenty of obstacles to overcome:

32-year-old chemical engineer Jenan Al-Bousheri has taken a modest approach to her campaign, refusing to visit the all-male diwaniyas, or gathering places. Another female politician, Ayesha Al-Reshaid, who already announced plans to run for parliament in 2007 and has visited male diwaniyas, recently received a death threat warning her to stop campaigning.

Ms. Bousheri, who wears the Islamic hijab and has worked for the municipality for 10 years, says she doesn't feel threatened but instead is simply being respectful of the country's conservative nature. In addition to not visiting the diwaniyas, she refused to include her photo on campaign billboards, which could be considered indecent.

Still, this demonstrates two important things: that there is such a thing as "moderate" Islam and relatively moderate Arab states, and that gradual change is possible. Both Kuwait and Qatar would likely have taken these steps without our invading Iraq; and by doing it on their own they become true examples of freedom flowering in the Middle East.

Our job now is to support these countries -- using aid and trade agreements to demonstrate the tangible benefits of moving toward democracy and tolerance -- while gently pressing them to adopt true democracy and hold elections for top leadership posts. That approach has risks: the current Western-friendly emirs could be replaced by more hostile radical Islamists, as happened in Palestine. But the Gulf emirates are not Palestine, and if we cannot persuade them to move forward instead of backward, we have lost the war of ideas.

At any rate, the only principled approach is to try. Decades of blindly supporting "our" dictators is one of the things that helped create the current mess in the Mideast. At least this way, if the Mideast descends into a new Dark Ages the blood isn't on our hands.

Update: A male candidate won the election. But one of the two female candidates, Jinan Boushahri, came in second. A distant second, to be sure -- 1,807 votes to the winner's 5,436 -- but she beat out three male candidates.

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