Scholar: Elected Kuwaiti Women Could Help Mideast Christians

The election of four women to Kuwait's parliament, the first for the Gulf Arab state, could help improve the situation for Christians and other minorities in the Middle East, said an expert on Islam and human rights.

"Kuwait itself is usually seen as moderately 'progressive,' and I think this is a big deal," Dr. Paul Marshall, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom, told The Christian Post. "If the elected women do a good job, they can open things up more – and the role of women is key in the Middle East.

"So, I would say that it also bodes well for Christians and other minorities."

Last weekend, four women won seats in Kuwait's parliament despite fierce opposition from some conservative Muslim quarters. Aseel al-Awadhi, one of the elected women, said Sunni Islamist politicians called her an "infidel" during the campaign and used dirty political tricks to defeat her, including taking her lectures out of context to give the impression she was against sharia law, she told National Public Radio.

"They created a very intense propaganda campaign, and a very negative one," she said.

Awadhi, a U.S.-educated philosophy professor at Kuwait University, said that now that she and her female colleagues have been elected to parliament, women's voices can finally be heard.

She also said she plans to challenge laws in Kuwait that do not treat women equally.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calls the elections of the Kuwaiti women a "major step forward" for Kuwait, the region and the world.

"This did not come easily or quickly," said Clinton, a strong women's right advocate, to graduates at Barnard College, a women's university in New York City, according to Agence France-Presse.

"It took a long struggle but the election of four women this Saturday is a major step forward for Kuwait, the region, and I would argue, the world," said the U.S.'s top diplomat.

Women in Kuwait were not allowed to run for office until 2005. Despite several women running for office in the previous two elections, no women won a position until this year.

This historic election occurred after Kuwait's ruler, Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, dissolved the outgoing parliament due to a deadlock between parliament and the government.

Marshall, who has met some of the elected Kuwaiti women when he was an observer at the country's elections in 2003, commented that the push for women's rights has come mainly from the country's ruler who is more "progressive" than the population at large.

"It was he who pushed for women to have the vote, even though most of the parliament opposed it," the human rights scholar said.

Political gains made by women as well as liberals in this election came at the expense of Sunni Islamists, who had previously dominated without serious opposition in parliament. Although Sunni politicians still make up the majority of parliament, the election gave liberals, independents, and women greater representation.

Analysts say the latest electoral shift is likely due to citizens' fatigue with the constant fighting between parliament and the government. But they also warn that tension is likely to continue since many Sunni incumbents retained seats.

Kuwait is the world's fourth largest oil exporter. Although it has a constitutional emirate government system, it politically resembles Western democracy more than any other nation in the Gulf Arab region.