Kuwaiti women campaign in uncharted territory

KUWAIT — Kuwaiti women competing for the first time in a general election are shattering social taboos and campaigning in the uncharted territory of the all-male “diwaniya”, the Gulf Arab state’s version of a gentlemen’s club.

Hoping to win parliamentary seats on June 29, women are reaching out to a wider audience by taking their message to the diwaniyas — from the Arabic “diwan” or council.

These meetings are seen as a barometer of public opinion and are referred to as Kuwait’s “mini parliaments”, second to none for picking up the buzz on what’s happening in the political arena, the stock market or corporate corridors.

Members of the ruling Sabah family, scions of merchant families, tribal chiefs or ordinary Kuwaitis have weekly, even daily, diwaniya meetings at their homes.

Members of parliament listen to constituents or campaign at these gatherings, usually held in the evening to avoid the day-time desert heat.

Until now, these meetings have been off limits to women, reflecting traditions in a mainly Sunni Muslim country where the sexes sit separately at many mixed events.

But things change. Some of the 32 women making history by contesting the parliamentary polls have either received invites or sought to visit diwaniyas to present their platforms.

Breaking the barrier

“The response to our visits has been great,” said Rola Dashti, a US-educated economist who is one of six women running in Jabriya. “All you had to do was break the psychological barrier and go. I’ve been saying that all along.” Unlike male candidates, many of them seasoned lawmakers, many women candidates were unprepared when the new polls were called a year early. The vote is to replace the parliament dissolved by the emir last month after a crisis pitting reformist deputies against the government. “The female candidates were left with little time to prepare, what can they do in a month?” said tribal notable Bakheet Al Hajeri as he welcomed Fatima Al Abdali, a candidate in his Daiya constituency, to his diwaniya.

Abdali, a US-educated official at a state-run oil firm who wore traditional dress with her head covered, was welcomed by a crowd of Kuwaiti men in white flowing robes and headdresses.

Waiters served cardamom-flavoured tea and coffee to the guests who ranged from family members to friends and strangers who are also welcomed under the Arab tradition of hospitality.

Some fiddled with worry beads as Abdali explained her ideas, such as the need for committees to hold deputies to task.

“She has superior ideas,” said Hajeri, adding he has no qualms about voting for a woman if she is the best candidate.

‘The other wife’

As much as men love diwaniyas, women have long complained they are excluded and that these meetings keep men away from home for hours. Some Kuwaiti women jokingly refer to their husbands’ diwaniya as “his other wife”.

Aisha Al Rushaid, a journalist running for election in Kaifan, says she was the first woman to break the psychological barrier of going to diwaniyas, receiving an invitation from constituents last year after declaring her intention to stand. “Thank God, I received big welcomes and acceptance,” she said.

But some women were uncertain about how to even approach joining a diwaniya. “Do you have to call the owner first or can you just go?” one candidate asked Abdali. “You have to call,” Abdali replied.

Such “political” diwaniya visits, even if held only during election season, don’t sit well with conservative Kuwaitis, especially Islamists who opposed granting women suffrage.

Abdali says she seeks permission from diwaniya owners before going, is always dressed conservatively and escorted by a male relative. “I’m a free thinker… but not a liberal 100 percent. I observe our religion and traditions,” she said.

The trailblazing visits to diwaniyas started a debate on whether even bigger changes were likely for this quintessentially Kuwaiti tradition.

Many male diwaniya attendees dodged questions on whether women would be welcome at “social” diwaniya visits soon.

“Everything is good in due course,” said Salem Al  Arada, laughing, but adding he supports women running in polls.

“Their voice should be heard in parliament.” Abd Al Rahman Alyan, deputy editor-in-chief of Kuwait Times, said Kuwait is not ready for mixed diwaniya socialising yet.

“Kuwait has changed over the years,” Alyan wrote. “Some mixed diwaniyas are held today, but by invitation only. Sooner or later, women and men socialising together at a diwaniya will be accepted by the Kuwaiti public.”

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