October 15, 1999

In Kuwait last week, Ahmad Al-Baghdadi, a university academic and newspaper columnist, was arrested and imprisoned for blasphemy.

The four-week court sentence on Professor Al-Baghdadi, a professor of political science at Kuwait University, worried liberal politicians who won ten seats in July's parliamentary elections. But the new parliament faces further fundamental upheaval over plans to give women, for the first time, the right to vote and stand as candidates in the next parliamentary elections in 2003.

Emir Jaber al-Ahmed Al-Sabah's decree has to be ratified by parliament. It aims to extend to women a franchise restricted to about 10 per cent of the population - Kuwaiti citizens who can trace their lineage back to before 1920. In 1996, citizens who had been naturalised for 30 years were able to vote for the first time.

Gerd Nonneman, a Middle East specialist at Lancaster University, thinks a new bill may be needed to extend the franchise. "The new deputy speaker, an advocate of women's enfranchisement, has stated that the decree did not fulfil the constitutional criterion of urgency, which allows such decrees to be issued in the absence of parliament."

But Dr Nonneman, who was in Kuwait for the opening of the new parliament, said:

"A particularly dynamic female member of the Al-Sabah (family), arriving in the assembly at the start of the opening ceremony, pointed to the MPs' benches and proclaimed with a grin that that was where the women would be sitting next time."

Faiza Al-Khorafi, rector of Kuwait University, said: "His highness the emir has launched the initiative. We ought to take off from that point to set up the programmes, plans and policies, so that women can be a positive and significant factor in dialogue and in decision-


There are no political parties in the parliament and opposition is likely to come from among the Islamist opposition groups.

But Dr Nonneman said: "The Islamists, though, come in many different hues and are not a coherent bloc."

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