Inside the glass house: by Thalif Deen

21st January 2001

Why Kuwaiti women walk ahead of men now

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NEW YORK— Long before the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, an American TV anchor woman unveiled a story focusing on the rigidly male chauvinist society in the oil-blessed Gulf.

She discovered that most countries in the region deprived women of their basic rights— and one country even barred women from driving in the streets.

Perhaps one of the customs that intrigued her was a widely accepted norm where wives always walked several feet behind their husbands.

But more than 10 years after the Gulf War, the same network was keen on a follow-up story: how the American "liberation" of Kuwait had helped transform some of the affluent sheikdoms into Western-style democracies perhaps justifying a war which killed hundreds and thousands in the name of liberty and freedom.

After all, in Qatar, there is now a relatively free press and US-style educational institutions. And since May 1999, women have been permitted, for the first time, both to vote and run for political office in the municipal council.

Oman broke new ground in January 1995 when women, for the first time, were included in the State Consultative Council.

The anchor woman was also pleasantly surprised to find the reversal of an old custom whereby husbands now walked several feet behind their wives giving women social precedence.

So she approached a Kuwaiti woman and asked her: "Can you tell the free world just what enabled women here to achieve this reversal of roles?"

"Yes," said the woman, "Landmines."

The story may be apocryphal, but it illustrates the devastatingly wide gender gap between West Asia and rest of the world— and certainly the Western world.

In May 1999, the Kuwaiti cabinet did give women the right to vote and run for parliament. But the all-male state assembly rejected it.

Last week, Kuwait's highest court, predictably all-male, turned down yet another case filed on behalf of women challenging the denial of their right to vote.

Coincidentally, the ruling came at a time when the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDW) began a two-week session to take stock of the progress made in advancing the rights of women worldwide.

Last year a broad coalition of women's groups, led by the New York-based Women's Environment and Development Organisation (WEDO), demanded time-bound targets and quotas to attain gender balance for women and men in decision-making positions worldwide.

"Our campaign demands that governments work for a provisional minimum target of 30 percent representation of women in cabinet ministries and legislatures, as well as local authorities, by 2003 and equal representation (50:50) by 2005," said WEDO.

The worldwide campaign was summed up in a rallying slogan: "50:50 by 2005: Get the Balance Right!".

Socorro Reyes, Director of Gender and Governance, says that WEDO plans to obtain a million signatures for its petition urging gender parity.

She said: "We were told we could easily get a million signatures - if we start in India" — a country with a population of over one billion people.

The UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which was adopted by the General Assembly in 1979, has been endorsed by 166 of the UN's 189 member states.

But most countries in West Asia have signed the convention with reservations nullifying the very purpose of the international convention.

In December an amendent to the convention — formally called an Optional Protocol — came into force which allows women to seek justice direct from the United Nations after they have exhausted legal remedies at the local and national levels.

But this international remedy will be available only to women from the 13 countries which have ratified the Protocol: Austria, Bangladesh, Bolivia, Denmark, France, Ireland, Italy, Mali, Namibia, New Zealand, Senegal, Slovakia and Thailand.

UN Assistant Secretary-General Angela King, Special Advisor on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women, says the 21-article protocol "is a very significant development towards achieving women's rights and to make them meaningful.''

The London-based Amnesty International (AI) says a woman whose human rights have been violated under the UN convention will now be able to take her complaint to the UN to seek justice and reparations.

In its annual report released last month, Human Rigthts Watch said "government actions reflected the belief that women are not entitled to full enjoyment of their human rights."

And such realities, it noted, has been evident in Morocco, Sudan, Japan, India, Saudi Arabia, Russia and Pakistan.

"Even those governments that claimed the mantle of leadership in promoting women's rights - Canada, the United States and some European countries - failed to challenge this onslaught," it added.

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