By DIANA ELIAS, Associated Press Writer
KUWAIT CITY - Women activists hope lawmakers will speed up efforts to give them the vote in this conservative Muslim country that was, until recent years, the Gulf's region's sole democracy, saving the exclusion of women from political life.
Prime Minister Sheik Sabah Al Ahmed Al Sabah opened the debate last month with a rare column in the Al-Watan daily newspaper, claiming it was "high time women get this right and practice it" because they were just as educated as other women in Arab and Muslim countries.
State-owned Kuwait Television then took up the cause, broadcasting footage of women demonstrating against Iraq's 1990 occupation of Kuwait, accompanied by excerpts of Sheik Sabah praising their steadfastness when the war was over.
"Today, the government is showing more seriousness and good will," said Rola Dashti, a U.S.-educated economist at the forefront of the fight for the vote. "It is clear from Sheik Sabah's moves and the national campaign for public awareness."
Dashti has planned a Monday sit-in across the street from the all-male Parliament, just hours before it deliberates a proposal by 10 legislators to ask the constitutional court to rule on the 1962 election law restricting political rights to men.
A Cabinet request to speed up the vote on a bill it introduced last year amending that law also is on the agenda.
It will not be the first time the issue has come to a vote for Kuwaiti women.
In 1999, Parliament defeated a decree by the emir to grant women their rights because it was issued when the house was not sitting. Soon afterward, fundamentalist Sunni Muslims and tribal lawmakers defeated a women's rights bill proposed by liberals by a narrow 32-30 margin.
Activists then accused the Cabinet of failing to act, claiming it could have lobbied for more votes if it wanted to.
Political science teacher Shamlan al-Issa wrote in Sunday's Al-Siyassah daily that the government has to prove its seriousness about women's rights by pressuring tribal lawmakers to vote for the amendment.
Making exceptions for their constituents has to stop, he said.
Fundamentalist lawmaker Daifallah Bou Ramia said he regretted the Cabinet's "adoption" of women's suffrage. He is leading a counter-campaign under the motto "Women Have No Political Rights."
"No matter how strong public campaigns are, people will always stick to their Islamic principles," he told The Associated Press.
He insists there are no political rights for women under Sharia, or Islamic law, and that women cannot assume public posts.
But Kuwait's Islamist political Ummah Party broke ranks with other Islamist groups last month by announcing its support for women's political rights. Ummah, whose name means nation, said it based its decision on religious edicts by modern clerics.
In other Muslim democratic nations, such as Indonesia and Iran, women vote and run for public office.
In Kuwait, women are in the diplomatic corps. They make up about half of the national work force and 63 percent of Kuwaitis with university degrees.
Unlike women in neighboring Saudi Arabia, women in Kuwait can drive and travel abroad without the consent of a male relative.
"Unfortunately, ... authorities need international pressures to move," the deputy speaker of Parliament, Mishari al-Anjari, told a talk show on Kuwait Television. "We have to watch in which direction the world is going," referring to Washington's push for democratizing the Middle East.
Kuwait has been one of the strongest U.S. allies since a U.S.-led international coalition evicted Iraqi forces in the 1991 Gulf War.
"Cheer up, daughters of Kuwait," wrote activist Fatima al-Abdali in Sunday's Al-Qabas daily. "The time for justice has come after four decades of democracy and 14 years since liberation.".