Can there be democracy with marginalization?

For 40 years women in Kuwait have fought for their political rights. That fight culminated in success on May 16, 2005 when women were granted the vote. In view of the fact that Kuwait has invested heavily and indiscriminately in human capital during the last 50 years so as to offer its male and female citizens free education and health, we are appalled that it also discriminated against women for so long by having only the male population participate in political life. Kuwaiti men were allowed to vote and run for various political offices, were appointed to cabinet positions, and participated in the country’s decision-making process.

Why did women’s involvement in the political process in Kuwait lag behind for so long? Why were women marginalized in public life? Was Islam used to empower women or to reinforce male chauvinism? Were culture and tradition a hindrance to women’s activism and progress? An examination of the women’s suffragist movement can provide some answers to these questions.

We perceive women as a pillar of prosperity, development, freedom, and democracy. When the women’s movement began 40 years ago in Kuwait, Islamists colluded with traditionalists to limit and minimize the role of women and terrorize any member of society who strayed from their line of thinking. To such Islamists, the perfect role for women is to stay at home, raise children, take care of the house, and be subservient to their husbands–under the false pretence that this is dictated by religious requirements. Women who contradicted this perception were terrorized psychologically and socially. This is actually what happened to all of us suffragists who wanted women to play an active role in society and in the decision-making process.

For a closed society like Kuwait’s, social and psychological terrorism is as bad as physical terrorism, if not worse. Women were terrorized in the name of Islam as being anti-religious to the extent of being blasphemous, anti-patriotic agents of the West, destroyers of the social fabric, anti-family, and promoters of homosexuality and adultery. We were continually and savagely attacked just because we wanted women to be involved in politics by granting us our constitutional political right to vote, run in national elections, and become active participants in public life.

The Islamist extremists managed their social terrorism and savage attacks on women by abusing Islam in order to gain support at the grassroots level from ordinary citizens who are traditionalist and conservative and whose knowledge of religion is limited. They kept slogans about how Islam respects the role of women, and how Islamists are the protectors of women and do not want them to be sexual objects. But in reality, these slogans were used simply to hide their inability to accept women as partners in development and democracy-building and to reinforce and advance male chauvinist society.

But Kuwaiti women displayed determination, will, and perseverance. They refused to allow Islamic extremists to marginalize them, limit their freedom and control their thinking and their destiny. The women of Kuwait responded to all the arguments and claims made by extremists and exposed their false Islamic pretences and their hypocritical ideological stands. Women registered an historic victory against the ideology of Islamic extremism and terrorism.

After all this, one wonders whether the pressure on women will be eased so that they can focus their energies and efforts on becoming active participants in public life and in the political arena, in order to deepen the democratic process that Kuwait has sought for decades. Unfortunately, this is not easy. Indeed, the entire Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region faces this challenge.

Two opposing winds are pulling the region in different directions. The first is the wind of destruction that is embraced by Islamic extremism: extremism as a mode of thinking, terrorism as a mode of conflict resolution, and enclosure as a mode of living. The second is the wind of hope that is embraced by liberal democrats: freedom as a mode of thinking, dialogue and peace as a mode of conflict resolution, and openness as a mode of living. Which wind will prevail depends on how we as citizens of this region act and take responsibility.

I call upon all citizens in the area who are looking for a better future for themselves and their children to work and pull together so that the wind of hope sweeps across our MENA region.