WOMEN in the tiny, oil-rich emirate of Kuwait hold positions in the government, but they still can't vote. That could change if lawmakers follow through on a proposal to give women the right to suffrage and to stand as candidates in local elections. Although another parliamentary vote on the issue still must be held in the days ahead, it is significant that the measure passed on first reading.
If Kuwaiti women are allowed to actively participate in local politics, it would bring them to the point where American women were in 1920 when they obtained suffrage.
This small bit of progress for Kuwaiti women has been a long time coming.
Technically, Kuwait's constitution provides equal rights to men and women. But the reality is that the 1962 election law only gave the right to vote and the right to run for office to men over 21 who are not members of the police or military. That raises a separate issue, of course: Why are male police officers and men in the military denied the vote?
Parliament's first vote to give women voting rights passed with a respectable margin, 26-20, and three abstentions. Even if the next vote is narrower, Kuwait's emir, Sheik Jaber Al Ahmed Al Sabah, will sign the measure into law. Muslim clerics may disagree, but the Islamic Affairs Ministry has ruled that the emir would have the final word on the matter, and he supports women's suffrage.
Since there are already women in Kuwait's government, why all the fuss? Religious extremists don't want women campaigning among men or to receive men's support at the ballot box. So if the bill becomes law it won't necessarily mean an easier time for Kuwaiti women.
Other conservatives also fret that once women can vote and seek political office, they will neglect family and domestic responsibilities, families will deteriorate, and children will stray from Islamic teachings.
Those are familiar arguments to anyone determined to suppress women. Fortunately for Kuwaiti women, their emir favors emerging from the dark ages. Should their parliament agree, Kuwait will become a leading example to Muslim nations where terrorists would keep women veiled, defined as property, and prevented from participating in life.