Women, voting and driving

So, last week the Kuwaiti parliament at last decided to grant women the vote. This is something the amir has been wanting to do for years, it seems, but those pesky parliamentarians kept stalling. Meanwhile, next door in Saudi Arabia, Nzingha has been telling us about the ongoing struggle to secure a more every-day right - to drive. It seems the Shura (consultation) council has no intention of even discussing the matter, largely due to the threat of attacks by “fundamentalist” extremists.

It seems that women weren’t too fussed in Kuwait about getting the right to vote, according to Sister on a Mission:

It seems that in reality this was not something the women were pushing for at all. On the contrary it was a small group of vocal, Westophile feminists and their male cohorts who are trying to kiss Bush Administration backside who were doing all the pushing. The average Kuwaiti woman on the street was not the least bit interested in gaining the right to vote. No parties where held, no women in offices congratulated each other, and women from from engineers to graphic designers to housewives all responded with disdain when asked about this wonderous event. In fact, calls for women to strike and rally on a certain day running up to the decision gathered a whopping *fourteen* attendees and a scheduled “mock vote” was canceled due to feared lack of attendance.

The reason given is that they enjoy a far higher standard of living than we do in the west, in terms of such matters as health and education. Unlike Saudi women, they are not prevented from driving or restricted in their work. As SoaM has acknowledged, their standard-of-living situation may well change in the future - it’s very easy for an oil-rich state with a small population to provide stipends for families and free healthcare. This would most likely change when (it’s not a matter of if) the oil revenue goes down.

I’m sure most Muslims will agree that the extension of democracy in the Muslim world is extremely problematic. Western commentators generally praise tyrants like Habib Bourguiba for “introducing democracy” and extending to women the dubious privilege of voting in their rigged elections. In Morocco, the recent “extensions of democracy” have resulted in an old unjust personal status code being replaced with … yet another unjust personal status code. It seems the old Muslim traditions of a country being ruled, rather than being left to committees, has been weakened further in the last few years as traditional rulers are afraid to assert their authority even for “progressive” purposes. That appears to have been what’s happened in Kuwait.

Kuwait was, until recently, the only country with a legislature in which men could vote but women couldn’t. Allah knows best, but I’ve yet to hear of a single argument for this arrangement which holds any water. While it’s legitimate to object to a woman being able to cancel out her husband’s vote (a lot of westerners would disagree, but a lot of Muslims wouldn’t), why is this any worse than a son cancelling out his father’s? Furthermore, the same old objection - that a woman can be as virtuous as it’s possible to be, but a male of corrupt moral character will still have a vote and she won’t - still applies. A man can be a “proprietor of white slaves” (i.e. a pimp), a woman can be a teacher or nurse, but the man doesn’t lose his vote and the woman doesn’t gain it.

Historically, voting was not reserved for males, but for landowners, and in some places heads of households. Thus, if a woman had her own property and was personally responsible for paying the bills, she had the vote. If she was part of someone else’s household, then like a man in that situation, she didn’t have the vote. There is an excellent article explaining this position at the Ladies Against Feminism site here. It seems that a lot of opponents of female voting in Kuwait have fallen into the same trap as those who opposed it in America:

We have a completely different notion of franchise today, which is not based upon households but upon individuals within the household. Each eligible individual may vote his or her own opinion. In this way, a husband and a wife can completely cancel each other out at the ballot box. Many commentators in the 19th century (when women began demanding the vote) found such an idea absurd, since it conflicted with republican principles of government. But instead of appealing to the law or making rational discourse about the representation of households, most men who opposed votes for women did so on the grounds that women weren’t smart enough to vote or shouldn’t be bothered with politics. Those arguments proved weak and ineffective (as they should have). The issue has nothing to do with brains or ability.

The system of heads of households voting for their households is not what was happening in Kuwait; rather, men voted and women didn’t. Thus, fathers with an abundance of sons had an abundance of votes (given the greater influence a Muslim father has compared to one in an average British household), and one consisting only of women had none. There is the separate issue by which Kuwaitis of “lower class” (less long-established) citizenship had no vote at all, which is hardly mentioned in this debate.

This issue is closely related to other Gulf gender issues, notably the Saudis’ continued insistence on banning women from driving. There were recently a series of posts at Nzingha’s blog ([1], [2], [3]) on the evils this law causes. Saudi Arabia is still very much a monarchy, unlike most if not all the other countries which have allowed assemblies a greater share of power. There is, therefore, only one person to hold responsible for the much-derided ban on women driving. If the Shura council cannot discuss it for fear of being targeted by extremists, there is an easy way to take any pressure off its members, which is to bypass them.

The other issue is that any religious objection to women driving does not just concern Saudi scholars alone, but the scholars of the whole Ummah. And if there was such a great Islamic objection to women driving, whatever the circumstances, it would not be legal in every single other Muslim country, including those in which there is an established body of Islamic scholars. The only other country from which I’ve ever heard of scholars claiming women mustn’t drive is South Africa - a country notorious for its problems with armed crime and rape - but I’ve been told by people from that community that their women do, in fact, drive.

I suspect that the real reason the change happened in Kuwait is because the country had become an international laughing stock. One wonders when whoever is behind the ban, unique in the world, on women driving in Saudi Arabia is going to wise up to the fact that their obstinate refusal to let women drive is having the same effect.

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