Interview with Maasuma Mubarak, Kuwait's First Woman Minist

The Foundation for the Defense of Democracies has launched The Middle East Democracy Digest described as Highlighting leading commentators from the Greater Middle East speaking out on political and economic reform, religious tolerance, and women's and human rights.

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Interview with Maasuma Mubarak, Kuwait's First Woman Minist

By Hamad Al-Jaser

Translation provided by Tony Badran (The Foundation for the Defense of Democracies)

June 26, 2005

Dr. Maasuma Mubarak asserted that her appointment as Minister of Planning and Development will not be the end of the campaign for women's rights, adding that there's a lot of bias against women in Kuwaiti law that she hopes to rectify: "We are still in the beginning. There are goals that have been met, but we have a path before, with a meeting point in the year 2007, the date of the parliamentary elections, with women participating for the first time, then seeking to enter parliament. There are also the social rights of women. Some laws deprive women of their full rights, like the citizenship law, the residency law, and the law of civil service and others which are inherently discriminatory against women. Meanwhile, Kuwait has signed the international treaty against all forms of discrimination against women."

Dr. Mubarak made clear that she and other activists are working to establish a quota for women in parliament: "I support the idea of the quota, but as I understand, the PM Sheikh Sabbah al-Ahmad is leaning toward delaying the topic, so let's not get ahead of things. I as a defender of women's rights realize the difficulty of achieving victory at the ballot boxes without the quota system and set-asides or modifying electoral districts."

"We also hope to reach the percentage (35%) set by the UN, and this is what we're striving for. But we also realize that most countries have not achieved this percentage through direct elections, but through quotas, and set-asides and the system of lists. If not, the chances of women -- not just in Kuwait, but all over the world -- will be slim, especially in our male-dominated societies. Therefore, convincing men -- and women -- as voters that women is qualified to hold such an office and to run it appropriately, needs a lot of effort, as well as systems like quotas and lists."

She also pointed out that she is ignoring the attacks leveled by some MPs about the legality and constitutionality of her appointment, and she'll continue working for as long as the Kuwaiti judiciary doesn't back these charges: "We are a constitutional state and we respect the law. If it so happens that the institution that judges the constitutionality of the decision reached the conviction that my appointment as Minister was unconstitutional, then I will respect that. But before such a judgment is announced, I am innocent of this characterization and this charge and this suspicion. I don't believe my appointment was unconstitutional, and I do not worry about it. But it's important for the opposing MPs to check and to be assured, and this is important to me, so that my relationship with them is not marred."

Responding to a question on whether her appointment was "ceremonial" on the occasion of Kuwaiti women obtaining political rights, and was not a response to a political or practical need, Dr. Mubarak disagreed: "I disagree completely. It wasn't a formality, but it came in the context of the need of society for the participation of women in decision making. It's unacceptable to say it was ceremonial, and it didn't come as a surprise to us, because the political leadership and a large section of parliament and the population believes in the role of women and their position in Kuwaiti society, socially and politically. The participation of women in government is a civilized marking point, and not a formality at all."

She went on to say that it wasn't the result of Kuwait seeking to please the West: "There's nothing wrong in seeking the goodwill of the international community, and all countries desire that, and avoid becoming pariahs. But demands for democratic reform in Kuwait and granting political rights for women is a popular demand that goes back to 1971, backed by MPs who represent the Kuwaiti people, and it was finally crowned with a motion by the Prince in 1999. All those years there were no international pressures to affect political reforms in the ME. We were the ones pressuring from within Kuwaiti society, and these pressures were blessed and supported by the political leadership."

As for the harsh remarks of a Shiite cleric displeased with her occupying a Shiite seat, she stressed that she doesn't represent a sect, but Kuwait: "I was chosen for a political office, not to be the Imam of a mosque, so that I would be in a Shiite or Sunni mosque."

Finally, she hoped that she would be given time to prove herself, and hoped that "should there be a ministerial amendment, it doesn't concern my portfolio. The final decision rests in the High Command, in which we have hope."

"There will be more than one [permanent] seat [for women in the cabinet]. The one seat is just the beginning."

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