A single female candidate managed to win one of the fifty contested seats in Kuwait’s most recent elections parliamentary elections. While fifteen female candidates ran for election, Safa al-Hashem became the first woman in Kuwait’s history to win a seat in three consecutive rounds. Unfortunately, despite this win, females in Kuwait have achieved negligible gains in one of the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) most vibrant legislatures since being granted the right to vote and run for office in 2005. However, this dim picture is not unique to Kuwait, as women continue to face numerous challenges to gaining access to the higher echelons of power in the Arab world.
Throughout the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), female candidates face a steep uphill battle in the political realm. Indeed, the regional average for women’s political representation in MENA remains one of the lowest in the world. In 2016, women held a mere 18 percent of seats in national legislatures, a slight increase of 1 percent from the previous year. Furthermore, the success of female candidates at the polls varies widely across the region. While some countries, such as Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco, have achieved admirable levels of female political representation, most Arab states still have very few female politicians. Women occupy less than 5 percent of the national legislatures in Oman, Lebanon, and Yemen, to name just a few. It was not until 2015 that Saudi Arabian women could run for office.
Previous research investigating the determinants of female political representation in the region has yielded mixed results. By and large, the majority of studies have relied on socioeconomic, cultural, and institutional explanations to understand the dynamics of women’s access to power. Some scholars attribute the underrepresentation of women in MENA’s legislatures to the prevalence of traditional and patriarchal gender norms, religion, and the effect of oil on shaping gender relations. Others focus on the effect of institutional mechanisms and electoral rules on shaping women’s access to the political arena. The importance of these studies aside, much of the research has overlooked the effect of the persistent autocratic structures and lack of genuine political and electoral competition on women’s access to political power. Despite the fact that women have achieved significant strides in the socio-economic realm, their achievements have not translated to increased presence in the decision-making process. The Kuwaiti case clearly demonstrates the paradox of female empowerment in the region.
While women make up almost half of the labor force and female students outnumber males in higher education institutions in Kuwait, they are underrepresented in the political realm, even as compared to the regional average. Whereas the royal decree granting Kuwaiti women the right to vote and run for elections in May 2005 raised hopes for political recognition, the glass ceiling remains intact, blocking females’ access to the decision-making process. In 2006 and 2008, Kuwaiti women participated in parliamentary elections but failed to win any seats. However, in a surprising victory in 2009, four women secured seats in the parliamentary elections, amounting to eight percent of the total number of representatives. In 2013, only one woman won a seat, Safa al-Hashem, who was re-elected in 2016.
Women’s political underrepresentation in Kuwait is attributed to a variety of factors. Some scholars argue that female candidates are perceived as lacking in political expertise, and thus unable to garner voter support and trust. The country’s conservative political culture, especially among tribal and Islamist forces, has also been accused of hostility toward women’s inclusion in politics. Notably, Kuwait is divided into five electoral districts, two of which (mainly the 4th and 5th districts) are largely controlled by tribal candidates. Female politicians have always faced serious challenges to permeate these tribe-dominated districts. Over the past decade, female politicians generally emanated from the less conservative districts, such as the 1st and the 2nd districts.
The absence of electoral quotas or reserved seats for women has further diminished women’s prospects for political power in Kuwait. Electoral law changes made in 2012, which reduced the number of votes per citizen from four to one, have significantly diminished women’s chances at the polls. While the objective of these changes was to limit voting based on blocs and to weaken the opposition, the shift to the “one-person, one-vote system” (i.e., a single nontransferable vote, or SNTV) has further constrained women’s access to power. Voters under the new law chose to cast their votes to their preferred tribal/familial candidates but not to the female candidate in their respective districts.
Many studies overlook the impact of the current political context on female political empowerment that pertains not only to Kuwait, but also to the entire region. Undoubtedly, the persistence of autocratic structures and the state ban on forming political parties have negatively impacted women’s representation in Kuwait. Unlike their counterparts in countries such as Morocco and Algeria, Kuwaiti women lack legitimate channels by which they can secure a pathway to political office. As a result, female candidates are unable to win seats because they are not part of the two dominant camps in Kuwaiti politics: the conservative pro-regime forces and the Islamist opposition.
Moreover, despite being one of the strongest legislatures in the GCC with wide legislative prerogatives, Kuwait’s parliament often experiences political gridlock and crises leading to its repeated dissolution. According to Khalil Khaled, a sociologist at the University of Kuwait, “women have failed in politics so far partly due to the ‘stalling’ nature of political life in Kuwait.” It is worth noting that the parliament was dissolved seven times over the past decade due to standoffs between the legislative branch and the government.
The most recent parliamentary election best illustrates the effect of this political landscape on female representation in Kuwait. On October 6, 2016, the Emir dissolved the parliament following a confrontation between legislators and the government over a plan to enforce strict austerity measures in the face of a substantial budget deficit. According to the monarchy’s constitution, elections must be held within forty days of the dissolution. It was a formidable challenge for female newcomers to build name recognition, mobilize voters, establish electoral bases, and win supporters, in addition to the other obstacles that female political contenders typically face in elections. Better organized opposition groups, such as the Islamists and the tribal figures with established support bases, reaped the benefits of the hastily organized election at the expense of female candidates.
When considering the various obstacles facing Kuwaiti women’s pursuit of political leadership, the prospects for broader representation are limited by the sociocultural and political realities governing Kuwait’s state and society. Although no single policy will advance Kuwaiti women’s access to power, previous research has confirmed that affirmative action policies, such as mandatory/constitutional quota systems, are some of the most effective mechanisms to expand and facilitate women’s political participation. Given the absence of a structured party system and the political elites’ apathy toward promoting women’s political presence, there is a strong need for a legal quota that would allocate an equitable number of seats to women across different electoral districts. Women managed to make substantial gains in a number of MENA countries as a result of such gender quotas. In Algeria, for instance, women reached a critical mass in parliament after the enforcement of a 30 percent-quota on the national level in 2012.
For now, the outcome of the Kuwaiti women’s battle for political participation and representation remains uncertain—particularly given the volatility of the political landscape and the unwillingness of the male political elites to cede power. However, the international community should pressure such autocratic regimes to build inclusive political systems with more equitable female representation in the decision-making process. Initiatives should also focus on further strengthening the role of women’s organizations in the country and to provide them with adequate tools, such as training programs and campaign funds, to prepare a qualified cohort of female politicians capable of competing in the face of the challenging political and electoral landscape. The persistent marginalization of women’s voices in the decision-making process will further hold back the advancement of women’s issues and policies in the country. A higher level of female presence in the political realm is much needed to address the most critical challenges facing women on a daily basis, such as gender-based violence, outdated personal status laws and inequitable economic opportunities.
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