KUWAIT CITY—Rula Dashti didn't begin the fight for women's suffrage in Kuwait, but she has emerged as its most powerful symbol.
Dashti challenged her country's election laws in a court battle that helped spur the Kuwaiti government to grant full political rights to women last year. On Thursday, she and 27 other women will make history as female candidates in the first election in which women here will be allowed to vote.
Political analysts doubt that any of the women will win seats in the 50-member legislature—strong tribal and Islamist blocs are favored. The women had only five weeks to campaign since the Kuwaiti emir, Sheik Sabah al Ahmed al Sabah, dissolved the parliament on May 21 in a dispute over electoral reforms and moved up the vote for a new one by a year.
But Kuwait's decision turned women into a key constituency. Of Kuwait's 340,000 eligible voters, 57 percent are women, partly because military personnel, nearly all male, are barred from voting. In nearly every one of the 25 districts, women outnumber men, though Dashti's opponents are quick to point out that numbers alone don't ensure a woman will make it to the legislature.
"Most of the women's votes will go to male candidates because they are not convinced by the female candidates," said Walid Tabtabai, an Islamist incumbent candidate who opposes women seeking office on religious grounds.
But win or lose, Dashti's path to the polls is a compelling story of a singular Arab woman fighting against entrenched interests and traditions. Reform has been slow throughout the conservative, oil-rich monarchies of the Persian Gulf, and the backlash has been vicious since Dashti announced her candidacy.
Detractors spread text messages ridiculing her Lebanese accent and Persian ancestry. Gossips whispered that the Bush administration was bankrolling her efforts. Vandals tore down her campaign posters. Islamist hardliners lambasted her for refusing to wear a veil.
"If I put the veil on today, I know I could get 600 or 700 more votes," she said. "But I won't. I respect my religion, and I won't use it as a political tool."
As the barbs grew more ruthless in the final days before the vote, Dashti's family became so concerned that they implored her not to accept food or drinks from strangers for fear that she would be poisoned. Dashti agreed, but only after speaking out against the "psychological terrorism" she considers as great an ill as the violence that has marred elections in other parts of the Middle East.
Dashti is hardly representative of most Kuwaiti women: Her mother is Lebanese, her father, a former Kuwaiti legislator. She holds a bachelor's degree from California State University at Chico, a master's from California State-Sacramento and a doctorate from Johns Hopkins University. At 42, she's "single and happy," though she adds, "My mother doesn't need to hear that."
Dashti's reputation for going up against powerful interests dates to childhood, when as a schoolgirl she was nicknamed "The Lawyer" because she often defended classmates who felt they had received unfair grades.
She worked with the International Red Cross to help refugees in war-torn southern Lebanon in 1982. She volunteered for a committee that demanded information on hundreds of Kuwaiti prisoners of war during the Gulf War. She traveled to Tunisia and Yemen to encourage grassroots activism among women in far-flung villages.
The political vibrancy she found in the United States spurred her urge to change Kuwait. She marveled at a society free of the strict tribal customs that govern her homeland.
"It's a place where you get what you work for," she said.
In 1992, she returned to Kuwait and decided she no longer could accept the status quo.
"As a citizen who had ambitions to participate in the development of a nation, I just felt like a number, a statistic," Dashti recounted. "This is how it all started. I just wanted to have a voice."
She pored through the minutiae of the Kuwaiti constitution, looking for a loophole. She found contradictions between the electoral law and the constitution and dug up international agreements that Kuwait had signed affirming women's rights. Three other women had filed lawsuits contesting women's exclusion from elections; all but Dashti's were dismissed.
By the time Dashti's suit made it to court, women had won the right to political participation in Oman, Qatar and Bahrain. Dashti's lawsuit, U.S. pressure for political change in the Middle East, the regional shift toward women's suffrage and the tireless activism of reform-minded Kuwaitis all converged, and, in May 2005, the Kuwaiti government made the landmark decision that paved the way for Thursday's election.
In Dashti's campaign headquarters, a massive tent packed with food and supporters, there was optimism. Her cell phone rang nonstop; one family called to tell her that they had delayed their vacation so they could stay in Kuwait to vote for her.
Naser Halawa, 23, watched with admiration as his aunt worked the crowd. Dashti had introduced him to politics on a family trip six years earlier, and he spent his summer vacation from university in Nebraska helping with her campaign.
"If not tomorrow, someday she'll be there," Halawa said. He rose to leave, then turned to add: "But I have a feeling it will be tomorrow."
(McClatchy special correspondent Miret el Naggar contributed to this report.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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