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CoCking a patriarChal snook at the system
By Vani SaraSwathi
Dr aseel al awaDhi
This (the Arab) society is very authoritative and always believes in a one man show
t’s easy to complain and be disdainful of the environment we are in. It takes courage to attempt change; conviction to be part of the solution. And Aseel Al Awadhi has enough of those two Cs to challenge a patriarchal system and be a role model to young Kuwaitis. That she is one of the ‘first women’ to be elected to the Kuwaiti Parliament in 2009 is only incidental. Her decision to jump into the political fray was not a battle of the sexes as many described it to be. At barely 40, she became one of the first four women elected to the 50-seat Kuwait National Assembly. Women in Kuwait gained the right to vote and run for office in 2005, but none had been elected until 2009. She recognises the historical relevance of women’s participation in politics, but her agenda is not driven by gender. “I am not a politician or an MP for life.
I just want to present an example of an alternative way of how politics can be run and how politicians can be. Then I will step back and go back to teaching – my first love,” she says, in an exclusive interview to Woman Today.
you are proBaBly one of the few tech savvy politicians in the region, gender no Bar. launching the campaign on youtuBe, nurturing a faceBook support group, active on twitter… a strange dichotomy given the extent of censorship in the region.
In Kuwait, new media is very popular, especially with the youth. My campaign was designed and executed to attract that group of people – to motivate them to participate in national politics and to make a mark. Launching my campaign on Youtube was an idea given by my team leaders. My campaign was run by a very young team whose
average age was not more than 30. This (the Arab) society is very authoritative and always believes in a one man show. The candidate would take unilateral decisions and pass it on as orders. My campaign was very different from traditional election campaigns – it was decentralised. The team leaders – a consulting committee – would meet every night, and they would brief me on decisions they have made for me to follow. They were a group of politically aware youngsters. I wanted a positive outlook for the campaign. We were living in a very distressed political environment – the Parliament had been dissolved thrice in three years. There was anger, loud and heated arguments. We wanted to present a different model of a politician, who uses logical arguments; a calm voice; short and pertinent speeches. I wanted to present an example of an alternative way of conducting politics.
Using the Internet to that end was part of our strategy.
for office in 2005, none were elected in 2006 nor in 2008. why?
Women were out of the political arena for 40 years. This is a relatively new experience. We had to build trust and confidence; and it takes time to garner enough support. The Arab culture is such that people are resistant to change. They are worried about the social impact of these changes. The issue is that of the patriarchal culture we live in. The distinction between the role of men and women is ancient and stereotypical. There is this inherent conviction that women are emotional, weak and can’t handle the consequences of being a political activist. It takes time to break those stereotypes. But the third time around we got around these issues and four of us got elected.
But for those who fear change – as we have seen in the region – the internet is perceived as a threat isn’t it? hence, the attempts at censorship…
Technology has created a wave we can’t resist. Whether we like it or not, it’s impossible for anyone to censor the Internet. We might as well just be prepared to ride the wave instead of fighting it. Facebook and blogs providing a good opportunity to reach out to people. The medium can be effectively used to bring about other changes, too. In Kuwait newspapers are more popular online, as there is an opportunity to comment. Whether young or older generation, people are embracing the net.
though women won the right to run
are you okay with the ‘woman’ tag attached to all your achievements
A woman is always treated guilty before she is proven innocent... a failure until she’s proven a success.
It is challenging to be perceived according to your sex. Running for the election I presented myself as a candidate, not as a woman. A candidate who had certain ideologies, believed could succeed and contribute something to the society as a citizen. Yes, I addressed women’s issues. Just as I addressed other issues facing the civil society. I made sure not to label myself as a ‘woman’ candidate. It’s beyond my control how people perceive me or choose to tag me. Especially the media – the way they put twists on our victory, working hard to label us as only women. Even in Parliament, there is a lot of speculation on what we would achieve. They forget we are four amongst 46. No one will challenge the 46, but they want us to change
Credit: Afp Photo/Yasser Al-Zayyat
the universe. It’s impossible. It’s annoying when we are not treated as ‘MPs’, but as some super humans. We are in the spotlight certainly. Our mistakes are magnified 10 times more than that of others. We are exposed to harsher criticism. A woman is always treated guilty before she is proven innocent. A failure until she’s proven a success. We have to work 10 times as much and have 10 times less mistakes to be taken seriously.
there are just four of you in a parliament of 50. is that By itself challenging or intimidating? what is the working relationship with your male and female colleagues?
I have a very pleasant relationship with my female colleagues. But we don’t act as one group isolated from other MPS. That was a very conscious decision – not to create a fe-
male clique, because everyone was expecting it. With my male colleagues I have no problems either. A lot of them are respectful, appreciative and helpful. Even some of the conservatives, who at the very beginning opposed our presence in the parliament, started to submit to our seriousness. It’s very hard at the beginning for them to accept women’s representation in politics and parliament, because it’s a male dominated field. But when we walked in with a positive spirit, proving we can cooperate with them and trust them, we broke down barriers and preconceived notions. A few still jump on any chance to attack female MPs; but these are just a few and more importantly, they are not supported by the rest. That’s good.
means possible, one of which is the issue of veil. It appeals to the conservatives by stating that since we are not veiled, we are not committed to religion. They stress that religion should be the basis on which votes are drafted. We understand the background of this attack, so didn’t give it much attention. They were not able to drift me away from my agenda.
strategic plans! For the first time in 1985 we voted on a law passing a 5-year-plan, but in the 1986 the parliament was dissolved, the plan was dismissed, not implemented. The government is reactive, not proactive, and so it can’t lead change.
But the danger of such criticism is that democracy itself is seen as the root of the proBlem.
Yes, but to have a real democracy there must be some prerequisites. We need educational reforms that promote tolerance and critical thinking. We don’t have this in Kuwait. The lack of certain reforms or legislations does not mean democracy is not good. There are lots of benefits that have accrued to us, the Kuwaiti people, because of democracy. Freedom of speech is something we are proud of. We can criticise the government, the royal family, people in public offices...
what aBout in the west?
In the West women wear it as a sign of identity – to distinguish themselves and preserve their Muslim identity. In any case, all of this is just an excuse to attack women.
the never-ending deBate on wearing the veil across the world should strike a special chord with you – since there was an issue raised on the four mps wearing a hijaB to fulfil their constitutional roles. what do you think of this oBsession people across the world have on women’s attire?
We have to understand the background first. Political Islamists are using religion as a slogan to further their political agenda. That’s very obvious to us. The way they can mobilise people and claim success is to actually preserve the patriarchal culture. This is a cultural struggle, not a religious one. We are threatening the beliefs of a patriarchal society that defines the roles of women and men. Us winning the seats weakens them – weakens their arguments. Certainly they will fight back, using any
kuwait has the oldest parliament in the region. it’s also the first constitutional monarchy in the gulf, But there are critics who say development has slowed down (compared to other gcc states) Because of political differences. your take?
I would agree partially. Political development has gone in the wrong direction. The role of the tribe and family has for years taken priority over national interest instead of real democratic practices in which people vote for agendas and common objectives. In 2010 we still have a vast majority voting for relatives and tribes. This is certainly a negative practice. Kuwait has not succeeded in overcoming this. At a social level you can be proud of your heritage, religion, tribe – it could be a source of your identity, but in the political and public arena you are a citizen first. The government too has to be blamed for the lack of development. It has executive powers and is responsible for carrying out development plans. Our government has no
you have witnessed two gulf wars, rather directly in one. do you think diplomacy as a tact no longer makes sense since wars are resorted to so quickly?
I don’t think so. There are some attitudes that force war. If diplomatic efforts have failed, then policies need to be revisited. You can’t enforce a political system on a country. Saddam Hussein deserved to be removed, but the people did not deserve the aftermath. What is happening in Iraq now – the chaos – was expected. These are people who have lived under a totalitarian, oppressive regime all their lives – who have had relatives die in front of their eyes for differences in opinions! How do you think they would
aseel al awadhi, PhD, member of the Kuwait National Assembly, was the first speaker in Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar’s Distinguished Lecture Series 2010. the lecture was titled ’Gulf women and Politics: the Kuwaiti Experience’. “i am delighted to have been invited by Carnegie Mellon these last two days to share my experience, objectives and discuss the challenges i faced as one of the first women to be elected as a member of the Kuwaiti Parliament,” said al awadhi, in a statement prior to the lecture. “Personally, i have always looked for ways to bend the rules and break away from convention. as one of four women recently elected to the parliament, we are pleased that the voters have recognized the need for change in order to prepare Kuwait for a future in an increasingly global society. Our nearterm objectives are to work together on laws representing those groups in our communities whose rights are not held up to international standards including women, labourers, children and those with special needs.” Prior to being elected to the assembly, al awadhi was a professor of philosophy at Kuwait University. al awadhi earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy at Kuwait University and a PhD in philosophy at the University of texas in austin.
Kuwaiti MP Aseel Al Awadhi (right) and Kuwait Football Club’s Chairman and MP Marzuq Al Ghanem at the start of the club’s AFC Cup final match
There is this inherent conviction that women are emotional, weak and can’t handle the consequences of being a political activist. It takes time to break those stereotypes.
function when they have freedom? They are not going to be tolerant or democratic. They are going to seek revenge. For them, if you disagree, you kill. They don’t know any other means of communicating or working out their differences. It was an irresponsible act to disregard all these factors and wage a war. When I was doing my PhD in Austin, there was a women’s delegation from the Middle East. There were a couple from West Bank, Gaza. I had an interesting conversation with them. They were telling me how it was very easy for Arabs sitting in air conditioned comfort to say ‘We don’t want peace. We want all of the land of Palestine.’ The lady from Gaza said, “It’s not their children who are starving or their houses that’s being knocked down and they are not fighting. We just need a piece of land to live.” This conversation has played on my mind. It is ridiculous for us to decide for people in the line of fire. Same goes for Iraq. It’s not America’s place to decide what’s good for them. It’s very complicated.
Credit: Afp Photo/Yasser Al-Zayyat
special needs, children’s rights, women’s civil rights. could represent me in the speech style, priorities… there were very few I could look up to and say these are leaders I can follow. Because I teach political philosophy, I spoke a lot about this to my students. I loved my job as a teacher, I have a passion for it, I enjoy it. I could see how disappointed the youth were in the political system, the parliament and the politicians. They were starting to lose hope in their country and their future – I thought this was seriously dangerous. They are the future and they can’t lose hope. When the parliament dissolved in 2008, I decided to jump into politics. Unless there is educational reform, not much will change. Yes, I was teaching, but my influence was still limited. But as a law maker, I would be able to draft or drive those reforms. But I am not a politician or an MP for life.
what is the most common question asked By women in the region of you?
The most common, in Kuwait, is how I deal with the conservatives and Islamists. I am the youngest of the four women MPs, so they feel sorry for me. They see all the shouting and yelling in Parliament. But that’s for the television cameras. Those MPs just want to make an impression that they are ‘heroes’. Otherwise they are nice, and we get along. In the rest of the Arab world, I am asked how I got here, and they wonder if they could achieve that too. In the West they are more curious about my story. The route to my success.
in Kuwait, i really look up to Dr ahmad al Khatib, the most famous secular symbol in Kuwait and Vice-President of the Constituent assembly which passed the Constitution of Kuwait in 1962. Dr al Martinich, my PhD dissertation supervisor at the University of texas, austin played an invaluable role in my life. i learnt so much from him on ethics and dedication. after my defence, i did not merely become a ‘doctor’, but a whole new me was born. i came back with better mental abilities and a different way of thinking, because of the pressure he placed on me.
what is the route? when did you decide you would join politics?
I was always politically active. When I started teaching the Kuwait University after living nine years in the US, the political situation was very bad in Kuwait. So people complained a lot. For me personally, I felt the lack of a good example. A politician who
how supportive was your family?
My family has always been pro women’s education. I have two brothers. One was totally behind me and encouraging me to go for it. The other was hesitant, but supportive. My parents were worried but behind me all the way.
in the short time since you have Been an mp, which are the most memoraBle moments or important decisions you have taken?
In this relatively short time, there are two things I am proud of. One is the way I run my office. I have a real back office, not just a secretary. I have moved away from the traditional way in which things are run. I have a young team, a Chief of Staff who is just 25 years old and speaks four languages. I have a media and research team. My office again is decentralised, and that drew a lot of flak at the beginning. I took the criticism positively, because I know it will take
After the 2008 election, though I did not win, I received a large number of votes, after which even those who were a little hesitant threw their weight behind me and pushed me to go for it again in 2009. I am really lucky to have their support; there is no way you can do this without their support
Al Awadhi at a parliament session in Kuwait City
a while for people to understand what I am trying to do. I am training the future… the media was hard on me at the beginning, they hated me. Now they realise that those young men and women need to be trained, and held responsible for their decision. They are our future politicians. People realise that I need to concentrate on the laws I am working on, and that the team can be trusted to take other decisions or answer the questions and convey the message. People don’t work this way in Kuwait. No one trusts anyone else to do the work for them. There is no concept of teamwork or delegation. If I achieve nothing else, I would be happy with this. The other is my work in committees on various legislations. The labour law passed recently, the first proper legislation of its kind in Kuwait. Then there are those on
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