Kuwait’s Only Woman MP Has Lost Her Seat

Just 15 years after women won the right to vote, Kuwait has elected an all-male National Assembly.
December 7, 2020, 6:25pm
Safa al-Hashem (pictured left in Kuwait's National Assembly in 2014) lost her seat in the elections. Photo: YASSER AL-ZAYYAT/AFP via Getty Images
Safa al-Hashem (pictured left in Kuwait's National Assembly in 2014) lost her seat in the elections. Photo: YASSER AL-ZAYYAT/AFP via Getty Images

Kuwait’s only woman MP has lost her seat, meaning the Gulf state once again has an all-male National Assembly.

Safa al-Hashem was first elected in 2012 and re-elected in 2016. But despite having more than half a million followers on social media she only managed to gather a few hundred votes. There were 29 women candidates in the election but none won one of the 50 seats available.

The National Assembly only granted women the right to vote in 2005, even though women make up to 52% of the registered voters in the oil-rich state. Women stood for seats in both the 2006 and 2008 elections but did not enter the chamber. Four female candidates managed to win seats in 2009, but the number dropped back down to just al-Hashem in 2012.

As a woman deputy, she made headlines over a number of occasions dealing with ultraconservative lawmakers, such as a male deputy refusing to sit next to her because she was wearing perfume.

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She also gained notoriety for recommending policies such as taxing migrant workers for breathing the air in Kuwait, and using the country’s infrastructure.

More than 3.4 million migrant workers, mainly from South and East Asia, live in Kuwait working as labourers and maids, often in terrible conditions for little pay.

Kuwait is among the Gulf countries where Amnesty international likens the treatment and practices of using migrant workers as "modern-day slavery."

The oil-rich monarchy has been ruled by the al-Sabah family since the 18th century, and its 1.4 million nationals enjoy relative freedoms compared to other Middle Eastern countries.

Kuwait established a parliament in the 1960s and has higher participation of women in the labour market than its Gulf neighbours such as Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Qatar. However, the political system remains ultimately under the control of the royals. Getting women into politics has remained a hurdle for the majority of Sunni Muslim society.

A major US ally, Kuwait underwent economic modernisation in the 80s, and the small nation enjoys the perks of having the world's sixth-biggest reserves of crude oil. Sharing and managing wealth has been at the core of the power-sharing dynamic in the country.

The build-up to the general elections was marred by a series of corruption scandals and worries over the heavily subsidised economy, which has been hit by the effects of the COVID pandemic.

There are no traditional political parties in Kuwait, but the Islamist bloc close to the royal family won the most seats. These were the first elections held since the death of Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah in September. His successor as Emir, half-brother Sheikh Nawaf, is expected to continue the Sabah dynasty's overarching political vision.