WHILE universal suffrage has been the norm in the West for decades, in the Middle East it remains a flashpoint between modernisers and Islamic fundamentalists.
But women’s rights in the region will receive a major boost later this month if Kuwait’s parliament decides to grant females the vote, following in the footsteps of the other Gulf states, Bahrain and Qatar, which have already enfranchised women, although neither has yet elected a female member of parliament.
The battle for the female franchise in Kuwait has been going on for decades. The emir, Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmad al-Sabah, approved the move in 1999 only for parliament to turn it down by two votes after the stormiest debate in its history. Afterwards hundreds of men cheered in the streets.
However, earlier this year Kuwait’s Council of Ministers approved a draft bill to amend the 1962 constitution and give women both the right to vote and to stand for parliament.
Women’s campaigners say they are confident this time. "We will win, not with a landslide, but with enough votes," said Rola Dashti, one of the campaign leaders, who four years ago failed in to secure the vote through court action.
Haya Abdulrahman Al-Mughni, a Kuwaiti sociologist and author of Women in Kuwait: The Politics of Gender, backs the move, but doubts whether the result will be as radical as some are expecting.
She said: "As the current legislation has provoked relatively little public opposition so far, its prospects appear more favourable."
Although Kuwait’s 50-seat parliament has a Sunni majority that has traditionally rejected the political rights of women, in June the country’s leading Sunni Islamist group, the Islamic Constitutional Movement, surprised observers by announcing its support for the bill. Liberal and Shi’ite parliamentarians are also likely to support the suffrage bill.
Al-Mughni said: "The government seems to anticipate that women will constitute a moderate, pro-government force in national politics.
"Islamist women’s rights activists see the vote as a means of empowering themselves to create a moral and orderly society in which women and men have different, but not equal, responsibilities. They share with their male counterparts the goal of achieving an Islamic society ruled by religious idioms and norms, in which women, veiled and modest, worship God and fulfil their familial and social duties."
Conservatives accuse the West, and the US in particular, of interfering in domestic politics by pressuring Kuwaiti parliamentarians into accepting women’s political rights.
Last Sunday police broke up a rally of a several hundred members of the Islamic Liberation Party, a fundamentalist Islamist group, on the grounds that its meeting was unlicensed.
An activist with the group, Mohammed Al-Otaibi, said: "We don’t accept the American embassy controlling our lives and preparing reports on women’s political rights and heritage.
"We will continue our political struggle until we reach our goal of establishing an Islamic regime in our country, and in all Arab and Islamic countries."
Women in Kuwait already enjoy more freedom than women in many other parts of the region and occupy senior positions within government and in the private sector.
Kuwait boasts the first female Arab-Muslim ambassador to the United Nations. Yet only 136,000 men can vote out of a total Kuwaiti population of 910,000, including foreigners.
It is still possible that the Kuwaiti parliament will postpone the vote. But if women in Kuwait succeed this time, there could be a knock-on effect on other Middle Eastern countries, especially neighbouring Saudi Arabia, where a ban on women taking part in politics was restated by the government last week.
In a move that dashed the hopes of progressive Saudis, interior minister Prince Nayef said that women would not be allowed to take part in Saudi Arabia’s first ever elections - municipal elections scheduled for next year. "I don’t think that women’s participation is possible," he said.
An anonymous election official added that there were "administrative and logistical reasons" for the decision. He said that there were not enough women to run female-only registration centres and polling stations, and that only a fraction of the country’s women have the photo identity cards that will be needed to vote.
Nadia Bakhurji, 37, one of three women who had already announced that she planned to run, said last week: "I am surprised. I was optimistic and didn’t think they would ban it."
Bakhurji, an architect and a mother of two, said she hoped that the elections committee would "rethink their decision", or at least say why women had been banned.
Many women in Saudi Arabia have resisted getting identity cards, which were introduced three years ago, because the photographs would show their faces unveiled.
Saudi women are not allowed to travel, receive education or work without written permission from a male guardian. They are not allowed to drive vehicles, mix with men or leave home without being veiled.
But even in Saudi Arabia there has been limited progress under US pressure since the terrorist attacks of September 11. The Majlis, the 120-member appointed council that studies laws and makes recommendations to the king, recently appointed three women to serve on an advisory council.
One of them is Selwa al-Hazzaa, head of an ophthalmology clinic in Riyadh and associate professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, a vocal advocate for women’s issues.
She said: "They call us in on certain women’s issues, like the dowry being too expensive or breast feeding. We say, give us other things, not just women’s issues."
But the biggest breakthrough of all could be in Iraq, where George Bush’s administration has made women’s political participation a critical part of democracy-building.
A clause in the interim constitution guarantees at least a quarter of the 275 seats in Iraq’s new National Assembly will be filled by women.
Among those ready to stand is Wijdan al-Khuzaei, a 40-year-old mother of two who heads the Democratic Iraqi Women’s Society and Iraqi Society of Businesswomen.
She said: "We are determined to reach our goal - to empower women to live their own lives and not be subservient to their husbands."