When a Kuwaiti female journalist clad in blue jeans and a head
scarf asked Peter Berkowitz if he had come to her country to tamper
with the election system, he could do nothing but laugh.

Laura Wong
Journalist and professor Peter Berkowitz speaks on the political situaition of Kuwaiti women in the Law School yesterday. Berkowitz traveled to the country twice in that last two years. His discussion focused largely on female suffrage. (CHRISTINE STAFFO

For the American journalist and professor who had only barely
arrived in the country to understand women’s suffrage, she
represented an unexpected duality in Kuwait’s female
population: Most women enjoy lifestyles and freedoms that women of
no other Arab states experience, but they still lacked the right to
vote.

Berkowitz presented observations and analysis of his two visits
to Kuwait in the Law School yesterday. He visited the country once
in July 2003 and then again in January 2004

For most of his speech, Berkowitz laid out the dichotomy that
exists in the rights of Kuwaiti woman. Women in Kuwait have no
dress restrictions, said Berkowitz, who saw a variety of dress
codes on his trip, ranging from women in headscarves to those
dressed in “jeans, blouses and high heels.”

He added that Kuwait’s ambassador to the United Nations is
a woman and that 70 percent of university students are women, as
are 50 percent of the medical and engineering faculty.

Berkowitz credited Kuwait’s geography as a leading factor
in the independence of its women. “Because it is a (port), it
is unusually open to outside influence as trading ports tend to
be,” he said.

Berkowitz’s goal in the country was to understand how
women had not yet fought for the right to vote and have
representation in Kuwait’s National Assembly. He said one
reason for this paradox is Islam.

With a population that is 85 percent Muslim, Islamists in the
country — those who want a strict application of Islamic law
there — have power to block suffrage.

In addition, some liberal men, not necessarily Islamists, feel
that the boring and dirty nature of politics and suffrage is not a
place for women because they know better than to get involved.

What was surprising to Berkowitz was the number of modern women
who did not strongly oppose the government’s inability to
provide them with the right to vote.

But due to the number of educated women he encountered during
his visit, Berkowitz said he does not think it will be long before
women’s suffrage comes to Kuwait.

“In a place where people already enjoy a level of freedom,
the vote and demands for fuller forms of equality couldn’t be
far behind,” he said.

Prof. Ellen Katz attended the lecture and commented on
Berkowitz’s optimism in speaking of Kuwaiti suffrage.
“I’m a lot more pessimistic,” she said.
“It’ll take a while for women to affect
policies.”

She cited movements of early 20th century in the United States
as an example of how long it can take for women to achieve
political goals.

Other audience members, including political science Prof.
Jennifer Widner, said Berkowitz could have talked in person with
more women in the country.

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