Pssst … want some gossip about the Kuwait elections?
Hissa al Dhaheri
Gossip is an important tool (used usually by women) for keeping society in-check. “Have you seen what she did?” is a question that has often assured orderliness. Now we have: “Oh my God! Four Kuwaiti women have made it to parliament!”
In my shy attempt to understand politics and political systems, I decided to look at the Kuwait election results through the lens of relationship gossip: the only way for me to comprehend the “men’s” world is to feminise it. By understanding the power of gossip to control society and culture, we are able to comprehend the political power of gossip.
Let’s look at democracy as a relationship: a marriage that requires compromise, love and commitment. The Kuwait parliament (the first of its kind in the Gulf) has maintained this often shaky relationship since 1963, but the relationship has been dominated by The Man, who had to maintain the legitimacy of the marriage while keeping his “mistresses” (the different political blocs) in line.
After four decades the mistresses were becoming unruly; they demanded the legitimisation of their status. “Until then we’ll be treated as second class.” Gossip spreads fast, and juicy gossip spreads faster. The Man realised that he could no longer play the mistresses off against each other. He was not happy: so he thought, let me go home to my committed wife, let me bring her out in public. The Man thought: “What better way to smother women, than with other women?”
Since 2006 the Kuwait parliament has been dissolved three times by the Emir: the first because of disputes over proposed reforms that would have decreased the number of electoral districts, the second because of alleged misuse of parliamentary powers by some members, and most recently, in March, when some opposition members accused the prime minister and the cabinet of corruption and wanted to question them.
So parliament has had to endure three “divorces” that have undermined Kuwait’s democracy. In Islam you can divorce your wife only three times, so parliament had to find a new relationship to restore its reputation locally and internationally. How can someone distract attention from three divorces? And stop all the nasty gossip? It would have to be a sensible new wife (or maybe four new wives). And if it weren’t for these three divorces, would the new wives have found a better suitor?
So this parliamentary relationship has clearly followed strict Islamic rules (at least the Salafis should be happy about that). Although Kuwait has no formal political parties, the members fall into the categories of conservative, liberal, populist – and now “women”. The conservatives in parliament had been outnumbered, posing a threat to the government, so the success of the “women” will balance and neutralise the political blocs, since women pose a lesser threat to the dominance of the upper-class men than that posed by upwardly mobile men from the middle class. The women’s victory is being viewed as a victory of liberals over Islamists.
Until the new “wives” rebel and demand changes, their purpose will be merely to support the existence of The Man, emphasising his masculinity and civility: “Look, I have beautiful wives!” – as the thwarted “mistresses” look on from a distance, huffing and puffing at their inability to initiate change, and irritated by the attention the new “wives” are being given.
This attention has distorted the real picture; a perfect mirage of hope has been created, and the government is able to create a distraction about their three divorces, while the West is happy that women have finally achieved their rights. “Real” democracy might be undermined with these constant divorces, but it doesn’t matter because it looks good. I can but imagine how the news reached the West: “Helloo Amereeka, we have harems in the House!” (Maz Jobrani style).
I question what is real democracy? And is democracy a means to an end, or an end in itself?
Of course, throughout these women’s political campaigns, gossip thrived. But then, not all gossip is bad: there is positive gossip. Aseel al Awadi, one of the newly elected parliamentarians, may have benefited from the bluetooth gossip that opposition groups spread about her. Indeed, it has helped to ensure her success (all exposure is good exposure). But then, why shouldn’t women invest in men’s jealousy, their insecurities and their inferiority complexes?
Kuwait was one of the first countries to end the pre-oil seclusion of women and encourage their participation and engagement in the public sphere, to demonstrate a more liberal image. But the emancipation of upper-class women in Kuwait was not advanced solely for the women’s cause; it was advanced also to strengthen the power of upper-class men and to maintain the status quo.
It is tempting to be sceptical about emancipation projects, whether in the name of modernity, state building or – as in this case – creating a democratic distraction. Yet they bring opportunities to women and help to change the social setting, something that might not have been possible otherwise. Moreover, to be too sceptical is to assume that women cannot use these new opportunities to their own benefit.
I am not undermining the success of these women, by any means. In fact, I am overwhelmed. But I guess being cynical is the only way to keep my expectations low, to avoid disappointments. Nothing ruins a relationship like excess expectations.
Hissa al Dhaheri is a sociologist and researcher in cultural studies, and holds an MA in Gulf Studies