KUWAIT CITY – Kuwaiti lawmakers approved political rights for women Monday, clearing the way for females to participate in parliamentary elections for the first time in the Gulf nation's history.
However, fundamentalist Muslims included a requirement that any female politician or voter abide by Islamic law (search). It was not clear what limits that would put on women's rights.
Kuwait's next parliamentary election is due in 2007.
The nation's Cabinet asked for the vote Monday in a surprise move after a number of attempts had been stymied by fundamentalist lawmakers. The bill was approved 35-23 with one abstention and immediately became law.
Scores of women activists in the gallery immediately rose to their feet in applause, with some ululating and others singing the national anthem.
"I am overexcited. I can't believe this," said activist Rola Dashti (search), who said she would run in the next parliamentary election. "I'm starting my campaign as of today."
Dashti said she was not worried by the Islamic law reference, saying it probably just meant separate polling stations.
"They can't impose veils on voters," she said.
The bill does not allow women to participate in next month's municipal elections.
Although Kuwaiti women have reached high positions in oil, education and the diplomatic corps, the country's 1962 election law limited political rights to men.
Women activists have for years been pushing for the right to vote and run for parliament, but several attempts to give them political rights have been defeated.
Massouma al-Mubarak (search), a political analyst and professor at Kuwait University, said the parliament approval was long overdue.
"This is the right thing to do," she said. "It is no favor from anyone."
She said, however, that any conditions put on the bill would violate the constitution.
"When you put conditions only for women, this is extraconstitutional. The constitution puts no conditions" on any one, she said. "No dress code, no Islamic law, and no nonsense."
Allowing women to vote could more than double the number of registered voters in Kuwait. Previously, the vote was restricted to men over 21 who were not members of the police force or military — about 139,000 registered voters.
If all women over 21 registered, that total could reach 339,000.
Women can now vote in all Middle Eastern nations where elections are held except Saudi Arabia. The Persian Gulf nations of Bahrain, Qatar and Oman all have held their first elections in recent years and allowed women to cast ballots.