Fanatical About Football

For the first time in Kuwait's history, a woman was appointed cabinet minister. But the locals have other cares.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Maasuma al-Mubarak made history this month in Kuwait, but the limelight was stolen by the Kuwaiti all-star soccer league. The week that Mubarak was appointed to be the first female cabinet minister in the nation was also a tragic week for soccer fans in Kuwait. While Mubarak was still holding press conferences to describe how she will manage the Planning and Administrative Development Ministry, how she will avoid discrimination against one citizen or another, how she will act only according to the law and make certain that no one benefits from nepotism, 200 fans stood in front of the parliament building carrying signs bearing a familiar slogan: "kifaya (enough)."

This is the same rallying cry that Egyptians carried into their campaign for democracy, and the battle of the Egyptian opposition against President Hosni Mubarak's new term in office. Kuwaiti Al-Azraq league fans adopted the slogan to demand the resignation of another president. In Egypt, the target was the president of the nation - in Kuwait the target was the president of the Football Federation.

The heart of the tragedy lies in the failure of the all-star team to qualify for the World Cup games, slated to take place in 2006 in Germany. Saudi Arabia's stinging win of 3-0, and South Korea's ruinous victory of 4-0 destroyed the Kuwaiti national dream of participating in the World Cup finals, for the second time in the history of Kuwait. In light of a loss of this magnitude, it is impossible for Kuwaitis to console themselves with the historical significance of the appointment of the first female cabinet minister. The law that permits women to run for election for Parliament does little to placate fans.

Democracy is important, but the proof of democracy, in the eyes of Kuwaitis, does not necessarily lie in the appointment of a woman - they would rather see the royal family relieved of its control of the all-star soccer league. "Imagine a soccer match between the Kuwait Interior Ministry and the Interior Ministry of another nation in the Persian Gulf. What do you think the results would be? Or if the Trade Ministry or the Civil Ministry were playing the same ministries from another Persian Gulf state. We know the Kuwaiti ministries would sustain endless goals. It is easier to see things clearly in soccer. In a matter of two hours, you know who is better," wrote a Kuwaiti commentator in the Al-Rai Al-Ram newspaper.

"The sport is dying, and Parliament waits," wrote another writer in the same paper. "Rage has reached an all-time high, and sorrow is unprecedented. There is no supervision of the most strategic position in the battle with the future." No less. According to soccer fans, the greatest oversight on the part of the same parliament that will witness the election of women in two years is the failure to hold meetings to address the athletic failure. The chairman closed the relevant, poorly-attended meeting of Parliament by saying that Parliament members who were absent had "sealed the fate of the national sport," according to the Al-Qabas newspaper. The insult is particularly painful because the neighboring states of Saudi Arabia and Iran will participate in the World Cup finals, while Kuwaitis, who invested a fortune in training and financial incentives for players in their league, will be watching the game on television.

Saddam is to blame

Kuwaitis felt salt rubbed into their wounds by soccer fans in other Arab nations, in the form of unsolicited advice on the Internet. Their harsh reactions to these barbs are reminiscent of those of outraged Egyptians, who discovered that they would not be hosting the World Cup games in 2,010.

"The real reason for the loss in Kuwait is Saddam Hussein. Since he invaded Kuwait, this sport has failed to recover," wrote a Saudi citizen on an Internet site belonging to the Al-Arabiyeh network. Another Saudi, who identified himself as, "Aqram," returned the ball to the playing field of democracy: "Despite my difficulties with Kuwait, I am envious of the extent of Kuwaiti democracy, which they took by force from their dictators, rather than waiting for someone to hand it to them. While on our shores, the leaders control everything: They lead our nation from failure to failure, and no one is permitted to speak freely. We are free only to criticize our coaches and our players, but no one can speak against the policy of the same stupid leaders." There is another definition of democracy.

The criticism of parliament members and ministers in Kuwait is not unusual - and it is not limited to matters of sport. Parliament members successfully caused ministers to be fired in the past; the latest victim was the minister of culture, who was forced to resign in response to pressure from Parliament, because he permitted the import of films and books not exactly in keeping with religious law. Maasuma al-Mubarak, the new symbol of Kuwaiti democracy, also fears the heavy parliamentary hand. Mubarak, a doctor of political science, already created a stir when she said she would not carry a pen in her hand, hinting that she would not serve as a mere rubber stamp for members of parliament. According to custom, members of parliament make all sorts of peculiar requests, and ministers, who intend to hold onto their positions, approve these requests without question.

But the most severe critics of this historic appointment were the Shi'ites, who claimed the appointment was intended to prove that there was no worthy, male candidate in the Shi'ite ranks. Mubarak is a Shi'ite in a nation where Shi'ites comprise 30 percent of the 1.25 million population of citizens. (There are an additional million residents in Kuwait who are not citizens.) Critics claimed that this was not actually a demonstration of Kuwaiti democracy, but a premeditated attempt to insult Shi'ites.

Parliament member Hassan al-Kalaf said "The attempt to placate Shi'ites by appointing a minister from their ranks actually represents an intention to attack this sector. Now the Kuwaiti street will say, `There are no men left in the Shi'ite population who can fill the role of minister.'" Another, radical, religious member of parliament even threatened an appeal to the High Court to overturn the appointment because of religious considerations which make it impossible for a woman to serve in this capacity, according to him.

Voting stock market

While some members of parliament are threatened by voters who claim they did not do enough to promote sport, and failed to prevent the national disgrace of loss on the playing field, other members of parliament want to divert the fire to the "scandalous" appointment of a women, to avoid blame for harming the national sport.

In faraway Saudi Arabia, there are those who are waiting for the wheels of democracy in Kuwait to begin turning. After the very close vote on the proposal that permitted women to be elected to 50 parliamentary seats passed, it appears the law not only permits women the vote - it makes women a financial asset as well. (Yes, they are an asset to their husbands, and not only in Kuwait.) The marriage of a Saudi man to a Kuwaiti woman is very common in Saudi Arabia. These wives, who continue to be citizens of Kuwait, will be able to vote in coming Kuwaiti elections. Therefore, they represent a considerable windfall to their husbands.

According to a report in the London Al-Hayyat newspaper, Saudi men are already beginning to engage in negotiations with members of the Kuwaiti parliament who wish to buy women's votes. One of them, Mohammed al-Arifi said, in an interview with Al-Hayyat, that he will not prevent his Kuwaiti wife from voting, as he is accustomed to her voting in the elections of various charitable organizations in Kuwait, when her relatives are running and rely on her vote. Another interviewee, Abed Al-Sandawi, emphatically stated, "I am now the owner of my wife's vote, and when the prices in the Kuwait voting stock market could reach 1,000 dinars per vote, I find that very tempting."

There are still husbands who will not allow their wives to vote in Kuwait, because it is unacceptable in the eyes of Saudi law, and irrelevant if their wives have excessive rights in some other country. In Saudi Arabia, women are not permitted to vote; they cannot even drive themselves to the voting booth, because they are not allowed to drive for fear that they may encounter a man who is not part of the family. It will be interesting to see what United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says about this when she visits Saudi Arabia this month, as part of the aggressive campaign to promote human rights that she outlined in Egypt.



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