In a surprising announcement in November 1995, the Qatari regime declared its intention to hold elections for the 29-seat Central Municipal Council (CMC), an advisory body attached to the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Agriculture. All male Qataris over the age of 18 would be eligible to vote. Then, in an even more surprising move, a reporter with CNN asked Qatar’s emir in 1997 whether women would be allowed to vote. The emir cautiously said that he did not know, but that he saw nothing wrong with their voting.1 Later he announced that women would be allowed to vote and run as candidates. Qatar deliberately set the CMC election for March 8, 1999, International Women’s Day.
Most regimes in the Middle East/North Africa (MENA) region allow some form of electoral politics within their states. While many of these regimes actually use political participation to avoid democratization2 or manipulate electoral politics to reinforce authoritarian rule,3 political participation in authoritarian regimes, even when not promoting democracy, does open political space within such states. Lust-Okar and Zerhouni, for example, argue that elections in authoritarian states are often fiercely contested by domestic political actors, help lead to the formation of political associations if not actual political parties and can influence decision making. Some Arab Gulf monarchies began to institute some form of electoral politics within their states in the 1990s. Kuwait started holding regular elections in 1992. Oman initiated a Consultative Council in 1991 but only allows each district to submit three suggestions for each seat. In 2003, Oman granted universal suffrage to all Omanis; however, the sultan must still approve each representative.
The Qatari leadership followed this trend in 1995, when they decided to initiate national elections for the CMC. They also decided to take a step that none of their neighbors had yet taken by giving women the right to vote and run for office. As noted earlier, regular elections for the Kuwaiti National Assembly began in 1992.4 Until 2005, however, only Kuwaiti men were allowed to vote and run for office.5 Omani women gained the right to participate in elections in 2003, and Bahraini women only won the right to vote and run for office in 2002. While other states in the MENA region are having far more nuanced discussions about women’s political and social rights (e.g., Morocco, Tunisia), women in the Arab Gulf are only just gaining the right to participate in political life. Women in Qatar, as in most Arab Gulf monarchies, have traditionally been relegated to the domestic sphere and often avoid calling attention to themselves in public. Thus, granting women political rights legitimizes their existence outside the home in a way that is quite revolutionary for the region.