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Speaking up for women

WASHINGTON — Lubna Al-Kazi wants Americans to know more about Kuwait than just the Gulf War. "There's always news about that," said the university professor and activist, in town with other women leaders from around the world to promote democracy and other favorite issues.

For Al-Kazi, the issue is getting Kuwaiti women the right to vote and run for office.

"We have high profile women in many places," she said Friday, noting her country's ambassador to Austria and various diplomats to U.N. agencies. Women also make up most of the student body in the colleges.

"We feel it would be a contradiction if we could not also play an active role in who the decision makers are," she said.

Al-Kazi spoke during a forum that concluded a weeklong leadership training program for nearly two dozen women from 20 nations — from Brazil to Vietnam. The program, sponsored by the State Department, was organized by Vital Voices, an organization that promotes women's' roles in strengthening economics, politics and democracy.

For Al-Kazi, a sociology professor at Kuwait University, it was a chance to meet women in comparable roles. Earlier this week, she and other seminar participants met with former first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, now a U.S. senator from New York, and officials from the White House. They also discussed their individual issues with Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and Rep. Connie Morella, R-Md., and other Capitol Hill lawmakers.

"It definitely showed me how women were making a difference in America," Al-Kazi said.

Kuwait's 1962 constitution gives equal rights to men and women, but an election law passed the same year bars women from voting or running for office.

In 1999, the country's emir granted women the right to vote, but the nation's all-male parliament quickly shot down the decree, as well as an identical suffrage bill days later. Conservative tribal lawmakers and Muslim fundamentalists had argued it would undermine traditions and religious values.

Al-Kazi, a soft-spoken woman dressed in a shiny purple outfit with a matching scarf tied around her head, described how women's suffrage supporters last month bused dozens of women to registration sites during Kuwait's annual drive — both out of protest and practicality in case the parliament votes again on voting rights later this year.

She said advocacy groups must be careful that their activities are conducted diplomatically, "so it does not raise suspicions from men," who often find the smallest reason to label them as aggressive.

"We want to show it's a matter of cooperation, and not conflict," Al-Kazi said. "It's not competition that we're looking for, it's for a general good to have women in the political process."

Among others joining Al-Kazi during the forum was Marina Pisklakova, a Russian activist against domestic violence.

Pisklakova's attention was devoted to curbing the trafficking of women — including at least 50,000 into the United States, she said. Many of these victims are young women or teen-age girls from Eastern European nations hoping to find lucrative foreign jobs as nannies, nurses or maids, but then become forced into prostitution or slave labor.

"Many of these women, if they had better economic opportunities, they wouldn't jump at such questionable jobs," Pisklakova said.