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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Kuwaiti Women Brave Threats Before Election

KUWAIT CITY -- First came a letter carrying a stern warning: "Quit the race, or else." Next, unidentified attackers cut up and sprayed insults over campaign billboards.

But Aisha al-Rushaid -- one of 32 women making history by running in Kuwait's elections Thursday -- vows to pursue her quest for a seat in parliament by taking part in the first general election since the U.S.-allied Gulf oil producer granted female suffrage in 2005.

Rushaid is one of several female candidates who have received threats or seen their billboards mutilated during the campaign to elect a new 50-seat house to replace the all-male parliament dissolved by the emir last month.

A journalist and businesswoman in her forties, Rushaid says she hopes to win one of the two seats up for grabs in Kaifan district, a stronghold of ultra-conservative Islamists who follow a strict interpretation of sharia and say it is un-Islamic for women to run for office.

"This is war; they want Aisha to quit the race," said campaign worker Hamad al-Enezi, referring to what he called a concerted sabotage effort.

On the streets of the suburb of Kaifan, Rushaid's face has been cut from many of her posters while others have been slashed to pieces. On other posters, the assailants drew moustaches and beards on her face with insulting graffiti.

At least two other female candidates said their billboards had been mutilated, including Fatima al-Abdali, one of two women running in the mainly Shiite Muslim Shaab area. She said rivals who felt threatened by her could be behind the vandalism.

Kuwaiti women are traditionally more liberal and educated than their counterparts in other Gulf countries, but until last year they lagged behind some of them in political rights.

Both lawmakers who represented Kaifan in the previous parliament -- Waleed al-Tabtabaie and Adel al-Saraawi -- were among 24 Islamist and conservative tribal legislators who voted against granting political rights to women last year.

Running as an independent, Rushaid faces a formidable challenge from Saraawi and Tabtabaie, an Islamist who says he is opposed only to women running for office but not to them voting.

Some 340,000 voters, of whom 195,000, or 57 percent, are women, are eligible to vote on Thursday.

Rushaid said she believed women voters would bring about big changes in the assembly where Islamists dominated with a 15-strong bloc. The assembly has been a powerful body that frequently clashed with the government, dominated by the ruling Sabah family.

She promised to shed light on women's issues, which, she said, were ignored by the former male-only house. These include domestic violence and discrimination in jobs.

"Today I feel that democracy has gained a second wing," she said when she registered her candidacy in May. "We have tried men for a long time and it's time to give women the opportunity."