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‘Like the Sidra tree, I cannot be broken’

Former Kuwaiti lawmaker Safa Al Hashem discusses the challenges she has faced for standing up for what she believes in

Image Credit: AFP
AFPSafa Al Hashem during a session in the Kuwait parliament. After her debut in December 2012, Al Hashem made history the following year as the first woman in Kuwait to win seats in two consecutive elections.
Gulf News

Kuwait: There was blood everywhere. Splattered across the driveway, all over her cars, and even on the lemon tree overlooking the fountain. All nine of her dogs had been slaughtered.

It was the eve of the 2012 elections in Kuwait, before the one-vote system had come into play. Political tensions were on the rise, street demonstrations began to take place, and anti-government sentiment was increasing on the back of a second general election within a three-year period.

Kuwait was in a state of political turmoil and Safa Al Hashem, a prominent business executive and parliamentary candidate, had just arrived home to a grisly message after a gruelling day of campaigning.

“I used to be called names, and was made fun of for owning so many dogs in my neighbourhood,” she told Gulf News in an interview.

Her start in politics came at an exceptionally politically charged time.

“They used to hate me, but look at me now.”

At that point Al Hashem had already beaten the odds — she had been named GCC Businesswoman of the Year, founded her own management consultancy and held an MBA from Pennsylvania State University.

She grew up in a middle-class household between the 1960s-70s, in Kuwait’s heyday, as the youngest of seven children.

Her father — who passed away before she reached the age of two — was an employee at the Customs Department and her mother was a homemaker. Her siblings include a PhD holder, a lawyer, and a journalist; Al Hashem herself worked for decades in Kuwait’s private sector.

But in recent years, her name has dominated headlines for reasons other than her business prowess.

In 2014, as the only female MP, she shocked the country by submitting her resignation from parliament, claiming her rights had been breached by the government for refusing to allow her to grill the prime minister.

To most it seemed like political suicide, but to Al Hashem it was a matter of principle.

“What was it that Gandhi said? Something along the lines of first they reject you, then they hate you, then they love you — I think I’ve reached the stage where I am loved,” she said confidently.

“My resignation gave me credibility.”

She gushed proudly as she swiped through photos from a campaign event the night before in Al Jahra, a conservative — and predominantly Bedouin — town over 20 miles west of the capital. The juxtaposition was striking; a Kuwaiti businesswoman turned politician, in a pant suit, her short silver hair shining brilliantly, embraced by a sea of women in full veil and niqab.

But the discussion shifted to a more serious tone when she began criticising the recently-dissolved National Assembly.

After announcing her candidacy on Twitter several weeks earlier, she vowed to “fix what had been destroyed,” including an SME fund she championed in 2012 and jokingly refers to today as her baby.

She also has the Capital Markets Authority on her mind, along with alterations to the housing loan law as it pertains to Kuwaiti women.

“There’s a lot of lobbying that needs to be done. I need 18 months to change legislation and pull Kuwait out of this bottleneck,” she said.

“I’m an investment banker by training, and I treat the country the way I would a financial statement. I look at where the discrepancies are, and then I get to work.”

She peppers the conversation with Kuwaiti slang, as she dips in and out of American-English.

She makes a point to avoid political jargon, choosing instead to use Kuwaiti idioms and expressions, which has resonated well with both her constituents and voters from other districts.

But while Al Hashem’s political career has been eventful, the reality of the situation is that it has been short-lived.

After her debut in December 2012, she made history the following year as the first woman in Kuwait to win seats in two consecutive elections. She also held the role of rapporteur during the 2012 assembly in the economic and financial affairs committee.

Before resigning in 2014, she gained fame across the Arab world for the grilling session she conducted against the then minister of interior regarding issues of national security; to date the video of that session has gained over one million views online.

Post-resignation, Al Hashem remained vocal against what had become a majority pro-government assembly. She made the rounds on various television stations, castigating the government (and the national assembly) for mismanaging the country’s financial affairs and pushing Kuwait into what she termed a “phantom deficit”.

And while all signs pointed to her definite return to the National Assembly in 2016, the recent turn of events has rocked her candidacy.

The Cassation Court, the highest in the country, has disqualified Al Hashem, along with 20 other candidates, from contesting in the upcoming elections.

The reason? A court conviction from several years earlier, where she was sued by another MP, Mubarak Al Duwailah, for a Twitter post she had written against him.

Social media, which she described as her window of opportunity to reach out to her constituents, had turned against her.

While Al Duwailah has criticised the decision to ban Al Hashem from contesting, the court had seemingly ended any chance of her return, citing a lack of an impeccable court record.

Al Hashem vows to continue with her campaign. “They think they have won, but they have not. The MP does not reside solely under the dome of the National Assembly, but rather, among the people. Like the Sidra tree, I cannot be broken,” she wrote on Twitter on Monday.

On Thursday however, the Cassation Court ruled to reinstate her candidacy for the elections.