updated 5/2/2005 10:41:51 AM ET 2005-05-02T14:41:51

A push to allow women to participate in Kuwait's local elections stalled Monday when Islamist and conservative lawmakers abstained en masse from a key vote in parliament, leaving the measure undefeated but short of the number of votes needed for passage.

After less than an hour of debate, 29 of the 60 lawmakers present voted for the proposal, four short of the 33 required to pass or defeat a legislative measure. Two legislators voted no, while 29 abstained.

Parliament's speaker said another vote would be held but no date was set on the Municipal Council law, which is supported by the government of this conservative Persian Gulf state. The measure would let women, for the first time, run for seats and vote in elections for local councils.

Parliament gave the measure preliminary approval on a 26-20 vote during the April 19 first reading of the draft law, but Monday's second reading of the bill and a second vote was required before the measure could become law.

Those abstaining included Islamists and tribal conservatives trying to avoid angering both the government by voting no and constituents by voting yes.

Advocates of a greater political role for Kuwaiti women and their opponents view the local election change as the first step toward allowing women to participate in elections for Kuwait's legislature.

Neglecting families?
Women in this oil-rich U.S. ally have reached high government posts in education, oil and the diplomatic corps. But religious conservatives opposed to their involvement in politics argue that would make them neglect their families.

Only 15 percent of the population of more than 950,000 Kuwaitis is eligible to vote. If women older than 21 are allowed to register, that figure could rise to 39 percent, according to an estimate by Al-Shall Economic Consultants.

In 1999, parliament quashed a women's rights decree issued by Kuwait's ruler, Sheik Jaber Al Ahmed Al Sabah, while the legislature was not in session. Soon after, religious militants and tribal lawmakers narrowly defeated an identical bill introduced by liberals.

The religious argument for opposing women's rights has been eroded by an Islamic Affairs Ministry ruling that Kuwait's emir has the last word on granting women equal political rights if Muslim clerics disagree.

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