Person of the Week: Dr. Massouma al-Mubarak

ByABC News

June 17, 2005 — -- It has been an historic month for Kuwait, for the country's women and for Dr. Massouma al-Mubarak.

After decades of fighting, Kuwaiti women have won the right to vote. Mubarak was one of the leaders of this fight, but her work has just begun.

"This is a step forward for a long, long fight for Kuwaiti women," she said. "This is a breakthrough for us as Kuwaiti women, for us as Kuwaitis and for Kuwait itself."

With the right to vote came the right to hold public office. On Monday, Mubarak became Kuwait's first female cabinet minister.

"I get the call that the prime minister is looking forward to seeing you," she said. "He told me about the nomination and expressed his wish for me to accept. Of course, I told him that I am thrilled and honored to be nominated and I accept. Definitely, I felt flying in the air."

As minister of planning, Mubarak will be the only woman in a cabinet of 15 men. She knows Kuwaiti women will be watching.

"They felt this is not a success for me as a person but a success for them," Mubarak said, "because this will give them a chance to participate in the decision-making more."

The move is a political thunderbolt for the small Persian Gulf nation and for the region. In neighboring Saudi Arabia, women can't even drive. And more than a decade after the United States fought a war to liberate Kuwait, this bustling, oil-rich country is still ruled by a centuries-old, male-dominated society.

"After the moments of full joy, then you start to think about what's coming," Mubarak said. "Some are looking or waiting for me to prove to them that I am a capable woman, but I am telling you that time will prove, my achievement will prove, if I am capable or not."

Mubarak wears the traditional hijab or headscarf. Many modern Kuwaiti women choose not to. Don't be fooled by her choice.

"This cover doesn't affect what's under the cover," she said. "I consider myself liberal. I consider myself futuristic. I consider myself activist."

So how did this 54-year-old grandmother, political science professor, columnist and women's rights activist become a cabinet member?

"It's hard to pinpoint to one issue or to one experience," Mubarak said. "It's a series of events and a series of experiences that built the person in front of you. I get the sincerity of heading toward the target actually from my father."

In 1971, Mubarak came to the United States to get an education. She earned two masters degrees and a doctorate from the University of Denver. She got an informal education as well.

"When I was in the States, I joined the feminist movement there and was also active there," she said. "Definitely such participation raises my awareness. Then when I came here, I joined the groups, women activists, and ever since I am working on it."

When she returned to Kuwait, Mubarak became one of the country's leading political pundits.

"This was my intention in writing about women issues -- is to raise attention, to raise awareness about the women's status, and the women role and what ought to be," Mubarak said.

Her one regret with the new position: she will have to give up teaching.

"I miss my students," she said. "I adore my students. They make me feel full of life, because students are still young. They have this excitement about life and they give me such excitement also."

Starting next week, Mubarak will be teaching by example -- no longer on the outside looking in.

"The responsibilities are big but I have, Inshala [God willing], the courage to do it," Mubarak said. "And I am planning really, because I am the minister of planning. I am planning to succeed and I will succeed."

ABC News' Elizabeth Vargas filed this report for World News Tonight."

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