Demands for democratic reforms erupted in February 2011 and immediately faced violent repression. Women have participated massively in protests that have continued into 2012, as organisers, demonstrators and leaders. Women continue to struggle to enter the political sphere. Constitutional reforms in 2002 granted women the right to vote and to stand for election. Following partial elections in 2011, there are 4 women in the 40-seat parliament. Profoundly discriminatory laws and practices persist, preventing women from participating in public life and no measures have been taken to increase women's representation in political bodies.
Women's participation in demonstrations
From the outset of protests in Bahrain, women have been at the forefront of demonstrations calling for political and social reforms. Women doctors, nurses and fellow protesters have provided treatment to the injured. Women teachers have joined in calling for national strikes. Women journalists and activists have alerted the international community to ongoing repression of peaceful protests.
“There are thousands of women taking part in the protests at Pearl Roundabout, but they are kept aside. When they arrive at the square, they are asked to go to a corner where women are separated from the men or at the back of the demonstration. This has been the practice in any demonstration in Bahrain since 2001. […] I don't believe that women should be put aside”. Interview with a woman human rights activist in Bahrain, FIDH-Egalité, 7 March 2011
Women, like men, have been victims of violent repression by security forces and many have been assaulted and several have been killed during protests. On 15 March 2011, Bahiya Abdelrasool Alaradi was shot in the head by members of the Bahrain military while driving her car. Many women have been arrested, detained and tortured. Several women have been prosecuted before the the emergency military tribunal, the National Safety Court, in proceedings that flagrantly violated international standards on the right to a fair trial, receiving sentences of up to 15 years imprisonment.
The regime has targeted political opposition leaders and human rights defenders, but also doctors, nurses, teachers, men and women, for their perceived role in protests.
Rula al-Saffar, academic and president of the Bahraini Nursing Society, provided treatment to injured demonstrators at Salmaniya Medical Center, Manama. On 4 April 2011, she was arrested and held in custody for 5 months during which time she was subjected to torture, sexual assault and threats of rape.
Dr Nada Dhaif volunteered medical assistance, together with other medics, at the medical tent at Pearl roundabout and administered treatment to people who were not able to access the main hospitals during the demonstrations. She was arrested on 19 March 2011 by security forces and detained for nearly 2 months, during which time she was tortured.
In September 2011, Rula al-Saffar and Dr Nada Dhaif were among 20 medics convicted by the National Safety Court, following a trial that lasted just a few minutes, for offences including unauthorized possession of weapons and ammunition, inciting sectarian hatred and inciting the overthrow of the regime. They were both sentenced to 15 years in prison. An appeal is pending.
Teachers have been victims of arbitrary arrests, detention and torture. They have also suffered the suspension of salaries and collective dismissals. In April 2011, the Teachers' Association was dissolved by the government. Between April and June 2011, girls schools were raided by security forces and dozens of teachers and students were arrested from their classrooms and detained for periods ranging from a few hours to several weeks.
Jalila Al Salman, Vice president of the Bahrain Teachers' Association, and 4 of her colleagues were arrested on 29 March 2011, after calling for a teacher's strike, and charged with inciting hatred and attempting to overthrow the regime. She was detained for several months, during which time she was tortured. On 25 September, she was convicted by the National Safety Court and sentenced to 3 years in prison. An appeal is pending.
National and foreign journalists, men and women, have also been summoned for interrogation, detained and prosecuted. Bahraini journalists Nada Alwadai and Lamees Dhaif were forced into exile following death threats. Naziha Saeed (France 24) was tortured during 12 hours in detention. Reem Khalifa is awaiting trial on fabricated charges, following a long campaign of harassment campaign against her.
Timeline of key events
2011 14 Feb: A “day of anger” marks the start of the protest movement in Bahrain. A peaceful demonstration in the capital, Manama, meets with violent repression by the security forces, resulting in 20 persons injured and 1 death. 17 Feb: Violent crackdown on protesters at Pearl Roundabout, Manama, resulting in 4 deaths and hundreds injured. 14 Mar: A state of emergency is declared. Troops sent by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates enter Bahrain. 15 Mar: A National Safety Court, presided by a military judge, is created to try those accused of taking part in the protest movements. Women doctors providing treatment to injured demonstrators are violently attacked by security forces. 16 Mar: Demonstrators at Pearl Roundabout are expelled by security forces. 5 people are killed and hundreds injured. Medical staff who try to treat the wounded are targeted and the main public medical complex in Manama is occupied by the military. 17 Mar: Start of a long wave of night house raids to arrest political opposition leaders, activists, teachers, medics, students and others suspected of participating in protests. 27 Mar: Fadhila Al Mubarak is the first woman to be arrested and detained in connection with the protests. She is charged with offending a public official and inciting hatred towards the regime by playing revolutionary music in her car and with taking part in illegal protests. She is later convicted, without legal representation, by the National Safety Court (17 May) and sentenced to 4 years in prison. She is released on 6 Feb 2012. 29 Mar: 5 members of the board of the Bahrain Teachers' Society, including 3 women, are arrested by the security forces after they call for a strike. Jalila Salman and Mahdi Abu Deeb are later sentenced (25 Sept) by the National Safety Court to prison terms of 3 and 10 years respectively, for “incitement of hatred against the regime” and “attempting to overthrow the regime”. 9 Apr: Abdulhadi Al Khawaja, human rights defender, is arrested and detained. His daughter, Zainab Al-Khawaja, activist, starts a hunger strike to call for the release of her father, her husband, her brother-in-law and her uncle. 3 May: 47 doctors and nurses, men and women, are arrested for providing treatment to peaceful demonstrators. 20 of them are convicted by the National Safety Court and sentenced to 5-15 years in prison (29 Sept). The decision is upheld on appeal on 23 Oct. A further appeal is pending. 22 Jun: 21 political opposition leaders and human rights defenders are convicted by the Primary Court of National Safety. Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, Abduljalil al-Sengais and 6 opposition leaders are sentenced to life imprisonment. Detainees report having been tortured. Sentences are confirmed on appeal. 23 Sept: Women demonstrate in Manama against parliamentary elections to take place the following day. The protest is harshly repressed by the security forces. 45 women and girls are arrested. 30 Sept: Hundreds of women demonstrate in Manama against arbitrary arrests and detention. 23 Nov: The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) releases its report, documenting 45 killings, 1,500 cases of arbitrary arrest, and 1,866 cases of torture since February 2011. 16 Dec: Massoma AlSayed and Zainab Al Khawaja, blogger and activist, are arrested. Both women report having been ill-treated in detention. They are released on 20 Dec 2011 pending trial. 2012 6 Jan: A peaceful demonstration in Manama calling for the release of political prisoners and human rights activists is violently repressed by the security forces.
Women's participation in political life: opportunities and obstacles
As in other protests in the region during 2011, equal rights and ending discrimination against women have not been amongst the demands of protesters. Yet women in Bahrain continue to be victims of deeply discriminatory laws and practices in the public and private spheres.
“The question of women is not present [in the demonstrations]. Nobody, not even the women, demands equality or respect for their civil rights.” Interview with a woman human rights activist in Bahrain, FIDH-Egalité, 7 March 2011
Although they generally have access to education and employment, women remain significantly under-represented in government, parliament, the judiciary and political parties. Women have been able to vote and stand as candidates in national elections since 2002, but women candidates in elections tend to be disadvantaged by a lack of support from political parties, negative social perceptions and discriminatory laws. Some parties, including the Al Asala Islamic Society (a conservative Sunni party), have refused to put forward women candidates. There are no quotas or other measures to increase women's representation. According to the Global Gender Gap Index, Bahrain is one of the countries in the world where discrimination against women is highest (110 out of 134 countries).
In 2008, the UN CEDAW Committee called on Bahrain to take urgent steps to improve the under-representation of women in politics.
Representation in government
As of February 2012, there were 2 women Ministers: Sheikha Mai bint Mohammed Al Khalifa, Minister of Culture and Fatima Al-Blooshi, Minister of Human Rights and Social Development.
Representation in parliament
Council of Representatives (lower house): In the 2002 parliamentary elections, 8 women stood as candidates for the first time, but none were elected. In 2006, 18 women stood for election. Only one, Latifa al-Qa'oud, was elected (uncontested), becoming the first woman to be elected to parliament in a Gulf state. In 2010, there were 9 women candidates, but only Latifa al-Qa'oud was elected in an uncontested seat. In October 2011, in by-elections organised to fill the seats of members of parliament who had resigned during the protest period, 3 more women were elected (2 following contested elections). Women currently represent 10% of the 40 seat parliament.
Consultative Council (upper house): Members are appointed by the King. Women hold 11 of 40 seats, representing 27.5%.
Representation in local councils
In 2006, 5 women stood in local council elections, but none of them were elected. The first woman municipal councillor, Fatima Salman, was elected in 2010, in Muharraq.
Representation in the judiciary
There are 7 women judges in the civil courts. There are no women judges in the Sharia courts that deal with all issues concerning family law (see further below).
A discriminatory legal framework
Reservations to CEDAW
Bahrain ratified CEDAW in 2002 with reservations to key provisions. According to the reservations, the following provisions apply only as far as they are compatible with the provisions of Sharia: article 2 (adoption of measures to eliminate discrimination); article 9(2) (transmission of nationality to children); article 15(4) (freedom of movement and the choice of residence); and Article 16 (marriage and divorce). In October 2008, the Committee called on Bahrain to withdraw its reservations, stressing that these reservations are “contrary to the object and purpose of the Convention”.
According to the 2002 Constitution, “People are equal in human dignity, and citizens are equal before the law in public rights and duties” and “There shall be no discrimination among them on the basis of sex” (art. 18). The Constitution further states that, “Citizens, both men and women, are entitled to participate in public affairs and may enjoy political rights, including the right to vote and to stand for elections” (art. 1 (e)). The Constitution provides that Sharia is “a principal source for legislation” (art. 2). According to article 5 (b), “The State guarantees reconciling the duties of women towards the family with their work in society, and their equality with men in political, social, cultural, and economic spheres without breaching the provisions of Islamic canon law (Sharia)”. Article 5 (d) specifies that “Inheritance is a guaranteed right governed by the Islamic Sharia” (see further below).
Other discriminatory laws
- Family laws
The Bahrain judicial system is composed of civil courts and courts applying Sharia law. The latter, which are divided into Sunni and Shi'a courts, deal with family-related matters. Presiding judges are generally conservative, religious scholars with little formal legal training and decisions are based on the judges' individual interpretations of Sharia law. In Sharia courts, a woman's evidence is worth half that of a man. Until recently there was no legislation governing family life in Bahrain. In 2008, the Committee called on Bahrain to adopt a unified family law “so that discrimination relating to marriage, divorce and child custody can be eliminated”. A Personal Status Law was drafted in containing separate sections applying to Sunnis and Shi'a, but the section relating to the Shi'a was removed in response to pressure from the main Shi'a opposition group Al-Wefaq. In May 2009, the government adopted a Personal Status Law (Law 19/2009) that applies only to Sunnis. In the absence of a written legal framework, Shi'a women remain subject to the arbitrary decisions of the Sharia courts.
Marriage: In 2007, the Minister of Justice and Islamic Affairs set the minimum legal age for marriage for girls at 15 and for boys at 18. Polygamy is permitted. In 2008, the CEDAW Committee called on Bahrain to increase the minimum legal age for marriage to 18 for both sexes and to ban polygamy. Although there are numerous discriminatory provisions in the 2009 Personal Status Law, it includes some provisions to protect Sunni women, such as the condition that a woman must consent to marriage.
Divorce: Men can initiate divorce unilaterally; Sunni men only need to express an intention to divorce orally, while Shi'a men must register a request before a court. Women must apply to a court and provide evidence of specific grounds such as the husband's impotency or desertion. Women may also initiate a no-fault divorce (khula), which requires the return of the dowry (mahr).
Custody of children: The 2009 Personal Status Law grants divorced Sunni women custody of their daughters up to the age of 17 years and sons up to the age of 15 year. Divorced Shi'a women have the right to custody up to age 7 years for sons and 9 years for daughters. In both cases, the father retains parental authority and may therefore, for example, prevent his ex-wife from travelling with their children.
Inheritance: The right to inheritance is governed by Sharia law for both Shi'a and Sunnis (Constitution, art. 5 (d)), under which women inherit half of the share of men.
- Nationality: Women cannot transmit their nationality to their children or husbands, although the 1963 Bahraini Citizenship Act (amended in 1981) grants these rights to men (art. 4,5,7). In October 2008, the CEDAW Committee called on the government to speed up reform of the nationality law.
- Freedom of movement: Women are required to obtain their husbands' permission to work outside the home.
- Criminal law
Under the Criminal Code, perpetrators of rape can avoid prosecution by agreeing to marry the victim (art. 535). The Criminal Code also provides for reduced sentences for the authors of “honour crimes” (art. 334). There is no specific law criminalising domestic violence.
Concluding observations of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women: Bahrain, November 2008, www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/cedaw/cedaws42.htm
Bahrain Women's Union, Shadow report on implementation of CEDAW, October 2008, www.fidh.org/spip.php?action=telecharger&arg=5662
Ahmed Abdulla Ahmed, D., Women's Rights in Bahrain, Freedom House, 2010 www.freedomhouse.org/report/women039s-rights-middle-east-and-north-africa/womens-rights-middle-east-and-north-africa-2010
FIDH-Egalité, Interview with a woman human rights activist in Bahrain, 7 March 2011, www.fidh.org/Droits-des-women-Perspectives
FIDH, BCHR, BHRS Press release, Bahrain: Urgent measures required to combat discrimination against women, November 2008, www.fidh.org/Bahrain-Urgent-measures-required
Bahrain Center for Human Rights, www.bahrainrights.org