Women's rights in Bahrain

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Women's rights have been a cornerstone of the political reforms initiated by King Hamad, with women gaining the right to vote and stand as candidates in national elections for the first time after the constitution was amended in 2002. The extension of equal political rights has been accompanied by a conscious drive to promote women to positions of authority within government.

The move to give women the vote in 2002 was part of several wide-ranging political reforms that have seen the establishment of a democratically elected parliament and the release of political prisoners. Before 2002, women had no political rights and could neither vote in elections nor stand as candidates.

There was, however, some ambivalence towards the extension of political rights from sections of Bahraini society, not least from women themselves, with 60% of Bahraini women in 2001 opposing extending the vote to women.[1]

Although many women stood as candidates in both municipal and parliamentary elections in 2002, none were elected to office. There were no women candidates in the lists of Islamist parties such as Al Wefaq, Al-Menbar Islamic Society and Asalah.

Following the poor performance of women candidates in the parliamentary elections, six women, including one Christian, were appointed to the upper chamber of parliament, the Shura Council. In 2004, Bahrain appointed its first female minister, Dr Nada Haffadh to the position of Health Minister, and in 2005, Dr Fatima Albalooshi, the second woman minister was appointed to the cabinet. In April 2005, Shura member Alees Samaan became the first woman to chair a parliamentary session in the Arab world when she chaired the Shura Council. The head of the main women's organisation, the Supreme Council for Women, Ms Lulwa Al Awadhi, has been given the title of 'honorary cabinet minister'.

In June 2006, Bahrain was elected head of the United Nations General Assembly, and appointed Haya Rashid Al Khalifa as the Assembly's President, making her the first Middle Eastern woman and the third woman in history to take over the post. Sheikha Haya is a leading Bahraini lawyer and women's rights advocate who will take over the post at a time of change for the world body. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said of her, "I met her yesterday and I found her quite impressive. All the member states are determined to work with her and to support her, and I think she's going to bring a new dimension to the work here."[1]

Several women's rights activists have become political personalities in Bahrain in their own right, or even gained international recognition, such as Ghada Jamsheer, who was named by Forbes magazine as one of the "ten most powerful and effective women in the Arab world" in May 2006.

Ghada Jamsheer, the most prominent women's rights activist in Bahrain[2] has called the government's reforms "artificial and marginal". In a statement in December 2006 she said:

Bahrain's move was widely considered to have encouraged women's rights activists in the rest of the Persian Gulf to step up demands for equality. In 2005, it was announced that Kuwaiti women would be granted equal political rights to men.

Personal Status Law[edit]

As there is no unified family law, or Personal Status Law as it is known, Sharia judges have discretion over matters of divorce and child custody. In November 2005, the Supreme Council for Women in an alliance with other women's rights activists, began a campaign for change - organising demonstrations, putting up posters across the island and carrying out a series of media interviews (see Supreme Council's website for full details in Arabic).

However, changing the law has been resisted by the leading Shia Islamist party, Al Wefaq, resulting in a major political showdown with women's rights activists. Al Wefaq has stated that neither Chamber of Deputies of Bahrain elected MPs nor the government have authority to change the law because these institutions could 'misinterpret the word of God'. Instead, the right to change the law is the sole responsibility of religious leaders.

On 9 November 2005, supporters of Al Wefaq claimed to have organised Bahrain's largest ever demonstration with 120,000 protesting against the introduction of the Personal Status Law, and for the maintenance of each religious group having their own divorce and inheritance laws. On the same day an alliance of women's rights organisations held a smaller rally calling for the unified law, which attracted 500 supporters.

The issue of the introduction of a unified Personal Status Law has divided civil society into two camps, with women's rights and human rights groups wanting its introduction, opposed by Shia Islamist groups in alliance with the wahabbi Asalah:

For:

Against:

2006 Election[edit]

Eighteen female candidates contested Bahrain's parliamentary elections on 25 November 2006, with one candidate, Lateefa Al Gaood, winning by default even before polling after her two opponents in her constituency dropped out of the race. Most of the women ran for Leftist parties or as independents, with no Islamist party being represented by a woman, although salafist party Asalah was the only group to publicly oppose women's candidature in parliamentary elections.

For further information see Bahrain election 2006 women candidates.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

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