MANAMA, Bahrain– Women in Bahrain have been making their presence and efforts for advancing women’s rights known, especially when it comes to taking necessary steps to push for laws that promote gender equality.
On February 12, a group of 30 Bahraini women delegates met at the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) convention in Geneva to discuss the successes achieved thus far and their future plans for the advancement of women’s equality. The leader of this team is Supreme Council for Women (SCW) vice-president, Dr. Shaikha Mariam bin Hassan Al-Khalifa.
Dr. Shaikha Mariam spoke of progress in Bahrain in saying, “Women have become key partners in development… Their rate of participation has increased in the labor market as well as in economic, social and cultural activities.”
Just under a month later, on March 16, Bahraini women activists met in New York at the UN, and the president of SCW, Dr. Bahia al-Jishi, spoke at a committee targeting the current status of women, named, “Challenges, Accomplishments of the Millennium Development Goals for Women and Girls.”
The SCW is partially affiliated with Bahraini government, placing it strategically between the policy-makers and NGOs. Many strides have been made in regards to women’s roles in the public sector, so now their primary focus is on law regarding family matters such as divorce rights for women.
Bahrain operates under a monarchy, with King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa ruling since 1999. Since King Hamad gained the throne, women’s rights have steadily been improving. He has changed the temperament of the nation by reforming economic and political policies, which have also directly benefited Bahraini women.
In a speech made on Bahrain’s National Day in 2001, King Hamad proclaimed, “Women’s involvement in the political process represents a stabilizing factor given their natural responsibilities in the family and society.”
The Bahraini Constitution as well as the kingdom’s National Action Charter specifically assured the enforcement of laws that respect women’s rights and allow them more opportunities in the public sector. Policy has also been composed that aims at targeting implementation of these laws, which is often lacking in other countries.
Rights that women have achieved under King Hamad, with the help of organizations like SCW, included getting the right to vote, which was long overdue. Voting is crucial in giving women a voice, and the opportunity to help decide on who should be the policy-makers within the municipal councils and the Representative Council. Other laws passed allowed for women able to run in the elections for either municipal councils or the Representatives Council.
Studies produced by SCW and the Arab Women’s Organization have found that the percentage of women working in the government has reached 48 percent as opposed to 52 percent of men, which is higher than the number of women in the United States government. Women are also increasingly occupying jobs in the private sector in Bahrain, and from the year 2002 to 2011, the rate has risen by 73.5 percent.
More Work Needs to Be Done
While the constitution and National Action Charter are seemingly more liberal than neighboring nations, Bahrain’s law in general still falls under the category of Sharia, or Islamic, law. While some Bahraini policies allow women freedoms, many others are based upon religious normalcies that, depending on who is interpreting the Quran of which these laws are commonly derived, could conflict with progression of women’s rights.
The first personal status law was not passed until May of 2009. This started to regulate marriage, divorce, inheritance and child custody, yet only is applicable to female Sunni Muslims, leaving the female Shi’ite Muslims in Bahrain to fend for themselves. Both populations are deserving of these rights, and true progress will not occur if half of the women are being left behind because of another form of discrimination.
The courts system contains judges that strictly follow the Quran and Sharia law. This has marginalized women to a point that there are times a judge will not even hear a case just by glancing at the arbitrary facts, which leaves women with their requests and petitions denied.
A law that has attempted to address other family law issues due to Sharia tradition include protections such as women consenting to marriage, the right for women to divorce, women’s ability to add their own conditions in marriage contracts and the right for women to seek separate housing if her husband marries another women. Again, these laws apply only to Sunni Bahraini women and not Shi’ites, which is evidently not the only problem. More modifications are crucial for family laws in order for women to truly be equal partners in a marriage.
Organizations like SCW have recognized these flaws and are working tirelessly to have personal status laws and family laws become applicable to all women, and to make sure they are implemented within the courts system.
Dr. Shaikha Mariam explained in Geneva, “We realize that areas of improvement will always be present, and that all societies should proceed by making efforts to achieve further improvements.”
The continued efforts of non-governmental organizations could yield the granting of more rights to women in Bahrain. Human progress depends on both men and women being able to thrive and having the resources available to them to increase development. The eradication of global poverty is dependent on gender equality, not just in Bahrain, but in all nations.