Bahrain: Challenges of a human rights defender: Ghada Jamsheer's testimony
My work in human rights – and specifically women’s rights – began in the corridors of the Bahraini Shari’a courts, which resound corruption, both ethical and professional. What spurred me on was the severe suffering I had come into contact with, suffering which had driven some women into psychiatric hospitals and others into moral deviation caused by religious, paternalistic and social persecution.
The Shari’a courts are merciless in depriving mothers of custody of their children or forcing them to live in extremely difficult conditions at the mercy of their husband – and all in the name of Islam as embodied in the Shari’a court. It is this which pushed me, together with a group of women harmed by Shari’a judgements, to form a women’s organisation called the Women’s Petition Committee whose task is to defend those harmed by Shari’a judgements.
This Committee played a leading and effective role between 2000 and 2007 through sit-ins and protests inside courts (the Shari’a Judicial fortress) The Committee also made use of the press to put forward its aims for reform of the Shari’a judiciary and promulgation of a personal status law. This led to the removal of seven members of the Shari’a judiciary from the Soneyya and Jafareyya circuits. It is also prompted the government to respond to calls that the personal status law issue be examined.
After the Shari’a judges were dismissed as a result of the pressure generated by the Committee both in the media and amongst the public, some judges persisted in targeting me in my capacity as director of the Women’s Petition Committee. A group of judges raised numerous, arbitrary criminal cases against me on the pretext that I had infringed the Shari’a judiciary. The total prison sentence for these charges was fifteen years.
The Committee responded by increasing its activity and contacted the United Nations and international organisations. I visited Great Britain and Geneva accompanied by a group of affected women. As a result of local activity and the support of international organisations I was found innocent in the criminal courts in all the cases against me.
In 2005 I published a book, "The Executioner and the Victim in Shari’a Courts" which documented the Committee’s activity and cases in which women had been harmed by Shari’a verdicts.
In 2006 the Ministry of Social Development applied pressure in an attempt to stop the Committee’s activity because it was not registered under the Non-Governmental Organisations law. The Ministry threatened Committee directors with legal measures. Powers under the Non-Governmental Organisations law are used to restrict and control NGO activity; the Ministry may refuse or hamper an application for application. The law gives the Ministry unrestricted powers to control and interfere in the formation and dissolution of the NGO’s board and of the NGO itself. Article 18 of the law bans from a registered NGO anyone with activity or opinions of a political nature, and restricts the NGO’s ability to have foreign contacts and receive financial funding.
In 2006, after I participated with other national Bahraini activities in the British House of Lords, and following my criticism of the Bahraini authorities’ policies with regard to democracy and the political, economic and social rights of women, I received a direct threat from the Minister of the Royal Treasury demanding that I abandon my public work. I was then placed under direct surveillance, intelligence services vehicles taking up positions near my house. My telephone was also continually monitored. Servants of the regime were sent to offer me bribes while at the same time threatening that I would be defamed. And this is what happened; intelligence services tried to plant a device which would transmit pictures of what happens in my bedroom, in an attempt to obtain photographs which could be used to silence me. This occurred through a specialist who was sent to install a satellite dish.
The intelligence services tried to increase pressure by harassing members of my family, some of whom occupy important positions in the state and in society, in order to turn them against me – again with the aim of stopping my activity and silencing my voice. The Minister of the Royal Treasury Khaled Ahmed Al-Khalifa forbid the Bahraini press and all members of the media from publishing the Committee’s press statements or reporting on its or my activities. This forced me to use the Internet and make use of public forum sites. The intelligence services resorted to closing down these forums and tried to tarnish my reputation in an attempt to cut me off socially by putting around the idea that I am against the religious beliefs and schools of the groups which women, the victims of marginalisation and poverty and harmed by the Shari’a courts, belong to.
These threats and this harassment will never dissuade me from pursuing my work. I am proud of the international support which I have been lucky enough to receive previously from a number of Arab and international organisations, and was also proud to be chosen by Time magazine as one of four freedom heroes in the Arab region in 2006, and by the Forbes report as one of the ten most influential women in the Arab region in the same year. I cherish my involvement - alongside former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and Iranian activist Shereen Ebadi - in the formation of the Muslim Women’s Forum for Human Rights and Democracy, which held its first conference in Oslo, Norway in May 2007. All this has given me the impetus to hold out and continue the struggle despite the difficulties.
To close, through this important international meeting I address my thanks to Frontline organization and other international organisations for their efforts in protecting human rights defenders. I have come here to present my case and the case of my people because this will perhaps break the barrier of silence surrounding the tyranny and abuse – and in particular of women – of all civil, political, economic and social rights which takes place in Arab countries. It is lamentable that oil revenues and the strategic interests of Western governments in the region lead to support for the totalitarian regimes and lead to their being presented as democratic and civil; this is done at the expense of the truth, and at the expense of people’s dignity, freedoms and rights."
-- Ghada Jamsheer
Hawaa Bahrain Blog: www.bahrain-eve.blogspot.com
On the final day of the conference Ghada Jamsheer described her experience as a human rights defender and specifically a defender of women’s rights. This is the complete text of her testimony.
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