Bahrain: Women Victims of Political Agenda and Propaganda
The Bahraini Authorities stepped up the political propaganda built on the exploitation of women for promotional purposes, without a real evolution of women’s legal, civil, political, economical, social or cultural rights. While authorities are promoting the involvement of women in the political scene and presenting the program as a proof of progress and reforms, in reality, the program is limited in practice by employing a limited number of women in high positions selected on the basis of political and sectarian affiliation, and not on sound career qualifications, a process which discriminates against thousands of qualified women due to their gender, sectarian and tribal affiliation.
As for participation in the democratic process, the government is over-promoting training programs that aims at preparing tens of women to participate in the municipality and parliamentary elections. However in reality, the councils do not have real power, and the election of women or men to these councils does not entitle them to effective decision making capabilities, a function which continues to be controlled by the ruling elite from outside these councils.
In terms of social and economical rights, Bahraini women suffer from a decline in living standards, especially in the case of women with lower educational qualifications which are obliged to accept low-paid jobs. Other women were deprived from social protection, such as divorcees, widows, abandoned women, and orphans, forcing them into prostitution under the watch of authorities. Yet others reverted to demining jobs and work as house maids, which weakens the family structure and ultimately forces the children into delinquent behavior. In fact, the prevalence of human trafficking crimes coupled with the authorities’ complacency in combating these crimes, contributed to the spread of such social disorders in the society.
At a time when the voices are raising in support of (and against) the issuance of a family law that protects families and underprivileged women (divorcees, widows and orphans) from the grasp of certain members of the society, and from the corrupted, mismanaged and incompetent Sharia Court judges, the Authorities, lead by the Royal Court, continue to exploit the issue of the law as a pressure tool to achieve political agenda and blackmail the religious forces in the country, without consideration for the lives of hundreds of women and children suffering as a result. This occurs as the ruling party continues to appoint judges in the Sharia Courts on the basis of their political affiliation rather than competence and integrity.
Various civil society organizations are playing a vital role in defending women’s rights, yet the legal constraints and practical harassments from authorities, limit the effectiveness of these organizations. Furthermore, the role of the civil society organizations is further weakened by governmental organizations (GONGOS) that pretend to operate under the cover of the law and in organizational format, such as the Supreme Council for Women, which is merely a political propaganda tool for the ruling party and the wives of the top officials in the country.
The Women’s Petition Committee calls upon the authorities in Bahrain to refrain from politicizing woman rights and manipulating her rights for the political agenda for the ruling elite. The committee calls upon the authorities to embrace upon a series of reforms that will give women their rights and obligations as citizens of the country. This encompasses overcoming all difficulties and obstacles that prevent maintenance of these rights by filling the short legislative vacuum being at the forefront of these issues.
Justice, Judges and the Court
By the end of 2008, there were more than 900 unsolved divorce cases at the Sharia Courts, in comparison to 600 cases in 2001, an increase of 50%, i.e. an increase of 50 cases per year. This downfall in the performance of the courts is not primarily due to the legislative vacuum in relation to family affairs, but also, because of the poor performance and efficiency of the unqualified judges and judicial enforcement bodies. In fact, the selection process for judges in Bahrain does not depend upon the criteria of professionalism, competency, and required qualifications of objectivity, education, integrity and independence; rather, it is based upon political and tribal affiliation, and the degree of the judge’s compliance and loyalty to the Royal Court.
Moreover, the judicial system lacks oversight bodies that monitor the performance of judges to ensure their compliance and prevent violations. The local courts are also characterized by widespread ethical and administrative corruption in the judicial process, and its submission to guidance and influence beyond the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Justice. Such authorities intervene in the judicial process and its rulings to achieve personal gains.
In fact, Bahraini women suffered to large extent from corruption in the judicial and executive bodies, as well as from playing with the existing Sharia rulings which was the primary reason for the formation of the Women’s Petition Committee. Many of the cases of violations were documented in "The Executioner and the Victim in Sharia Courts", a book issued by the Women’s Petition Committee. As a result of numerous activities performed by the Committee, some judges implicated in suspicious cases in the aforementioned document, were dismissed.
The judicial system continues to lack objectivity and independence criteria due to the absence of oversight mechanisms that regulate the selection process in the judicial system. Moreover, it is short of serious and effective training programs and promotion regulations as per the well-known international standards.
The social status of women: Human trafficking
Despite the appeals by various parties, the local Authorities continue to ignore flagrant violations of women’s rights in Bahrain. Presented under the cover of tourism and promotion of investments, the Authorities are tolerating the revival of an underground prostitution mafia, taking advantage of the economical situation and the distressed financial needs of women. According to 2006 statistics, there are more than 117 hotels and 40 tourist buildings in Bahrain, which include furnished apartments rented out on hourly or daily basis. These premises provide connections and dance halls that hosts females, as ‘entertainers’, who dance in sexually seductive outfits and nurture a legalized environment of vice and prostitution. Reports confirm that 90% of those female ‘entertainers’ have never engaged in artistic entertainment before. Research suggests that they were lured into the country to work as waitresses, but later forced into prostitution as ‘artists and entertainers.
International reports and local media coverage forced the Authorities to close a number of these halls, which became widely known as centers for prostitution and human trafficking. As a result, approximately 190 defendants were charged with various offenses related to the facilitation and promotion of prostitution. Moreover, 3 hotels and 9 furnished apartment buildings were closed down due to their involvement in the crimes. However, owners of these doomed hotels filled the front pages of newspapers in protest of the closures, and tapped into their networks of influence. Soon after, the campaign to combat prostitution and human trafficking came to a halt. Evidently it was clear that the human trafficking mafia in Bahrain is well connected with high state actors. Shortly after that, the media were ordered to seize coverage of the topic, and soon after that, the doomed hotels reopened their doors.
The other aspect of human trafficking market is centered in the furnished apartments. There are more than 60 buildings having apartments which are rented out on a daily or hourly basis, without permission and in the absence of any governmental supervision. Illegal residents (run-away workers, holders of temporary visas who do not wish to leave the country after the expiration of their visa obtained in certain special occasion like Formula I and others) occupy furnished apartments working on satisfying the demands of those seeking ‘sexual pleasure’, with the assistance of brokers who tour hotels and dance halls referred to previously. These apartments became refuge for ‘free visa’ migrant workers who are brought to the country by influential and corrupt figures, exploiting their contacts with officials in the Government, and allowed to work freely in return for BD 300-400 per month without any form of job assurance or accommodation security.
In these apartments, also, unknown number of underprivileged Bahraini women, such as divorcees, widows as well as those bearing responsibility for their children, work as prostitutes. This includes minors, exploited or lured to work in prostitution, a money-making business, in order to meet for their needs. In fact, a study published by the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights revealed that there are more than 50 websites promoting and establishing contacts with prostitutes of different nationalities based in Bahrain. The report stated that at a particular moment, there were more than 13,500 requests for prostitution in Bahrain alone.
The legislations and legal protection
The Authorities have been investing in getting applauses for allowing women to participate in the political arena, a constitutional right of all Bahraini women as citizens of the country. ‘Women’ coated slogans have been exploited to gain regional and international admiration, particularly following the appointment of women in several key positions including: a ministerial position in the executive branch, an ambassador in the diplomatic service, and a judge in the judicial system. Irrespective of the public relations and activities abroad to promote for the Bahrain ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women ‘CEDAW’, the truth remains that human rights women status, specially the legislative and practical aspects, continue to suffer, regardless of the women right campaigns and other social activities demanding the betterment of women’s legislative status.
Among legislations which Bahraini women are calling for or demanding their modifications in accordance with their human rights are:
1. Family-Personal Status- law: (The Sunni version of the law was passed, leaving behind the Shiite version, which violates the country’s constitution as more than half of the population will be excluded from this judicial process and deepens the sectarian division in the country)
Passing this law is no longer considered an option, rather a necessity, as it has been proven to everybody the wide spread shortcomings, corruption and negligence in Sharia Courts, as well as the manipulative acts exercised by their judges, many of whom are unqualified, incompetent, and misuse their positions for personal gains. Although there were numerous calls to pass the law, while the convection to its need exists, the Authorities exploited the reservation of some religious positions on some of its articulations, its legislative issuance mechanism and future amendments, to exert pressure in the interest of specific political agendas. This is done on the expense of those women who continued to suffer from the absence of the law. It is to be mentioned that the Family Law went through periods of ebb tide and flow controlled by the Authorities whenever the opportunity to exert pressure on religious groups rises. The latest attempt was in February 2009 when an official resolution was issued to withdraw the draft law as a result of a controversy imposed on by religious and social powers who went into deliberations and bargains to achieve some political gains. The Royal Court was the key player in the manipulation of this right, through its contacts with these religious powers and by controlling the exposure of the subject media and societal wise, whenever the political need rises.
2. Revise the Nationality Law (a draft law is not yet released):
The current Nationality Law of 1963 deprives the children of Bahraini women from their right to hold a Bahraini citizenship, even if the father is stateless. This law has severe repercussions on the Bahraini mother and treat her children, including the minors, as foreigners, and are required by law to obtain a residency permit (visa) through a legal guardian. Moreover, these children are denied other basic rights such as public housing, free health care, free education and scholarships, as offered to other citizens. To add to the calamity of the situation, should the Bahraini mother separates, divorces, or is widowed, she is then required to provide the legal residency for her children to stay with her since they are considered by law as non-Bahrainis.
Although a resolution was recently issued by the ruler of Bahrain to grant the children of the Bahraini women, married from a non-Bahraini, the right to citizenship, this should be integrated into a law that protects the rights of women and their children, rather than subjecting it to gestures and interventions which aim to achieve political gains. In conclusion, the Nationality Law must be amended to eliminate the shortcoming in woman rights and secure equality for her as a citizen similar to the man.
3. Law for the protection from domestic violence (Currently, there is no law that serves this purpose):
Courts are mounting with cases of domestic abuse by a member of the family against the other like the father, the mother, or others. For one reason or another, currently there is a legal vacuum leaving families unprotected from the ill-treatment of fathers, let alone sexual or ethical molestations on members of the family. The absence of deterrent measures to abusive behavior by the head of the family results in physiological damages to victims and unbound in family ties as well as expose the mother and her children to physical and psychological pressures ending up in forcing members of the family into deviant social behavior.
4. Law of Social security and care to those of special needs
Due to family disintegration caused by death of its caretaker, divorce or abandonment, there is a great need for a social security code that could minimize the effects of that breakdown and prevent its deterioration to the rest of the society through behaviors of children deprived from family care. In local society, the family is heavily dependent on the father financially and as the primary caretaker, and in his absence, the family’s source of finance is disrupted. Children also miss the role of the father as care taker devoted to their well being. In such instance, mother , and due to the financial pressure, is compelled to seek a source of financial income and get employed in jobs which take most of her time from her family. In other adverse opportunities, she could be lured, or consider unethical professions, such as prostitution, as a quick way to secure financial needs.
Moreover, and particularly in divorce cases, the divorcee is usually forced to seek shelter by returning to her father's house if it exists. Otherwise, the divorced mother and her children are compelled to turn to the street, as it happened to Safiah Ahmed who suffered for 5 years after divorce, looking for a shelter for her and her children. Safiah had no resort but to protest with her daughter in front of the Ministry of Housing in demand of a place to stay with her daughter. In another choice, the divorcee is obliged to accept any form of shelter for her and her children, even if it is a room, as it happened to Mrs. ‘Um Ali’, a divorcee who stayed for more than 8 years living in a house extension along with her 6 children.
On the other hand, there is a legislative vacuum to sponsor women of special needs. In addition to the deprivation of the rights to remarry, because of the social constraints, those with special needs receive less attention, such as those requiring special and proper medical treatment and care, as well as suitable recruitment. Such retardation towards treating women in need of special services leaves them with utter isolation and seclusion.
5. Absence of procedures and provisions deterrent to human trafficking and exploitation of minors
Unless the Authorities take on preemptive steps and serious measures to combat and prevent human trafficking, women suffering will augment, as figures are staggering and flagrant in this direction. The initial attempts, which were disrupted and discontinued as a result of intervention by persons of influence, the prosecutions against offenders of human trafficking and other charges which include prostitution, illegal residence and abuse of minors were diluted to sentences of imprisonment of 6 to 12 months. Such retribution does not reflect the seriousness of the crimes, and reaffirms the collusion of criminals of and violators of women's rights and certain figureheads in the authority.
Despite the establishment of a number of social organizations specialized in women and children issues, but because of the legalized constraints on such entities, their role has been limited to a narrow range of issues ranging from social, cultural and informational, rather than dedicating their resources and capabilities to achieve genuine reforms for women. According to the internationally denounced Civic Societies Decree of 1989, these organizations are forbidden from dealing with all public affairs issues, as stipulated in article 18 of that law.
The other reason for the ineffectiveness of these organizations is the lack of logistical and financial support, directly from the Government or though the international funding programs. Moreover, any contacts between the local societies with the international NGO's, seeking funding, strengthening relationships, exchange of expertise and representation, without the prior approval and consent of the Social Affairs Ministry, are considered violation of the law, exposing these organizations to punishment and dissolution.
Local women organizations also lack administrative, technical and legislative developmental capabilities, obtainable only though training programs and workshops. This is obvious due to the inavailability of direct and indirect means of funding and financial support.
In this context, reference is made to two main organizations:
The Women's Union - an umbrella for certain women's associations in Bahrain, known of its affiliation to some political organizations. According to the Women’s Union bylaw, no women, irrespective of her activities or capabilities, to join the Union unless she joins one of those associations. Consequently, this elite Union is deprived from representing large segments of Bahraini women or play a genuine and influential role in the maintenance of and defending women’s rights.
Furthermore, the Bahraini Authorities ensured that area of maneuverability of this elite Union is curtailed, regardless of the dedication of its members who represent specific and limited women societies in Bahrain. Unless the Union opens its door to all women, regardless of their ideological affiliation, and obtains proper funding to support its activities to play more effective role in community support, cultural and social security reforms, the Union will continue to be ineffective and incapable of reforming the status quo, or in preventing the infliction of harm on women. Instead, the Union will add to the official establishment another "color" to improve its image among the international community.
The Supreme Council for Women (SCW), the other organization, established to represent women of Bahrain, but ended up manipulating women’s affairs to promote and complement the interests of the regime at the expense of reforming women’s rights. The SCW was established on 22 August 2001 according to an Amiri Decree no 44 of 2001, modified in the same year by Decree no 55, the Amiri Order no 2 of 2002, and the Royal Order no. 36 of 2004. It is an official entity reporting directly to the King and not a social organization. According to the forming decrees, the SCW is a reference to all official bodies in the country with regards to women’s affairs, and specializes on presenting advise as well as decision on matters related to the status of women. The SCW is chaired by Sheikha Sabika bint Ibrahim Al Khalifa, the wife of the King of Bahrain, who owns the decision to choose her deputy. The Council consists of 16 female figures, appointed by a Royal decree for renewable term of 3 years.
Since its establishment and the repetition of key figures in the composition of the SCW, it is evident that the Council operates under the strict control of women from the ruling family, in addition to other women from both tribal families and those loyal to the regime in exchange for personal gains.
The Council is effectively managed by Lulwa Al- Awadi, the Council’s General Secretary at the rank of a minister. Lulwa is a lawyer by profession and to ensure her sole loyalty and allegiance, a decree was dedicated to exonerate her from the commitments of the Lawyers law, which bans law practitioners from taking any official posts while running their law firms. The SCW deputy chair is Maryam Hasan Al-Khalifa, the former president of the University of Bahrain who contributed in setting out sectarian divisions and the principles of partisanship and loyalty in appointments and promotions on the expense of academic norms. The SCW contains members like Wessal Al Khalifa, wife of Khalid Ahmed Al Khalifa, the Foreign Affairs Minister, and Hessa Al Khalifa, wife of Abdullah Ben Hamad Al Khalifa, the King’s son and Governor of the Southern Governorate. Other members of the Council are vesting their time into fulfilling their personal and family gains.
Despite the passage of eight years on the establishment of the SCW, which announced that it would be a champion of women's rights in Bahrain, yet the reality remains that the Council plays a role in manipulating the country’s resources, in the form of promotional programs and activities for women inside and outside Bahrain. This came also in the form of the appointments of incompetent officials in the Council, chosen on the basis of their tribal and utilitarian loyalty. In fact, although the Council claims to be a defender of women’s rights, it undertook an essential role in fulfilling the agenda of the Royal Court through the utilization of certain legislations, particularly the Family and Nationality laws, as political bargaining tools to gain political preeminence
Moreover, the role of the Council was previously described in the report of Dr. Salah Al Bandar, a former advisor to the Government of Bahrain, which focused on the manipulation of votes, resulting in the unanimous election of Latifa Al-Quood in the House of Representatives, representing the uninhabited island of Hawar. This nomination came as a result of an agreement between the Royal Court and the Council, where the SCW played a vital role. Another role played by the SCW and mentioned in the said Al Bandar report, is fortifying the spirit of conspiracy and sectarianism against women in Bahrain, by limiting the role of certain social organizations and penetrating the leadership ranks of others. To fulfill this objective, the Council utilized the authoritative support offered by the Royal Court, in addition to unlimited media and financial assistance.
The Women’s Petition Committee expresses its deep concern regarding the deteriorating status of women’s legislative rights throughout the past ten years, and remains greatly troubled by the unrealistic depiction of women’s status and the peculiar reflection of legislative rights in Bahrain in the country’s political propaganda.
Throughout the years, women suffered greatly due to legislative and social restrictions, yet instead of dedicating the necessary state resources to improve their social and economical rights, they are continued to be manipulated to suit certain political agendas. Although some women were chosen to key positions in the political forefront, the selection process was not based on their professional qualification, but rather on standards set by the Royal Court that include tribal affiliations, sectarianism and loyalty, and to work as media promotion to achieve political gains.
As a result, the Women’s Petition Committee demands the following:
1. To acknowledge women rights in Bahrain, as citizens of the country, cease the use of feminist slogans as part of political propaganda, and to abolish all organizations established to work along these deceptive agenda, the Supreme Council for Women being at the forefront of such organizations.
2. Introduce or enact legislations that protects the rights of women:
a. A family law suited for all religious sectors, to protect the rights of women in line with international women rights doctrines, and applied upon all women in Bahrain including members of the royal family.
b. The revision of the Nationality Law to ensure that the children of Bahraini women have the right to gain citizenship of their mothers.
c. A law that protects against violence within the family
d. A social security law for unprivileged women and those handicapped, disabled and of special needs.
e. A law that criminalizes human trafficking including all forms of discrimination against women, abuse of minors, and extortion of the underprivileged.
3. Cease all forms of discrimination against women at work in all official, legislative and social organizations. This includes developing a mechanism to implement the principles of CEDAW, and end all forms of career advancements on the basis of sectarian or tribal loyalties.
4. To give real chance for independent women’s organizations to exercise its activities and provide them with the financial and logistical support, as well as eliminate all obstacles that impede their effectiveness and independence
For further information:
Ghada Yousif Jamsheer
Head of Women's Petition Committee
Kingdom of Bahrain