Bahrain: Poll Win Gives Women Candidates A Push
The recent election of Bahrain’s first female municipal councilor is boosting hopes among women here that they are seeing the beginning of the end to gender-based voting in this country. Indeed, even the women who failed in their own poll bids – some for the second or third time – are upbeat following the Oct. 30 win of Fatima Salman as councilor in Muharraq, the second largest city in Bahrain. Mariam Al Ruwai, president of Bahrain’s Women Union, is also raring to run again in the next polls, scheduled for 2014, despite her elimination from the first round of the recent parliamentary election.
She had met the same fate in the 2006 polls. But, she explains, "Many women in the world are deprived from their political rights, so we shouldn’t take such privileges for granted and keep fighting for better tomorrow."
"The signs of change have started with the winning of Fatima," she adds, "and more success will be coming if we keep fighting."
Up until Salman’s win, only one female had been elected into office in Bahrain, as representative of an uninhabited island: Latifa Al Quod, who also ran unopposed in the 2006 polls. Al Quod was automatically re-elected in September when no one stepped up to challenge her.
Eight other women vied for parliamentary seats in the elections held on Oct. 23. Only one, academician Munira Fakrho, garnered enough votes to be included in the run-off on Oct. 30, but she was also defeated in the end.
Yet she tells IPS, "I didn’t fail for being a woman, but as an opposition leader, so I’m proud of my failure. It isn’t anymore about voters shying away from female candidates, but looking at the potentials of the persons they are going to choose, so it is a very encouraging change."
"Yes, I would be happier if I won as well as two male candidates who were also backed by our leftist group, National Action Democratic Society (Waad)," Fakhro says. "But we failed not because of gender issues or not being worthy, but because of the government’s interference…forcing military personnel to vote for our opponents."
Sabah Al Dossary, who like Salman qualified for the run- offs in the municipal elections, says she is proud of her showing as well, even though she lost eventually.
According to Al Dossary, her opponent "got the shock of his life when he came to know that he would compete in the second round of election with a woman". She says she gave him "tough competition" that would serve as a good lesson to many young women in Bahrain.
For sure, though, there are those who have contrary views, such as Abdulnabi Al Ekri, president of the Bahrain Transparency Society. Apparently unconvinced that Salman’s win signalled a significant change in the attitudes in Bahrain’s male-dominated society, he recently hinted that perhaps the constituencies should be reduced in number to give female candidates a fighting chance.
In Kuwait, he told the local press, four women won in the legislative election there in 2009 after the constituencies were reduced from 25 to five. Among Gulf Cooperation Council members, only Kuwait and Bahrain hold elections.
"Bahrain’s 40 constituencies weaken the power of each vote, as most voters will opt for male candidates as their first option," Al Ekri argued. "If voters would be allowed to choose more than one candidate, then many will select female candidates."
So far, however, Al Ekri seems to hold a minority opinion. A day after Salman’s historic win at the polls, King Hamad bin Isa Ali Khalifa congratulated her and said that her victory was "good news to Bahraini women".
Activist Fawziya Al Zayani, for her part, attributes what she calls as a "friendly approach" towards female candidates to changes in the voters’ preference.
Referring to the two main religious factions in Bahrain, she comments, "Although Shiites remains loyal to Islamists of their sect, Sunnis were the opposite and opted for change by selecting independent members of Parliament….(They neglected) members of Sunni groups that dominated the lower house in the last eight years."
"It is a refreshing fact that voters aren’t anymore after religious candidates, but those who can help them, and that is why Fatima won," says Al Zayani.
Salman, who beat her opponent by 134 votes, ran as an independent candidate. Although initially shocked that she won, she now says she will nominate herself as the chairwoman of Muharraq’s municipal council, in which she would be the only female.
A single mother of a 16-year-old boy and guardian of an orphaned niece, Salman is a retired ports directorate supervisor. Now in her 50s, Salman has been active in many organisations, including the Religious Tolerance Society and the Al Hekma Society for the Retired.
She has vowed not to let down those who voted for her. Among her campaign pledges were to revive the traditional areas of Muharraq, which is the old capital of Bahrain, and to have bad roads fixed.
Bahrain has a voting population of 318,668. More than 67 percent of the country’s eligible voters participated in the first round of polls on Oct. 23. In the run-off, 71,000 cast their ballots for the parliamentary election while 125,000 took part in the municipal polls.
Women make up roughly half of Bahrain’s population of one million, including expatriates. There are no available data on voter numbers according to sex. (END)
By Suad Hamada
Nov 4, 2010