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I was honoured to attend this year’s Women Trust Conference, which I believe to have been not only highly constructive but essential in progressing dialogue on the global empowerment of women and the further promotion of equality. However, I would like to address certain points raised about Bahrain during the 3rd Plenary Session titled “The Arab Spring: Window of Opportunity or Disaster for Women?” that I was not given the opportunity to raise during the session.
First and foremost, I would like to highlight particular facts about equality, women’s rights and the empowerment of women in Bahrain that were not addressed by the panelist during the session, and that I feel have been very much ignored throughout the events that have taken place in Bahrain over the past two years.
Women have had equal opportunity to contribute to the development of Bahrain since the 1920s, when women were allowed to vote in municipal elections and receive formal education. In 1928, the first public school for girls was opened in Muharraq, giving Bahrain a head-start in education that its neighbours did not share.
Since then, women have been working alongside men to contribute to the country’s development. Six women were among the members of the Committee that formulated the National Action Charter ten years ago, which further safeguarded women’s rights, stating that “all citizens are equal before the law in terms of rights and duties, without discrimination against their sex”.
Women are actively represented in the political sphere. The current National Assembly includes 14 women. Bahrain was one the first members of the GCC to allow women to participate in national elections, not only in voting, but as candidates, and the first to elect a female MP.
In fact, three of Bahrain’s most significant Ambassadorial posts are filled by women. Bahrain’s Ambassador to the United States is a woman of Jewish faith. Bahrain’s Ambassador to the United Kingdom, HE Alice Thomas Samaan, is a woman of Christian faith, who previously held positions in Bahrain’s Shura Council (the Upper Chamber of Parliament), the Ministry of Health and broadcasting. Bahrain’s Ambassador to China also is a woman.
Bahrain was rated top amongst the GCC members for overall women’s economic opportunity in 2010 by the Economic Intelligence Unit. Businesswomen represent 15% of Bahrain Chamber of Commerce membership and account for 37% of all Bahrainis employed by financial institutions. 34% of the workforce in Bahrain is made up of women.
In 2001, the Supreme Council of Women was established by HRH Princess Sabeeka bint Ibrahim Al Khalifa, to promote the status of women, promote awareness of their capabilities and ensure their fair rights are protected. A National Strategy for the empowerment of women was established by the Council as its prime objective. Legislation has been amended further to ensure the social rights of women are implemented, including family law cases involving marriage, divorce and custody; and access to free governmental health, education and residential services.
As a further step to promote the rights of women in Bahraini society, the Government of Bahrain introduced the Personal Codification Law in 2005. It is a well known fact that this law was unfortunately rejected by extremist Shiite clerics, who feared this step as a threat to their influence within society, and called for mass protests against the implementation of any such law, accusing the Government of moral corruption, an argument which was conversely raised by panelist Dr. Ala’a Shehabi.
I disagree with the statement made by Dr. Ala’a Shehabi that “no one is immune from discrimination because you are labeled” in Bahrain. Bahrain has been well known in the region for its openness. It is one of the few countries in the Arab World where people of all faiths, including Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism and Baha’is are able to practice their religions freely and openly. Bahrain’s parliament is made up of two chambers to ensure that citizens of all faiths and backgrounds are represented equally. As the prominent New York Rabbi Marc Schneier has stated: “Bahrain is a role model in the Arab world for coexistence and tolerance of different faith communities”.
As Dr. Ala’a Shehabi emphasized during the session: “democracy is a process not an event”. The process of democratic reform began in Bahrain 11 years before the “Arab Spring”. That is what indeed differentiates Bahrain from the rest of the region. While the West does express its concerns, it recognises that Bahrain was seen as a leading model for reform in the region. The democratic process introduced by HM King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa is what paved the way for an era of greater freedom, human rights and women’s empowerment.
She mentioned that a neighbor driving a Bentley, and people who were “materialistically fulfilled”, joined protests on February 14th. This contradicts and disproves her claims of inequality, corruption and social injustice in Bahrain. How would the people she mentioned have risen to their place in society and had the opportunities to achieve such success had they been as severely discriminated against as she suggests? She herself has held positions in a highly esteemed and reputable institution in Bahrain, the Bahrain Institute of Banking and Finance. This contradicts her personal introduction as a “persona no grata from Bahrain”.
She stated that as a protestor you cannot imagine living under anything worse than a “secular tyrannical regime”. Yet when one compares Bahrain to many countries in the region that have experienced the “Arab Spring”, you can see just how privileged Bahrain’s citizens are in terms of their freedoms, rights, standard of living and opportunities. Let us not forget or cease to appreciate the progress that has already been achieved in Bahrain, but let us work together to build on this progress.
First Secretary, Embassy of the Kingdom of Bahrain, London