Bahrain has always been a leading state in the Arabian Gulf region for promoting the rights and freedoms of women. Women are encouraged to participate fully in political, cultural and economic law and their rights are enshrined in the constitution.
Thus, it is a matter of concern that on 30 November the parliamentary Women and Children’s Committee decided to reject CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women), based on a number of reservations.
Ironically, this Committee took this decision the day before Bahrain Women’s Day, which celebrates and emphasizes the central and equal role of women in national life.
This move appears to be out of step with the position of the Bahrain Government, which in January 2014 declared that it was lifting any previous reservations it had over the CEDAW Convention. The Cabinet asserted that the articles of the Convention relevant to family life were in harmony with the Islamic Sharia.
The decision of this Committee also seems to put it at odds with Bahrain’s 2001 Constitution, the National Action Charter, which stresses the equal rights of men and women.
Committee member, MP Muhsin al-Bakri, said that the Committee “unanimously” rejected the Convention on several points, notably that “women cannot be granted freedom to travel and the freedom of choice for the place they want to live”. The Committee also rejected the equal rights of men and women with regard to marriage and the custody of children.
According to standard parliamentary procedure, the conclusions of the Committee would be passed on to the rest of Parliament, which would then vote on the bill – this means that the majority of MPs still have the opportunity to vote against the opinion of this Committee and in favour of CEDAW and equal rights for women.
During the 2014-2015 parliamentary year, the Women and Children’s Committee was chaired by Jamila al-Sammak, an outspoken supporter of women’s rights who championed legislation related to domestic violence, despite the objections of several clerical figures in the Parliament.
In autumn 2015, when the parliamentary committees underwent changes in personnel, Islamist MPs successfully lobbied for the removal of Al-Sammak and the installation of new member, Rua al-Haiki as chairwoman. Islamists were left in a dominant position in this small committee, with figures like Salafist cleric Anas Buhindi and the conservative MP Muhsin al-Bakri; with Al-Haiki apparently beholden to those who gave her the chairwoman role.
With the Islamists a small minority in the current Parliament, it is wrong that they have such a decisive voice in such an essential piece of legislation which is in the spirit of the National Action Charter and which puts Bahrain in line with its international obligations for the rights of women.
The rejected clauses are central issues for the rights and freedoms of women in Bahrain society. Women should enjoy freedom of choice regarding whom to marry. They should enjoy equal rights over the upbringing of their children and they must enjoy equal rights for travel and choosing where to live.
To reject these clauses would render Bahraini women as second class citizens – this is something that most right-thinking Bahrainis would never agree with. Bahrain’s women play a central role in civil and political life; and they are pivotal figures in the work place.
Time and time again, His Majesty King Hamad has asserted his vision for equal rights for Bahraini women, while his wife, Princess Sabeeka, has been a tireless advocate of women’s rights.
Rejection of this Convention would be a step back for Bahrain. We call on the remainder of Parliament to reject the position of this Committee and to demonstrate to the world Bahrain’s unconditional support for women’s equality.