In a surprise move, MPs have voted in favour of a two week postponement of a draft bill for implementing CEDAW, the UN’s Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. It initially appeared that a majority of MPs would vote against the draft legislation after three parliamentary blocs and numerous conservative and Islamist MPs signaled that they would oppose it.
Several conservative MPs spoke of the need to ensure that there is no conflict between this legislation and Islamic law. Therefore, it may be that the result of this delay is a revised bill which waters down the original draft and imposes additional reservations. Opponents of the bill, voiced their disagreement with CEDAW’s stipulation of women’s right to travel and own property; as well as women’s equal rights within marriage and concerning child custody.
Women’s Committee opposition to CEDAW
The parliamentary Women and Children’s Committee had controversially recommended that Parliament oppose the draft. This is despite strong recommendations from the Supreme Council for Women, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other powerful bodies which urged support for the Convention and stressed that it is both in line with Islamic law and Bahrain’s Constitution.
Ahead of the debate, Committee Chairwoman Rua al-Haiki told the media: “We should not submit to foreign entities demanding that we implement freedoms which are not suitable to our heritage and the traditions of our religion… it is of gravest importance that we confront those who are trying to get rid of the reservations altogether. This obligates us to do what we can to strike down this agreement in its entirety if we are able”.
Al-Bilad newspaper quoted sources from the Supreme Council for Women expressing their “displeasure” at the position of Al-Haiki’s Women’s Committee. The Supreme Council reportedly contacted senior figures in Parliament expressing its “outrage” at the position of the Committee “which is supposed to support efforts to enhance the rights of women and children”.
Until recently, the Women and Children’s Committee had been doing excellent work, processing legislation protecting women from domestic violence and consolidating the rights of children. However, in November the Committee was effectively hijacked by a narrow Islamist faction of the Parliament which promoted Rua al-Haiki’s candidacy and forced out previous Chairwoman, Jamila al-Sammak.
Following Al-Sammak’s resignation from the Committee, Islamists have an effective majority in the four-member entity, comprising Salafist cleric Anas Buhindi, conservative MP Muhsin al-Bakri from the Accord Bloc, the relatively quiescent Shia MP Fatimah al-Asfour and Al-Haiki herself, who appears to be beholden to the Islamists who put her in this position.
In the wider Parliament, three blocs encompassing 16 MPs had signaled beforehand that they were inclined to vote against the CEDAW bill – the Accord Bloc, the National Bloc and the five Islamist MPs associated with the Salafist Al-Asalah Society. The heads of the Accord and National Bloc – Isa Turki and Abdulrahman Bumjaid – made it very clear that they intended to vote against, noting that they would be guided by the opinion of the Supreme Council for Islamic Issues.
Chairman of the National Participation Bloc, Mohammed al-Dossary, had indicated in advance that his eleven-member grouping intended to vote in favour of CEDAW. However, it wasn’t clear whether the three clerics in the bloc – Shaikh Majid al-Majid, Majid al-Asfour and Jamal Buhassan – would vote for or against.
Opinions concerning CEDAW
Two of the strongest supporters of CEDAW came from within the National Participation Bloc:
Former Chairwoman of the Women’s Committee, Jamila al-Sammak, said: “The draft is clear to us. The bill does not contradict Shari’ah in any manner. Freedoms have already been granted to women such as travelling and living alone in manners which don’t contradict Islamic law. She added: “I cannot understand the justifications of the opponents to this bill. Stalwarts of Islamic Shari’ah like Qatar and Saudi Arabia signed this agreement in 2002.”
Khaled al-Shaer criticized the opposing views as being “unsound”. He added that the new draft was effectively a redraft of past reservations, while being stronger in “protecting our ideological principles”. He added that numerous such international agreements had been passed without any difficulties “so why do we come to a halt when the issue is related to women? …Bahraini women in reality travel and own property, so why is there all this opposition to things which are occurring in practice?”
Al-Shaer said: “The one who is standing against women today is in fact a woman… Is this the Islamic Committee or the Committee for Women and Children? They should take action to impose the hijab on all Bahraini women if they are this way inclined.” He criticized the Women’s Committee for not properly reading the draft and for opening Bahrain up to international criticism.
During the 15 December Parliament session Al-Shaer, who previously chaired the Human Rights Committee, made a strong defence of the CEDAW Convention. He said that MPs should not behave excessively in trying to defend Shari’ah. He added that reservations about a few clauses of CEDAW shouldn’t lead to rejecting it in its entirety.
During the session, several Islamist and conservative MPs like Jamal Dawoud, Muhsin al-Bakri, Nabil al-Balooshi and Anas Buhindi stressed that women had already been accorded extensive freedoms and that international legislation was not necessary, while noting the fundamental importance of Shari’ah in Bahrain. Dawoud said that many of his constituents were growing concerned that Bahrain was going too far in the direction of being a secular state.
Wider implications of CEDAW
Rua al-Haiki’s efforts to block the CEDAW legislation appear to go against all her past statements concerning enhancing the role of women and encouraging her equal participation in all aspects of Bahraini life. As experts from numerous senior Bahraini entities made clear; the provisions in this legislation for implementing CEDAW stipulate the primacy of Islamic Shari’ah and several of the earlier reservations remain in place; meaning that this legislation still does not represent acceptance of CEDAW in its entirety.
This makes nonsense out of Al-Haiki’s claims that: “A Muslim cannot agree to sign the provisions of CEDAW because it conflicts with many of the tenets of the Shari’ah. It seeks to change the culture of nations and tear them away from their past, their history and their faith.”
A vote against CEDAW would have negative implications on Bahrain’s standing and its ability to claim that it is in full compliance with international human rights standards and that it is one of the most progressive countries in the region for women’s empowerment. It is wrong that such a crucial committee becomes beholden to the voice of a narrow fringe of the Parliament which is hostile to the empowerment of women.
Benefits of a mixed Constitutional Monarchy
This raises a wider and more crucial issue related to issues of democratization and civil freedoms. Again and again in the Islamic world, democratic freedoms have been exploited by anti-democratic entities. In previous Bahraini parliaments the sectarian Shia political society, Al-Wefaq, was prone to tactical alliances with its natural enemies, the Salafists and Sunni Islamists; which often gave Islamists a natural majority in Parliament.
In the current Parliament, even though Islamists are numerically weak, they are able to have a disproportionate influence by gaining seats on particular committees and influencing their conservative colleagues on social issues. For this reason, the recent vote in the Shura Council on a draft bill for banning active preachers from being members of political societies is a good move. Bahrain’s Parliament must not be beholden to religious and sectarian voices.
This is also an illustration of why Bahrain’s mixed political system is important for protecting rights and freedoms and preventing the domination of our political system by any ideological faction.
Calls for a single chamber parliament and a directly-elected government must be fought every step of the way, because they risk giving too much power to any one entity. Calls for greater democracy actually seek to open Bahrain’s political system up to exploitation by anti-democratic factions which would use power to undermine the values of democracy.
The appointed Shura Council is a vital counterweight to the elected Council of Representatives; and on numerous occasions has shot down draft legislation from elected MPs which restrict the freedoms of religious minorities or which go against the rights enshrined in Bahrain’s Constitution.
This also highlights why Constitutional Monarchy is the right system for Bahrain. When we ask who in Bahrain has done the most to protect our rights, to enhance national unity, to promote reform and to move the country forwards, everybody will immediately respond that it has been the his Majesty the King and the Crown Prince – along with the Prime Minister whose governments have overseen the implementation of progressive legislation.
The Monarchy guarantees our rights, oversees the application of the Constitution and ensures that the reform process continues to move forward. Thanks to the Crown Prince and the King we can rest assured that Bahrain can never be held hostage to particular ideological factions or sectarian interests.
The King’s spouse, her Majesty Princess Sabeeka, has always been the most active and visible exponent of women’s rights and the central role of women in all aspects of life. Princess Sabeeka, as head of the Supreme Council for Women has already made it very clear where she stands on implementation of CEDAW.
This is what gives us confidence that, despite opposition from vested interests within the Parliament, Bahrain will continue to move forward in ensuring that women are accorded their full rights and freedoms.
We urge everybody who loves Bahrain and who cares about the empowerment of Bahraini women to urge Parliament to go ahead and pass the CEDAW legislation. However, they should not impose further restrictions and reservations which render the proposals meaningless.