31 March – 6 April 2016
A bill for bringing Bahrain more closely into line with UN legislation on the rights of women has been successfully passed by Parliament and has therefore been submitted to the appointed Shura Council for them to discuss and vote on.
After one of the longest parliamentary sessions in recent memory; a majority of 19 MPs present in the session voted against the CEDAW bill (modifying Bahrain’s position with regard to the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women); compared with 11 in favour.
However, because this was less than a majority of the full Parliament (which would have required 21 out of a total 40 votes), CEDAW passed, as is the case for bills of law.
A large number of MPs had spoken out strongly against CEDAW. Many of those were predictable, such as Islamist MPs like Nabil al-Balooshi and Jamal Dawoud and conservatives like Ali Bufarsan who had been outspoken against the bill in advance.
However, several other strong opponents of CEDAW were less expected; such as Ahmed Qaratah who claimed that he had help collect signatures of clerics against the bill and businessman Adel Bin Hamid, deputy chairman of the Participation Bloc, which was the grouping that had been expected to be most supportive of CEDAW.
Sunni cleric Jamal Buhassan from the Participation Bloc also spoke out strongly against CEDAW, but then absented himself from the vote. Buhassan told the media that he would vote against because “the law gives women the right of residency and travel which is something that will encourage women to leave the care of her father and husband”.
One of the most consistent supportive voices throughout the session was Parliament Deputy Chairman Ali al-Aradi, who in the past had been part of Bahrain’s delegation on the CEDAW. However Shia cleric Majid al-Asfour also spoke up strongly in favour and urged MPs to vote for the legislation.
Adel al-Asoumi was also a favourable voice, telling MPs not to submit to pressures: “Bowing to pressure means that an MP doesn’t deserve to represent the nation”. Although it should be noted that Al-Asoumi also absented himself from the final vote!
Even Salafist MP, Second Deputy Chairman of Parliament Abdulhalim Murad – who ultimately voted against the bill – reassured his colleagues that ministers and officials who had grown up serving their faith would hardly allow laws which contradicted Shari’ah.
Criticism of the Women Committee – Chairwoman resigns
The Justice Minister and several officials spoke articulately in favour of CEDAW; arguing that the language prohibited the implementation of any measures which contradicted Islamic law. They also stressed that the bill was merely a redrafting of existing reservations.
The Justice Minister condemned the “bitter and unjustified attacks” against the bill, stressing that it merely represented a redraft of Bahrain’s existing reservations to the CEDAW legislation and so would change very little.
Ali al-Aradi accused the Women’s Committee of having misled Parliament by not taking into account the views of legal experts in its recommendations on CEDAW. He said that the Committees conclusions were entirely “one-sided and not built on any kind of legal foundation”.
It became clear during the session that the Women’s Committee had never formally requested an opinion from the Parliament legal advisors, despite them being represented at Committee sessions. One councilor testified that he had been asked for his personal view, but it was disregarded because it contradicted with that of Chairwoman Rua al-Haiki.
Both the Parliament Minister, Ghanem al-Buaynayn, and the Chairman of Parliament leveled similar accusations at Rua al-Haiki’s Women’s Committee; pointing out that correspondence to the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs only concerned the original CEDAW legislation, not the new amendments.
Chairwoman Rua al-Haiki had already strongly criticized the Parliament Chairman Ahmed al-Mulla a week previously after he forced the CEDAW issue back to Parliament. This week Al-Haiki accused Al-Mulla of failing to pass on the Committee’s information requests to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. She therefore announced her intention to resign after the Parliament session, claiming that the Chairman’s actions amounted to “obstruction of democracy”.
The Women’s Committee only submitted its final recommendations towards the bill late the day before the vote. Predictably, these came out strongly against CEDAW, saying that the Convention “gives men and women the same rights in law regarding movement of individuals and the freedom to choose where they will live”, which Al-Haiki’s Committee judged to be in contradiction with Islamic law.
Shouting and accusations
Early on in the day, the parliamentary session dissolved into chaos after Women’s Committee Chairwoman Al-Haiki bizarrely asked for yet another delay of two weeks for the CEDAW discussion. This caused a strong outcry and many MPs began hurling abuse at each other, with language unbefitting of public figures:
Adel al-Asoumi strongly attacked Al-Haiki and the Women’s Committee, saying: “They betrayed people and accused them of atheism. Meanwhile the Committee Chairwoman can’t come up with a single word in response to the Legal Advisor’s comments… Have the courage to let everyone say their piece”.
Khaled al-Shaer went even further, screaming: “Don’t delay the vote. This is a farce Mr. Chairman. They betrayed everyone and tried to portray us as pimps. The head of this Committee is a laughing-stock and the delay is just a game… we know who you are in the pay of”.
As the session descended into anarchy, the Chairman ordered a 15 minute break, during which he negotiated a vote on whether to delay the debate for a week. MPs voted to continue. Even when it came to six o’clock in the evening, MPs elected to continue the session and let everyone have their say, even continuing after the evening prayers.
How did MPs vote?
Many of the opponents to the CEDAW bill were predictable. Mohammed al-Ammadi from the pro-Muslim Brotherhood society Al-Minbar made clear before the session that he would vote against. The five Islamist MPs associated with the Salafist Al-Asalah society (Abdulhalim Murad, Ali al-Muqla, Anas Buhindi, Jamal Dawoud and Nabil al-Balooshi) were strongly against.
The six-member National Bloc maintained a united front against CEDAW; with Ali Bufarsan, Mohammed al-Ahmed, Ahmed Qaratah, Ibrahim al-Hammadi and Abdulrahman Bumjaid voting against; with only Mohammed al-Jowder absent from the session.
The five-member Accord Bloc were mostly together in opposition to the bill, with Dhiyab al-Noaimi, Muhsin al-Bakri, Mohammed al-Maarifi and Osama al-Khajah against. However, surprisingly, chairman of the bloc Isa Turki broke ranks and voted in favour.
The nine-member Participation Bloc was severely divided over the issue. Shia cleric Majid al-Asfour spoke up strongly in favour of CEDAW, while his colleague Shaikh Majid al-Majid stayed away from the session. Jamila al-Sammak, Ghazi Al Rahmah and Jalal Kadhim al-Mahfoudh have all been strong supporters of the bill and voted in favour, along with Nasser al-Qaseer. Head of the bloc, Mohammed al-Dossary was the only one to vote against. Jamal Buhassan and Adel Bin-Hamid had both spoken out strongly against CEDAW but failed to be present for the vote.
Among the independents; Khaled al-Shaer, Abbas al-Madhi and Abdulrahman Bu-Ali voted in favour; along with the Chairman and Deputy Chairman of the Parliament Ahmed al-Mulla and Ali al-Aradi. Rua al-Haiki was against, along with Khalifa al-Ghanim.
Strangely, Adel al-Asoumi all day had been one of the most outspoken MPs in urging his colleagues to vote in favour; yet he was absent from the vote. Isa al-Kooheji, Ali al-Atish, Abdullah Bin-Huwail and Mohammed Milad also weren’t there for the vote.
There were two MPs present who refrained from voting either way: Fatimah al-Asfour had been a member of the Women’s Committee but resigned part of the way through the CEDAW discussions. Finally, Abdulhamid al-Najjar, from the pro-Muslim Brotherhood Al-Islah society, could have been expected to vote against CEDAW, but abstained.
The breakdown of the voting patterns shows how easily the presence of a couple of extra MPs during the vote could have impacted the final result.
Where does this leave the Women’s Committee?
The Women’s Committee has effectively disintegrated. Back in November 2015, former Chairwoman Jamila al-Sammak was first to resign after Rua al-Haiki forced her out with the support of a coalition of Islamist MPs. Fatimah al-Asfour also resigned in early 2016.
Finally, Chairwoman Rua al-Haiki has announced her intention to resign, after she claimed that Parliament Chairman Ahmed al-Mulla had undermined her position by forcing a vote on CEDAW. She also accused him of failing to pass on requests for information to officials.
This leaves the Sunni cleric Anas Buhindi and Jamal Dawoud; both of whom are close to the Salafist Al-Asalah society; and conservative MP Muhsin al-Bakri, who has been one of the most outspoken figures against CEDAW.
According to precedent, the Woman’s Committee should always be headed by a female MP. Following Al-Haiki’s resignation, the only credible figure is Jamila al-Sammak (The third female MP, Fatima al-Asfour has almost never spoken in Parliament and is not on record as ever having asked a parliamentary question or submitted a single proposal). However, Al-Sammak may be reluctant to return to an Islamist-dominated body.
The political society Al-Asalah as a matter of principle rejects the participation of women in political life. Its membership and affiliates have no place on a committee which should be dedicated to speaking up for women in Parliament. Although the Committee should contain a diversity of views, it should not contain a significant number of figures seeking to hijack the agenda and undermine the cause of women.
Consequently, the only sensible option on the table for the Parliament Chairman would seem to be dissolving the Committee altogether and starting a selection process from scratch, while establishing clearer ground-rules about the ideal composition of this Committee.
Scholars’ opposition and online incitement
In the days prior to the vote, Islamic figures waged a fierce social media campaign under the “No to CEDAW” slogan. At times, large numbers of identical tweets were simultaneously dumped on Twitter from anonymous accounts to keep the hashtag trending.
The campaign claimed that CEDAW undermined the protections and dignity afforded to women under Islamic law; that CEDAW facilitated the use of women in prostitution and human trafficking; and said that implementing CEDAW meant rejecting Islamic law. Many of these were prominent and influential bloggers with a large following.
A letter by 72 Islamic scholars, featuring prominent names, was featured in Akhbar al-Khaleej newspaper on 5 April. The letter said that CEDAW “directly harms the family unit and affects its stability, as well as being a route for foreign interference in our national sovereignty”.
Influential Al-Watan commentator Sawsan al-Shaer wrote a 4 April article attacking the “No to CEDAW” campaign. She said that since initial implementation in 2002 CEDAW had not undermined Islamic law and the small changes being introduced would have little further effect. She accused the Islamists behind of backing a seditious scare campaign which undermined the King’s reform agenda.
In response to the many misunderstandings, Justice Minister Khaled Bin-Ali Al Khalifa during the Parliament session gave six very straightforward “No’s” to questions by MP Abdelhamid al-Najjar, apparently from questions circulating on Twitter:
Does CEDAW say that girls can travel without permission from their guardians? – No!
Does an illegitimate daughter have the right to inherit her mother’s name? – No!
Does it allow abortion? – No!
Does the bill mean the removal of Bahrain’s reservations to CEDAW? – No!
Does this prohibit polygamy? – No!
Will Shari’ah courts have to implement CEDAW? – No!
Viewpoint: A victory – or cause for despair?
The passing of the CEDAW legislation is obviously an important success for those of us who believe that the universal rights of women should be taken for granted, but the experience of following this debate will have left many feeling profoundly depressed.
Despite the articulate arguments by ministers and officials explaining that the amendments only amounted to subtle redrafting of existing legislation, and despite clear provisions asserting the primacy of Islamic law and the Bahrain Constitution; we have been treated to a sustained campaign of fear-mongering and a display of the most backward and hostile attitudes towards women.
It doesn’t feel like a victory when only one quarter of MPs were willing to vote in favour of a bill which made very minor amendments to Bahrain’s commitment to preserving women’s rights.
Online Islamic activists, clerics and elected MPs on one hand asserted that Islamic law accorded women all the dignity and respect they deserved; and then immediately followed up by claiming that “without stringent rules limiting their freedom of movement most women would turn to prostitution, homosexuality and all manner of other unacceptable practices”.
The same figures who claimed that their main priority was protecting and honouring women, in fact demonstrated the deepest contempt of the female sex; and a rejection of any kind of meaningful freedoms.
This was all the more depressing because this campaign against women was fronted by chairwoman of the Women’s Committee Rua al-Haiki. Her Committee’s concluding statement on the evening before the vote stated that CEDAW was contrary to Islamic law because it “gives men and women the same rights in law regarding movement of individuals and the freedom to choose where they will live”.
It is shocking that this statement came from a businesswoman: If she is unsympathetic to the fact that women in the field of commerce need the freedom to travel and pursue their business interests; then who can we rely on to promote the cause of women?
The online campaign against women’s rights was even less subtle; claiming that CEDAW was a Western plot and that acceptance of this bill meant abandonment of the Islamic faith, for which Bahrain would suffer the consequences. Once again, these supposedly righteous figures were only too happy to go into explicit detail about all the kinds of unnatural practices women would rush to participate in, if given greater freedoms.
Particularly among the younger generations and those with education, Bahrain’s society is mostly moderate, tolerant and enlightened. Our greatest failing, however, is a willingness to listen deferentially to those who claim expertise in religious issues. For many of us who are not particularly religious, we have the tendency to overcompensate and give religious figures too much say on moral issues.
The dangerous result is that ideological figures perform disproportionately well in open elections and even those we elect who aren’t particularly religious tend to be easily swayed by those who profess to be specialists in religion.
This all contributes to the climate we witnessed in the CEDAW parliamentary session: A minority of Islamic MPs and a wider array of conservative MPs were easily able to dominate proceedings; and a very loud, aggressive and toxic campaign by anti-women voices in the social media served its purpose in ensuring that MPs shut their ears to any reasoned arguments by ministers and appointed officials.
This draws attention to a phenomenon which we see all too often in this region. The “governing class” of ministers, officials and the monarchy itself tend to be progressive and tolerant in their views. They are supportive and encouraging of the rights of women and minorities and anxious to implement legislation which enshrines the freedoms of all.
However, these efforts are all-too-often blocked at every turn by so-called representatives of the public who end up advocating a highly illiberal agenda – even when this is not in the interests of the public who they are supposed to be representing.
For this reason, efforts at rapid democratization in this part of the world almost always end up furthering the agenda of those whose values are highly anti-democratic and intolerant. The 2014 parliamentary elections represented a sound defeat for Islamist political societies – yet somehow Islamists have ended up being disproportionately influential in seeking to block progressive legislation like CEDAW.
CEDAW was passed by Parliament despite the best efforts of most of Parliament to block it. This doesn’t represent a victory for democracy, rather it provides a strong argument for retaining the checks and balances which prevent any ideological faction from holding sway over everyone else. In particular, these checks and balances are absolutely necessary for preventing any grouping which claims to reject the majority from curtailing the rights and freedoms of minorities – or in the case of women the “other” half of the population.
So for many reasons the passing of CEDAW doesn’t feel like a victory, particularly as it has demonstrated to the forces of intolerance and backwardness how much influence they can hold over Parliament and public debate.
More than anything, we have to ask – when hardliners were mobilizing dozens of supporters to pedal messages of hatred and intolerance through the social media – why was there no moderate middle-ground figures standing up to challenge them?
Citizens for Bahrain CEDAW reporting
For further background to the CEDAW issue, Citizens for Bahrain’s related reporting and statements can be found here:
Citizens for Bahrain statement: Do not vote against women this week – 2 Apr 2016
Angry confrontations as CEDAW returns to agenda: Week in politics -30 Mar 2016
Are Islamist MPs exploiting their influence?: Week in politics – 25 Feb 2016
Bahrain MPs again reject CEDAW women’s law – 24 Feb 2016
MPs opposed to CEDAW women’s rights law: Week in politics – 18 Feb
Bahrain MPs postpone CEDAW women’s rights law – 15 Dec 2015
Bahraini voices call on MPs to enshrine rights for women – 13 Dec 2015
Women’s Committee Rejects CEDAW: Week in Parliament – 2 Dec 2015
Citizens for Bahrain tells MPs: “Do not block rights for women” – 1 Dec 2015
No more reservations about rights for Bahraini women – 20 Jan 2014
Timeline of CEDAW discussions
2002: Bahrain joined CEDAW, but submitted several reservations, claiming that aspects of the convention conflicted with Islamic law and local traditions. Since then women’s activists have been campaigning for Bahrain to lift these reservations.
19 January 2014: The Bahrain Government 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.
10 February 2014: Supreme Council for Women’s (SCW) Deputy Chairwoman stressed Bahrain’s commitment to the framework of CEDAW as she addressed the Geneva session scrutinizing Bahrain’s 3rd Report on CEDAW implementation. SCW’s Secretary-General ahead of the meeting noted Bahrain’s readiness to review its existing reservations to CEDAW.
30 November: Following discussions, the parliamentary Women’s Committee announced that it would be recommending rejection of the CEDAW draft.
1 December: Citizens for Bahrain issued a statement criticizing the parliamentary Women and Children’s Committee’s recommendation for rejecting full implementation of CEDAW.
2 December: Bahrain’s Women’s Union strongly criticized the Women’s Committee’s position on CEDAW.
11 December: Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs raises reservations about the CEDAW draft.
12 December: The Supreme Council for Women stressed the importance of ratifying this Convention, noting the central role of women in society and the importance of empowering Bahraini women in all aspects of their lives. The Bahrain Ministry of Foreign Affairs has also stressed the importance of CEDAW. The Ministry said that it was a mistake to believe that the Convention conflicted with Islamic Law. It said that “equality between men and women as a general principle is clearly enshrined in Islamic Shari’ah, which looks upon men and women as together being the basis for life in society”.
14 December: A statement from the Bahrain Women’s Union stressed that CEDAW is in accordance with Islamic law.
15 December: The parliamentary vote was postponed after the draft was withdrawn for further consultations by the Women’s Committee.
21 December: The Women’s Union issued a statement saying that the position of MPs on CEDAW “represents a major setback for implementation of international conventions” and “damages Bahrain’s reputation”.
29 December: The Women’s Committee is reportedly holding meetings with the Ministry for Foreign Affairs and the Women’s Union concerning CEDAW. A statement said that the Committee had discussed the “absence of any legal basis for redrafting the convention”.
3 February: Following a further meeting with the Women’s Committee, the Women’s Union stressed its continued commitment to seeing CEDAW ratified.
15 February: Al-Haiki said that her committee had made a final decision to recommend rejection of the CEDAW draft, following a reported failure of Supreme Council for Women representatives to attend a meeting on the issue.
19 March: Al-Haiki asks the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for a draft of its notification to the UN on intention to waive CEDAW reservations – she stresses need for careful study to ensure constitutionality of measures.
29 March: CEDAW goes to a parliamentary vote after Parliament Chairman overrules the Women’s Committee. Majority of MPs agree to delay vote until 5 April.
4 April: Parliamentary Women’s Committee restated its rejection of CEDAW in its final recommendations to Parliament.
5 April: Final CEDAW vote in Parliament. CEDAW approved and passed on to Shura Council.
Week in politics
Continued reform efforts:5 – 11 May 2016
Social media attacks: 20-27 April 2016
Shura Council rejects “Islamicization”: 7-13 April 2016
CEDAW victory: 31 March – 6 April 2016
MPs reject budget statement: 24 – 30 March 2016
Pensions dispute: 17 – 23 March 2016
Committees of inquiry: 10 – 16 March 2016
Protection for Shia families: 3 – 9 March 2016
Political societies in decline: 25 Feb – 2 Mar
Lebanon travel restrictions: 19-24 Feb
Constitution celebrations: 11-18 Feb
Russia State visit: 4-10 Feb