These Citizens for Bahrain reports analyse all aspects of the activities of the 2014 Parliament, ahead of the autumn 2018 elections.
The past four years have seen a lot of legislative activity in support of women’s rights and women’s role in society:
· The Unified Family Law (ratified in August 2017) for the first time provides comprehensive legislation for both the Sunni and Shia communities, in order to protect the legal rights of women and children concerning issues of divorce, inheritance and child custody.
· Enhanced implementation of the UN’s Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in April 2016.
· Proposed amendments to laws concerning rape, in order to ensure that women don’t come under pressure to marry a man accused of raping them. However, while Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan and Lebanon moved forward with similar legislation, proposals emerging from both Bahraini Parliament chambers during mid-2016 have yet to reach the statute books.
· In early 2015 King Hamad issued a decree granting full housing rights for widows, divorcees and un-married women; so that vulnerable females enjoy improved living standards and are prioritized for housing services.
In fact, the elected House of Representatives has displayed a mixed record in its advocacy of these issues. During the 2014-15 parliamentary year, the Women and Children’s Committee, chaired by MP Jamila al-Sammak proved to be a dynamic and active body dedicated to expediting important legislation, especially concerning the domestic violence law.
In 2015 Sammak was displaced and replaced by Rua al-Haiki with the backing of a number of Islamist and conservative MPs. Soon afterwards both other female committee members resigned and the Committee henceforth took a much less constructive position towards women’s empowerment, with Rua al-Haiki waging a lengthy and unsuccessful campaign to block the CEDAW legislation, gaining a sympathetic ear from conservative MPs. In fact, most MPs during the final Parliament session voted against the CEDAW legislation, which only passed because this fell two votes short of an outright majority. In the preceding days MPs had been faced with an intense campaign of disinformation against CEDAW from Islamist entities which tried to argue that CEDAW represents a rejection of Islamic principles.
One would thus be forced to conclude that although the past four years have seen important achievements for women’s rights, this has come almost in spite of the position of many elected MPs. With only three female MPs entering the Council of Representatives in 2014, the voices of a small conservative minority have often been loudest. In comparison, the appointed Shura Council habitually has more than 25 percent female membership, with a higher proportion of progressive and technocratic figures. Female Shura MPs have habitually been appointed to the senior roles and are among the most visible members. As a result, the Shura Council has consistently been more supportive of issues of women’s empowerment.
The inescapable conclusion is that more must be done to support the promotion of high-calibre candidates in 2018. Although the Supreme Council for Women has some excellent programmes for training and mentoring female MPs and candidates; this is clearly not enough to give candidates sufficient exposure with constituents. Women candidates habitually have tended to compete in traditionally more liberal constituencies, such as in Zayid Town, Isa Town and southern Manama. However, these are also the areas where competition is tightest, and the result is that excellent women candidates end up competing against each other, with none squeezing through into the second round.
All three 2014 female MPs are Shia women who competed in Shia-majority constituencies where many voters boycotted the ballot. The lower turnout, disproportionately in favour of younger and middle-class voters, provided these candidates an opportunity they wouldn’t have enjoyed in different circumstances. It is thus possible that 2018 could provide an even more challenging climate for women voters. Therefore, more needs to be done in terms of voter awareness, to facilitate an environment which doesn’t strongly favour theocratic and conservative figures, at the expense of a more diverse cross-section of Bahraini society.
It would be refreshing to see citizens encouraged to vote based on a criteria of competence, public service record and qualifications. Previous years have seen some excellent female businesswomen, lawyers, professionals and former civil servants competing for office. We hope that we get to see them competing on a level playing-field.