Bahraini women’s role in the political sphere has become steadily stronger over recent years. This includes greater numbers of women elected into Parliament, a significant number of appointments for the Shura Council, women thriving in ministerial roles, and numerous female diplomats. Here we look at the background to female inclusion in Bahrain’s elected Council of Representatives.
When King Hamad ushered in the age of Parliament-centred constitutional monarchy in 2002, women in 2002, 2006 and 2010 rounds of elections struggled to make an impact. Although several strong candidates put their names forward, in a conservative society, male candidates repeatedly proved more successful. A dilemma for female candidates was that their prospects often superficially looked strongest in more liberal and middle-class constituencies. Yet often these same constituencies were the most competitive, with large numbers of strong candidates. In many cases several women ended up competing against each other – and then losing out to a man!
For several years Latifa al-Gaoud was the only female MP and she represented a constituency in the extreme south of the Kingdom which was by far the largest district demographically, but with by far the smallest number of constituents, in this rural, underpopulated area. In fact, Latifa won her seat by default when others failed to stand against her in the 2006 elections.
In 2011, after Al-Wefaq Islamic Society staged its walkout from Parliament; during the resulting by-election, in a couple of constituencies women were able to take advantage of the disruption to win parliamentary seats, notably Ebtisam Hijres and Sawsan Taqawi. The 2014 elections likewise produced large numbers of new faces, and three female candidates. Dr Jameela al-Sammak demonstrated herself to be a notable deputy; firstly as chair of the Women and Children’s Committee, but also as an advocate for improved health services and career opportunities. Notably, all three of these deputies (also including Fatima al-Asfour and Rua al-Haiki) again hailed from Shia constituencies impacted by the Al-Wefaq boycott.
The 2018 elections, however, proved to be a watershed moment, with women doubling the size of their representation to six deputies (out of 40 total seats); despite all female members of the 2014 Parliament failing to keep their positions. This can largely be credited to the strength of the campaigns of these candidates; notably women’s activist and veteran campaigner, Fawzia Zainal; along with journalist Zainab Abdulamir and psychologist Dr. Masooma Abdulrahim – all of whom also (unsuccessfully) distinguished themselves in the 2014 elections contest.
Fatima Abbas won her seat outright in the first round of the elections after impressing local constituents with her performance as their municipal councilor. Psychologist Sawsan Kamal deserves to be commended for making such an impressive showing on her first attempt in competing for political office. A record 42 women were originally registered to compete in the 2018 elections; setting women up for an even stronger showing in 2022!
When Fawzia Zainal put her name forward to be Head of Parliament, many observers expressed doubts. This role has traditionally gone to a heavyweight, experienced parliamentarian – inevitably a man! The role demands a strong figure who can keep deputies in check and who has a clear grasp of the complicated rules, procedures and precedents of Bahrain’s Parliament.
Not only did Fawzia win the post by gaining the most votes from her colleagues, she has also so far proven herself very adept at the role; firstly with deputies discussing and passing the Government’s four-year action plan smoothly and efficiently; followed by an equally well-organized passage of the state Budget.
We can hope for Fawzia’s continued success in this role, in demonstrating to Bahrain’s society that women can be the most effective representatives of citizens’ aspirations and play strong leadership roles.