The women of Bahrain were the first of all Gulf women to participate in political field when they took part in the 1919 municipal elections. They were also the first amongst the women of the Gulf to establish a women’s association back in 1955. However, today Bahrain seems to be in a stalemate especially when it comes to the issue of ”women’s rights”.
Dr. Munirah Fakhraw member of the Higher Council for Women says, “The beginnings of the feminist movements were naturally related to the prevalent political movements of the time. The first women’s charity association was founded in 1955 and its activities were mainly about eliminating illiteracy and gaining financial family support. This period also witnessed sending women students to study abroad, which was a leading step among other Gulf States for Bahrain.
” The sixties gave Bahrain the first real project for renaissance, part of which was occupied by women.” Says Dr. Munirah. “Women’s demands overlapped with those of students and laborers’ but as a project, women’s movements were still largely maturing.” She added
The feminist history in the capital Manama has seen the first two women prisoners at the end of the 60’s when Subaikah Al Najjar-who is currently the chairwoman of the Association for Human Rights, and Dr. Saleha Al A’yshan, who later settled in Oman, were detained. With the nineties, a different strand of feminist activism appeared and for the first time, one of the items in a memorandum that was presented to the government in 1994, called for equality between the sexes in political participation. Twenty percent of the 23,000 signatures on the memorandum were signed by women.
Dr. Fakhraw who is one of the major leaders who also signed the document says, "Our demands stemmed from our desire to keep up with the changes of the modern world. The document expressed the demands of different constituencies of the arena such as religious ones between Sunnis and Shi’is, as well as the remainder of leftists and women.” One year later, 345 women presented an independent memorandum which was clearer in defining the political demands of
Bahraini women, yet it was not warmly welcomed.
After the enthronement of King Hamad Bin E’issa Al-Kahlifah a lot changed. Media woman Essmat Al Maussawi argues that “in 2002 women were given back a right that was taken from them in the 1973 constitution. They were given back their right to participate in elections and their right of candidacy without restrictions.” The last three years were full of radical changes towards women. According to Dr. Fajhraw, this led the international non-governmental organization, “Freedom House”, to classify Bahrain as the first among Gulf countries in addressing Women’s Rights.
However, Maussawi still believes that there is still a lot to be done. First of which is to be handled is the application of the constitution which grants women full rights. Also fulfilling entitlements present in international conventions that Bahrain signed. There is also the issue of drafting a personal status law that clarifies women’s rights in details. Yet, Maussawi returns to say that “the worst thing is that the staunchest adversaries of women are women themselves. Recently, a group of women have signed a memorandum rejecting a woman personal status law because they think it will contradict Islamic Law (Shari’a). This makes it clear that part of the battle over the future will be undoubtedly concerned with the development of social awareness.”
34 women have enlisted themselves as candidates in the last Bahraini municipal elections, yet none of them have won popular support. In the meantime, the government-appointed Shura Council has eight female members. The cabinet also includes two women ministers: the health minister and the social affairs minister. These factors led some women to demand the application of the ”Quota” system that gives women a specified number of seats in municipal and parliamentary councils on which only women compete ensuring their part in the decision making process.
Going back to the list of demands, Dr Fakhraw adds to those demands: “the necessity to increase women’s contribution in the workforce and the equally important need to make them part of the commitment to education efforts. It is important to note that two of the factors that are already existent in Bahrain and that make the aforementioned needs more desirable are the decrease of the illiteracy rate to 11%, and the formation of a strong Feminist Union that includes various individual and collective women’s orientations.” In 2002 the “Higher Council for Women” headed by Sheikhah Sbikah Bint Ibrahim was founded. It is concerned with offering advice to the government concerning women’s affairs. Presently there are about 14 women’s associations spread all over Bahrain that are described by Dr. Fakhraw “as getting stronger daily as they enter politics; we hope they develop and become political parties someday.”