Bahraini Women Struggle To Get Their Rights… How Laws Discriminate Against Them
By Naziha Said
Bahraini society is slightly ahead of its neighbors in terms of personal freedoms, including those enjoyed by women. This is due to several historical and political reasons associated with the leftist movement in the sixties and seventies of the last century, an active women’s movement since the fifties, and a long history of women’s struggle.
The right to education for girls and the right of women to attend university education or work, for instance, is no longer a topic of discussion for the majority of Bahraini families and is often commonplace.
In many cases, however, women are still seen as unequal beings, second-class citizens, and subordinates to the male guardian, a male member of the family.
They are also not entitled to exist in the public sphere, except under certain conditions and in a certain form acceptable to the patriarchal system.
Although Bahraini women have made leaps in their claims and rights over the past decades, societal and legal change continues to clash with customs, traditions, and a prevailing view of religion.
Added to this is the lack of fresh blood in women’s movements. These movements need revitalizing forces, just like the country’s political situation which distracts attention from women’s needs and suffering, under an unfair social and legal system.
Discriminatory legal challenges
Article 18 of Bahrain’s constitution states that “people are equal in human dignity, and citizens are equal before the law in public rights and duties. There shall be no discrimination between them on grounds of sex, origin, language, religion or creed.”
But many laws in the small Gulf oil states discriminate against women.
For example, Article 4, paragraph (a) of the Bahraini Nationality Law of 1963, replaced by Law No. 12 of 1989, stipulates that “a person is considered Bahraini if he is born in Bahrain or abroad, and his father is Bahraini at the time of his or her birth, excluding the Bahraini mother from the right to pass on her nationality to her children.
Child marriage is still permissible under Bahraini law. The minimum age for marriage is 15 for girls and women and 18 for men.
While the Child Law sets the age of childhood for everyone under the age of 18, meaning that a girl at the age of 15 is not an adult!
The Penal Code stipulates that “no one who assaults a female against her consent shall be punished if a valid marriage is concluded between him and her. If a final verdict is issued against him before the marriage is concluded, its execution is suspended and its side effects are terminated.”
Additionally, Bahraini women are only entitled to benefit from housing services through their husbands.
A divorcee, an abandoned woman, a widow who does not have one or more children or a single woman whose parents are dead, is granted temporary housing only at the discretion of the Housing Committee.
In addition, women are unable to obtain official documents for their minor sons and daughters, such as passports or CPRs, except in the presence of a male relative, such as a father, a grandfather, or an uncle. This is stipulated by any law, but it is the procedure followed within government departments.
Bahraini lawyer Yara Al-Ahmadi told “Sharika Wa Laken”: “Women’s rights grievance is something that we have come to see in all parts of Bahraini law, and it is indeed regrettable because it represents severe contradiction with international standards for women’s rights as reflected in international treaties ratified by the Kingdom.”
On the other hand, the women’s movement represented by women’s associations and the Women’s Union has been trying to change these laws for several decades.
Sometimes they succeeded in lobbying for several laws. At other times, they have been able to push for temporary solutions or measures to mitigate the impact of the unfairness caused by the discriminatory laws, and the subsequent injustice and suffering for a large number of women and their families.
Nationality Law Unfair to Bahraini Women
Al-Ahmadi explained the impact of the current nationality law on the lives of women married to non-Bahrainis and their families.
She pointed out that “the shortcomings in the nationality law are reflected in various areas and aspects of the lives of Bahraini sons and daughters. In terms of education, they are indeed allowed to receive free education in public schools, but they are not nominated for any educational delegation or scholarships”
“In terms of health services, they receive free health care, but the state withholds this right when children reach adulthood” she added.
She also pointed to “the defects in the right to own property, and the difficulty in obtaining loans from Bahraini financial institutions, in addition to denial of social insurance, deprivation of unemployment allowance, complicated accommodation procedures, the impossibility of owning a house or obtaining a housing loan, as well as scarcity of job opportunities and other matters.”
Al-Ahmadi also spoke about the “subordinate relationship of a woman to her husband” in nationality law, whether she is Bahraini and has obtained the nationality of her foreign husband or a foreigner who has obtained the nationality of her Bahraini husband.
She affirmed that “a woman’s nationality follows that of a man if he is a Bahraini, his foreign wife is granted the Bahraini nationality, and if the husband is a foreigner, a Bahraini woman may lose her nationality if she acquires the nationality of the husband. Although some maintain that the reason for the provision of the article in this way is to prevent multiple nationalities, however, from the way the article itself is drafted, we see the blatant distinction that can never be overlooked.”
Dr. Wajiha al-Baharna, a member of the Nationality Committee at the Women’s Union, agrees, “The Bahraini Nationality Law issued in 1963 and the amendments made to it in 1981 and 1989 suffer from several defects, represented in the violation of some of its provisions to the constitution and international charters and agreements, including those to which Bahrain agreed to join.”
In an exclusive interview with “Sharika Wa Laken”, Al-Baharna enumerated some of these defects, mentioning “depriving the sons and daughters of Bahraini women married to foreigners from obtaining Bahraini nationality, depriving them of their basic rights and preventing them from carrying out the duties prescribed by the constitution.”
She pointed out that “the Nationality Committee of the Women’s Union communicated with many relevant authorities, including the Supreme Council for Women in Bahrain, and the continuous meetings with the Council resulted in adopting specific procedures and measures to help affected women and alleviate their suffering, but the Council has a different view.
She added that “the committee demands that these sons and daughters be granted citizenship automatically, so that a child born to a Bahraini mother (married to a non-Bahraini) obtains the nationality of his mother immediately after birth, as it is an inherent right of children. As for the Supreme Council for Women, it believes that granting citizenship to them must be per certain regulations. This is not considered by the Nationality Committee to be compatible with constitutional articles and international conventions, especially the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Convention on the Rights of Children and Girls.”
Legal Status Law
Article 95 on divorce in the Jaafari courts causes controversy in Bahrain.
There is the so-called file of “confined women”, those are women seeking divorce or khula’ but the courts refuse to divorce them because the law allows the husband to request compensation for divorce.
This may impose impossible conditions for wives. They end up being trapped for years between the courts, custody of their sons and daughters, and negotiations for their freedom.
In this regard, Al Ahmadi pointed out that “The marriage relationship between the two parties, whether in the Sunni or Jaafari part of the current law, can be terminated in three ways”.
She pointed out that the first method is divorce with a word from the husband, and the second is divorce by a judicial ruling from the Sharia courts (according to the terms and conditions prescribed by law). The third is khula’ by decision of the wife, by the conditions stipulated by law.”
“Thus, the great disparity between the rights of the sexes to terminate the marital relationship is evident. The husband may divorce his wife with one word, but the wife must, according to the text of article 95, second paragraph (in the Jaafari part thereof), file a lawsuit for khula’, and her consent shall be restricted to three conditions: the payment of compensation, the consent of the husband and the realization of hatred.”
She considered that “All these conditions constitute restrictions on the wife and means of coercion, where the husband may dig in his heels and refuse to divorce her except in exchange for large sums of money. In such a case, she either remains in a marital relationship that offends her and her children or she acquiesces to the husband’s demands and seeks money to attain her khula’.”
The marriage age law allows child marriage
Bahraini writer and researcher Dr. Mona Abbas Fadl says, “Determining the age of marriage has evolved in international conventions and has moved towards obliging states to take legislative measures to set 18 as the minimum age for marriage. The marriage or engagement of a child under this age has no legal effect as stated in the Convention on the Rights of the Child.”
“Early marriage is considered in international custom as a form of coercion, allowing or condoning marriage of girls at an age below the age prescribed by law for having the legal capacity and maturity that entitles them to choose or accept a partner,” she added.
In a series of tweets, she stressed that “early marriage has the risk of early and frequent pregnancies that may cause high rates of illness, maternal and infant mortality. It adversely affects girls’ sexual and reproductive health.”
“It may also lead to early divorce and separation from family and friends, and limit the freedom to participate in community activities, which negatively and profoundly affects girls’ mental and physical well-being, depriving them of the right to education, character building and job opportunities,” she said.
Moreover, it impairs the young girl’s ability to make decisions about her sexual and reproductive health, due to her lack of information or awareness about the importance of spacing between pregnancies, which puts her at risk of contracting diseases, especially sexually transmitted diseases.
UNICEF, which launched the Global Programme to End Child Marriage, said the practice deprives girls of their childhood and threatens their lives and health. They also become more vulnerable to domestic violence and less likely to stay in school.
They also suffer worse economic and health problems than their single peers, which they eventually pass on to their children and increase pressure on the country’s ability to provide quality health and education services.
Punishing the rapist law
Article 353 of the Penal Code exempts a rapist, aggressor, or sexual harasser from the legally prescribed penalty if he marries his “victim.”
“This article is a violation of women’s rights, a reward for men’s actions, a mockery of the gravity of rape and harassment crimes, and forcing the victim to spend the rest of her life with those who robbed her life,” said lawyer Yara al-Ahmadi.
She pointed out that this legal article was derived from either the Napoleonic colonial law of 1810 or the Ottoman law of 1911.
She added: “The convicted offender should be punished with a penalty that serves as deterrence to prevent him from committing this crime again, and to educate society about such unacceptable practices, which is not achieved in this article.”
Decades of struggle and achievements
After years of claims, feminist efforts resulted in some special measures, granting citizenship to more than a thousand sons and daughters of Bahraini women married to non-Bahrainis.
Some laws and legislations have also been issued in their favor, including amending the Social Security Law to ensure equality between the sons and daughters of women married to foreigners and Bahrainis in social assistance.
A law establishing the Alimony Fund was issued in 2005 and amended in 2009 to ensure that children of Bahraini women married to foreigners benefit from the services provided by the Alimony Fund, provided that they reside in the Kingdom.
Dr. Wajeha Al-Baharna, a member of the Nationality Committee of the Women’s Union, told “Sharika Wa Laken” that “In 2009, a law was issued on the treatment of Bahraini women married to foreigners and their sons and daughters as Bahrainis concerning some government services fees, such as fees for health, education and residence services, with the requirement of permanent residence in the country.”
She added that “In 2014, the Cabinet approved a draft law amending some provisions of the 1963 Nationality Law. Mothers married to foreigners are now allowed to grant citizenship to their sons and daughters under specific limitations and standards. The law was referred to the legislature following the constitutional legal procedures. In addition to a law that stipulates equal treatment of disabled sons and daughters of Bahraini women married to foreigners, who are permanently resident in Bahrain, on the same basis as Bahraini families with disabilities, allowing them to benefit from services and privileges.”
Finally, a decision was issued by the Minister of Housing in 2015, to include housing services for divorced or “abandoned” women, widows who do not have one or more sons or unmarried orphans of parents, and this category is granted temporary housing service only at the discretion of the Housing Committee.
A long history of women’s struggle. Challenges facing women’s Movement
In an exclusive interview with “Sharika Wa Laken”, the President of the Bahraini Women’s Association, Iman Shwaiter, spoke about the most prominent challenges facing the women’s movement in Bahrain.
“The decline of voluntary work and its inability to attract youth, or enthusiastic members believing in the importance of voluntary work is one of the challenges. This leaves few female members in associations or the women’s union to bear the brunt, so we have the same names left to defend pressing women’s issues and amending laws,” she said.
Shwaiter considers that “Strategic plans through which implementation is followed up to find solutions and issue legislation are often not developed. Work is being slow as a result of being limited to bounded members, who may be concerned with other matters, daily duties, family or health conditions.” She added that “the frail work of the committees concerned with women’s and children’s issues in the legislative authority, and the lack of attention given to women’s cases raised by women’s organizations, frustrates associations because they are not referred to despite their being a competent authority.”
She stressed that “most of the members of the Shura Council and the House of Representatives did not emerge from the womb of the women’s movement and do not have any background on the mechanisms of the feminist movement and the struggle of women for liberation and development.”
She believes that “The executive authority, represented by the Ministry of Labor and Development, restricts voluntary work by setting restrictive conditions of the NGO law, prohibiting the receipt of support and funding from those supporting events and programs, such as training workshops and seminars, that contribute to awareness, and alliance with regional and global countries that suffer from the same challenges and gaps,”.
Changing society’s perception of women and their rights is a process that takes a long time, but it must be accompanied by laws that protect them and treat them as full citizens with rights that are no less than men’s. Such as providing citizenship for their sons and daughters, the right to obtain a housing unit, justice in the event of rape or harassment, and other basic rights that contribute to facilitating their lives and the lives of their families and preserving their dignity.