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POLITICS-BAHRAIN: More Than A Matter of Putting Women in Office

Suad Hamada

MANAMA, Oct 18 2010 (IPS) - Women candidates seem to be getting scarcer in Bahraini elections, but women leaders here say female poll participation is no longer about getting into office.

“It isn’t anymore about winning but to be in the scene and gradually make people notice women as strong and reliable,” says Bahrain Women’s Union president Mariam Al Ruwai, who is herself running in the parliamentary and municipal elections set for Oct. 23.

“We are standing against odds to break trends in Bahrain’s men-oriented society,” she adds.

Women in Bahrain have enjoyed full political rights since the country became a democratic kingdom in 2002. There have been female candidates in the last two polls, but so far only one has won: Latifa Al Quod.

This is now seen as one reason why the number of women candidates seem to be declining, even though many Bahraini political parties have female members.

For the municipal elections this year, for instance, only three out of 182 candidates are female. In 2006, there were five women out of 171 candidates. The number of female candidates for municipal polls was largest in 2002, when there were 34 out of 300 vying for posts.


Parliamentary elections, meanwhile, saw the candidacy of eight women in 2002, including Al Quod. At the time, she was contesting the seat of a populated district, and lost.

In 2006, she was among the 18 candidates vying for legislative seats, but by then she had no rivals for the slot allotted to the state-owned, uninhabited island of Hawar.

Al Quod was the only female candidate who won in those elections. Today, the number of women eyeing a slot in parliament has dropped to nine.

In September, Al Quod automatically got re-elected when it became apparent that no one else was going to contest her seat.

Some women leaders, though, say this is all the more reason why they have to step up their efforts to establish a strong presence in Bahraini politics.

Muneera Fakhro, the only woman candidate backed by a political party, says that while she has nothing but respect for the “dedication of Al Quod in the last four years as she (has been) a strong lawmaker”, she cannot consider Al Quod’s two poll triumphs as “winning”.

“It will be an achievement for all of us women if at least one female will win in a real constituency with people,” says Fakhro, who is running once more for a parliament seat, after a failed try in 2006.

In one recent seminar, scholar Mona Abas blamed Islamists and Islamic societies for the poor fate of female candidates at the polls. Other observers also say Bahrain’s patriarchal society has led to even well-educated women themselves having a mindset that they are meant only for the home.

Some political parties are known to be even against having women in elected office. For example, the Al Asala Islamic Society, which has a Sunni conservative stance, is against supporting female candidates because this is against its “Islamic principles”.

Al Asala General Secretary Ghanim Al Buaneen tells IPS, “If women would make it to parliament, then we would cooperate with them. But our society wouldn’t support any female candidates. Ten percent of the society’s members are female and no one (among them) expresses a desire to stand for elections.”

For sure, there are political parties that have announced their support for female candidates – yet end up with all-male lineups.

Ali Salman, general secretary of the Shi’ite Al Wefaq Political Society, explains that his party’s lineup is bereft of women because, he says, the political situation is such that backing women may cause Al Wefaq to lose its seats.

Male voter Jamal Tulifat asserts, “Not voting for women has got nothing to do with voters discriminating against female candidates, but with the fear that those women will be focusing only on gender equality and neglect important legislative matters.”

“When we voters visit election campaign centres of female candidates,” he says, “we only hear how women are being maltreated and should be supported. This makes us feel insecure to vote for them as we want lawmakers who tackle all aspects in the country.”

The record of lone female MP Al Quod, however, shows her as being interested in financial and business legislation and not gender issues. She also steers clear of sectarian matters that preoccupy many MPs.

Activists like Fawziya Zainal want a quota system to help ensure fair participation of women in the lower house. “We have to show voters that females are trustworthy and that cannot be without the quota that is successfully implemented in some countries, including Jordan,” says Zainal.

But Lulwa Al Awadhi, general secretary of the state-run Supreme Council for Women, believes that a quota is against gender equality as it gives more privileges to females than males.

Al Ruwai, meanwhile, concedes that the considerable campaign expenses may be among the reasons why few women stand in elections in Bahrain. “Not all can afford to join to compete,” she says candidly.

Another politician, Hoda Al Mutawa, has also admitted that she is still paying debts she incurred to run in the 2006 parliamentary polls.

But she said, “When I came to know that my district – Muharraq – would be empty of female parliamentary election candidates, I forgot about my money issues and went and registered.”

 
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