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BAHRAIN: Rifts Weaken Women’s Protest

Suad Hamada

MANAMA, Jul 4 2011 (IPS) - Women activists in Bahrain have acknowledged their poor showing in the recent unrest as well as in efforts to fight sectarianism, and blamed it on rifts within their organisations.

Many have accused Bahraini women – with their long history of struggle and victory – of failing to leave their mark in the recent uprising in the country.

Shortly after sectarian tensions broke out in Manama in February, women activists and their societies launched at least three initiatives to bring their advocacies to the people and help improve the plight of women.

But the political agenda of other groups got mixed up with women’s causes. “Most of our societies were forced to stop all activities either because women-oriented programmes weren’t suitable then or because some members tried pushing their political agendas,” a human rights activist and founder of one of Bahrain’s oldest women’s societies told IPS on condition of anonymity.

“In my own experience, we had many female members who wanted to misuse the society and its programmes in pushing for the agendas of their own political societies, which isn’t something we wanted to happen. So we froze almost all activities to protect our neutrality,” she said, stressing that the same problem occurred in other groups.

An example was the Women for Bahrain project, which had a grand launch last March but started to fade in less than a month.

“Women for Bahrain was lucky to have a strong start, but received a deadly end when its Facebook page turned into a war zone between youth from different sects,” she said, explaining that the group’s presence in the social networking site became a battleground for opposing views. “All efforts to control the activities of the page and bar angry youth failed, hence the organisers decided to shelve the project.”

Abdulnabi Al Ekri, president of the Bahrain Transparency Society, told IPS that women’s participation across all political parties did not exceed 25 percent of all activities during and after the unrest.

Women took part in rallies and processions organised by opposition and pro-government groups, but their involvement was mainly as participants and not as leaders or speakers.

“Political societies have female members but they aren’t in leading positions, hence their roles were overshadowed by top male members,” Al Ekri says.

He urges female activists to end their silence and grab the golden opportunity for greater women empowerment offered by the national dialogue to commence on Jul. 1 with the participation of all segments of society.

Bahrain Women’s Union led the way when it submitted on Jun. 23 the points it thought should be included in the general agenda for the talks. The Union, with 12 women’s societies as members, demanded an amendment to the outdated nationality law to give females the right to pass their nationality on to their children, just as men married to foreigners are able to. It also asked for the implementation of the second part of the Family Law to cover Shiite Shariah Court under the legislation. The current law covers only Sunni Shariah Court.

“We have submitted our views and they are supported by almost all women’s societies, but we have no idea if they will be given priority,” said Mariam Al Ruwai, president of the Bahrain Women’s Union. But she noted that the talks would focus on “correcting the political situation and creating political changes,” and that gender equality needs to play a key role.

Writer Saeed Al Hamad said women’s voices have been hijacked and are no longer as loud as they were during the 1960s when Bahrain was fighting for independence from British rule.

“The backwardness of the Arab world in the last 30 years turned women in the region into followers and not leaders,” Al Hamad told a recent seminar by the state-run Supreme Council for Women. “Bahraini women felt the pain of unrest more than males, so they have to have a bigger role in the future by having greater participation in society. The upcoming by-election in September could be a good start,” he said.

But religious lecturer Fatima Bosoundel refuses to accept that Bahraini women played a minor role in recent political events. “Females had great roles at home by keeping children calm and unaffected when things were out of control in the streets. They cannot be underestimated for being the strongest element in the house,” she tells IPS.

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