Article 18 of the Constitution clearly states “ People are equal in human dignity, and citizens are equal before the law in public rights and duties. There shall be no discrimination among them on the basis of sex, origin, language, religion or creed”. Bahrain is a model of a socio-political system where women already had rights to own property and bank accounts, easing transition into business. In 2008 women owned over 30% of private businesses in Bahrain, an increase of almost 7% from 2001. Khadija, the wife of Prophet Mohammed’s (pbuh), is often mentioned as proof of female economic power and activity in business but there is no such representation in the political arena.
Women from the Al Khalifa family have used their position in society to free others from the shackles of chauvinism and discrimination. These women have campaigned for women’s rights, gender discrimination and representation to be addressed despite challenges of culture and religion. Today we have Muslim, Christian and Jewish women who are Ambassadors, Ministers, in Shura Council and Members of Parliament. Women in Bahrain are particularly remarkable, as they have had to scratch away at cultural barriers imposed by both men and women. The leadership should be acknowledged for promoting women empowerment by spearheading them into key roles and encouraging participation in business and government decisions that affects society as a whole.
Since the 1950s, women of society in Bahrain have worked informally in face-to-face exposure within the local community through charitable organisations. One of the pioneers of the movement of women into political roles is Shaikha Lulwa bint Mohammed Al Khalifa who established the Mother and Child’s Welfare Society (MCWS) in 1960 with the premises being inaugurated by Shaikha Hessa Al Khalifa in 1966. Women knew that to bring change within a family structure they needed to convince both men and women. The MCWS encourages women to take leadership positions within their communities as well support the less privileged through campaigns and fund raising activities.
It was not until fifteen years later, in 1975 that the first British Sex Discrimination Act and Equal Pay Act and Equal Opportunities were implemented. Twenty years later, in 1995 at the “Fourth World Conference on Women” the “Platform for Action” was signed which included a commitment to achieve “gender equality” of empowerment to women.
As the population grew, so did the needs of families where, majority live within extended families, women were expected to take care of the elderly and children with special needs. These women in Bahrain were a focus for Shaikha Lamia Al Khalifa and Shaikha Lulwa Al Khalifa who established the Al Noor Charity Welfare Society 1997. The Society became the link between needy citizens and stakeholders who could provide essential services. Over the years communities have acquired financial support to rebuild their lives and help children with special needs as well as the elderly with ongoing education and social integration.
During a women’s conference in Cairo in early 2000, Princess Sabeeka Al Khalifa became aware that each Arab country had an official organisation that represented women in their respective countries. Upon her return, she met with ladies in society, including lawyers, teachers, doctors and mothers to discuss how a similar organisation would benefit women in Bahrain. During a series of meetings she learned the gaps in the legal system and cultural barriers that affected women in Bahrain. She learned that due to the lack of a written law to protect women, in cases of inheritance, divorce or death, court rulings were subject to personal interpretation and with the lack of consistency and gender bias from the judges, many women lost their homes, child custody and alimony. Some women argued that the lack of women representation in the government sector meant exclusion of their needs at a national level. The women urged her to pressure the government to allow the “Personal Status Law’ for the protection of women.
The Supreme Council for Women (SCW) was established in 2001 under the authority of HM King Hamad with Princess Sabeekha AL Khalifa as President to support the inclusion of women in decision making, improving skills, creating job opportunities and conducting research targeted to women. In 2002 King Hamad granted suffrage rights to women and encouraged them to stand for election and even appointed women in public office. The first woman ambassador Shaikha Haya bint Rashid Al Khalifa had already been appointed as Ambassador in 1999 and social attitudes appeared to be evolving at a governmental level.
The SCW faced hostility from conservative clergy and firm opposition from shiaa scholars when they began a campaign for the unified “Personal Status Law’. The shiaa community immobilised mostly women protestors to appose the law forcing the committee to abandon the idea of a unified law in favour of a sunni version only which was passed in 2009. To date, the shiaa political party has rejected this law thus denying their women basic rights in marriage, inheritance, divorce and child custody. As a result couples prefer to marry under the sunni law as this guarantees protection in the case of divorce, death, inheritance or child custody.
The Prime Minister has continued to implement his strategy to create a business environment in Bahrain inviting major investors, international businesses, international banks, international education centres and world-class health services. As a result by 2009, over 70% of university graduates in Bahrain were women and the government saw women’s rising education levels as an integral part of the country’s development. Contribution of women in the work force had increased from 23.5% in 2001 to 34.3% in 2009 in line with business growth in the private sector.
With the rise of modernization, many of the local artists from the villages were beginning to lose their traditional skills and unable to keep up with new technology. The President of the Bahraini Women’s Development Society (BWDS) Shaikha Lubna Al Khalifa and Honorary President of BWDS and Head of Shajara Tayyibah Committee Shaikha Zain Al Khalifa, focuses on education of youth. These two organisations support local artists involved in traditional arts to use more technologically advanced methods with the aim to reach international standards. To identify families and youth for scholarship programmes, Shaikha Zain Al Khalifa continues to visit women and families in local villages.
With the increasing number of Bahrainis in the work place and international businesses in the country, Shaikha Hessa Al Khalifa spearheaded Injaz Bahrain. The vision is to extend the students learning experience by organizing workshops managed and run by Bahraini volunteers from the public and private sector. The idea is to prepare young Bahrainis to succeed in a global economy. Within two years Injaz Bahrain had reached over 17,000 students in all secondary schools, 60% of the intermediate schools and two universities and private schools.
Shaikha Hind Al Khalifa made the transition from Assistant Undersecretary for Social Affairs to the private sector as Chairperson of Al Rashid Group (ARG), a division of Dubai Landmark Retail. She took over from her mother as President of CMWS and continues to focus on raising women’s awareness of social rights as well as raise funds for children with special needs.
A much-admired socially prominent figurehead is Shaikha Tajba Al Khalifa who has been instrumental in supporting women’s advancement in society through social networking. She is acknowledged for her support to women’s groups for decades and continues to promote the efforts of women in the private and public sector.
These are just some of the high profile women in Bahrain who have shattered the misconception that women in Arab and Muslim societies are oppressed. Without demanding attention, women in Bahrain have worked diligently for decades to achieve a strong business and political presence and used their position in society to initiate positive change. It is time to applaud these champions in Bahrain’s society that encourage an equal, safe and rewarding future that is still unattainable in other parts of the world to women.