In November 2018, Bahrain made a bit of Gulf history, as its citizens elected six women to the lower house of Parliament, doubling the previous number. This increase was indicative of Bahrain’s efforts over the last two decades to increase the involvement of women in politics. In fact, the 2018 election of Fawzia Zainal as Speaker of the Council of Representatives was a major milestone for women in politics in the Gulf region. However, challenges remain that must be addressed for Bahrain to reach gender equality in politics.
Since adopting a new constitution in 2001, the government of Bahrain has promoted women’s rights and political participation. It has done this largely through the work of the Supreme Council for Women, a quasi-governmental body chaired by the wife of the king, Princess Sabeeka bint Ibrahim al-Khalifa. With its high-level official mandate, the Supreme Council for Women has implemented equal opportunity committees in government bodies, provided training for women seeking to run for office, and promoted family services. As the council has advanced its work, more women have been elected to Parliament and serve in managerial and leadership positions throughout the federal government. Further, women now account for nearly two-thirds of university students and approximately 35 percent of private sector employees, up from 27 percent in 2008.
However, women still make up only 15 percent of the lower, elected Council of Representatives, and 20 percent of the appointed upper house, the Shura Council, as well as just over 40 percent of executive positions in the government. Sociocultural factors remain that result in fewer women working in the public sphere, including a confidence gap between men and women.
This confidence gap stems at least in part from cultural norms and traditions – young women tend to be less likely to participate in public debate compared to young men, for example. This manifests in politics. Women run for Parliament at one-tenth the rate of men. In the 2018 parliamentary elections, only 39 female candidates ran for office in comparison to 330 men. Additionally, the University of Bahrain student council elections, which are viewed as a training ground for parliamentary elections, include many more men than women despite the student body consisting of 65 percent women. Out of 27 student council seats, only three to five women sit on the council from year to year.
While women have not yet achieved equal political representation in Bahrain, there are no significant institutional or explicit legal barriers preventing women’s political participation. Some laws, however, render women unequal to men in society. The citizenship law prevents Bahraini women from passing down Bahraini citizenship if the father is not Bahraini, while the children of Bahraini men are automatically granted citizenship regardless of the mother’s citizenship. Under the rapist-marriage law an accused rapist can avoid legal consequences if he marries his victim before sentencing occurs. Although these laws do not directly impact women’s political participation, they present challenges in the empowerment of women as a whole.
Although real advances have been made in recent years in increasing women’s political participation, this progress has been accompanied by a crackdown on political freedom and openness in the country, especially targeting the Shia opposition, which has a negative impact on political representation across the board. Over the last couple of years, the Bahraini government banned the kingdom’s largest political society – the Shia Islamist al-Wefaq – as well as the secular political society Waad. It also shut down the last remaining newspapers that were not state run and reduced the ability of civil society organizations to function independently and freely. Ironically, this has in some ways been helpful for women’s electoral prospects. The political society with the greatest electoral success had been al-Wefaq, which refused to endorse or field female candidates. As the largest political society in Parliament, the unwillingness of al-Wefaq to endorse female candidates presented a structural barrier and sent a negative signal to Bahraini women seeking to fully engage with politics on equal footing with men. Since this crackdown on political societies, most candidates are running as independents. This means that women no longer need to depend on the endorsements of societies to win seats. But it also means that they don’t have the support of political societies in terms of funding and training when they do decide to run.
Following the uprisings in 2011, the government’s alleged involvement in directing political outcomes – including gerrymandering, government officials asking certain candidates to withdraw, and members of the military being told whom to vote for – may have enabled an increase in the number of women candidates, by, for example, encouraging support of certain female parliamentary candidates. However, the changing political environment in Bahrain, while opening up opportunities for women, has had adverse effects on political openness overall.
Considering the challenges for women’s political participation in Bahrain, there are a number of initiatives the Supreme Council for Women can undertake to help more women from all backgrounds to participate in government and politics, while also creating a more open political space. These include creating a fund to help lower-income women run for office; pioneering new training focusing on developing young women as leaders; developing a more effective data gathering strategy; and involving men as members of the council. Outside the Supreme Council for Women’s direct scope of action, higher-level advocacy strategies could also serve to elevate women in Bahraini society and politics, including: encouraging a vibrant and independent civil society; considering a quota to increase the number of women in the appointed Shura Council; reforming laws that disadvantage women; and holding mixed-gender majlises – gathering spaces where state affairs are discussed – to create an equivalent public space to that traditionally enjoyed by men.
Attitudes must change to get more women involved in politics, and one way to do this is from the top down. The royal family sets a powerful example. Ten years ago, Bahrain’s crown prince opened up his weekly majlis to women, thereby including them in a historically male-only space. Over the years, women’s attendance has increased. The crown prince’s move sent a strong signal to Bahraini society that cultural norms are changing. The majlis has since become a common centerpiece of campaigns. In 2018, Fawzia Zainal welcomed both male and female voters into her residential majlis as a part of her election campaign.
Another way to increase the number of women in politics, and in leadership roles throughout society, is through the development and implementation of training programs that work with young women to enhance their public speaking skills, provide awareness of the gender gap in professional settings, teach the importance of speaking up and participating, and build confidence in their abilities. The Supreme Council for Women already has training programs for female candidates and others that work with youth on skills such as public speaking. Additional training would be useful to target the confidence gap between men and women. Such programs combat ingrained cultural attitudes about the role of women in the workplace and society and aim to empower young women to increase professional participation.
Bahraini politics is complex, considering the interplay of social norms, gender, and religion in the public sphere. It may not be easy for the ruling family and the Supreme Council for Women to chart a way forward to increase women’s political participation, but doing so, while also ensuring political openness, could lead to a more vibrant and inclusive politics.
This post is based on the report “Breaking Barriers to Women’s Political Leadership: Lessons from the Kingdom on Bahrain,” with research conducted as part of the Johns Hopkins University SAIS Women Lead Practicum Program.