Bahrain Monitor - A Monthly Newsletter on the Human Rights Situation in Bahrain

Family Law: Why Just Adopting the
Section Related to the Sunni Sect?

Historically, there has always been a great deal of sensitivity among Shia scholars regarding the interference of political authorities -whether positive or negative - in their religious affairs. Throughout their history, Shia scholars were eager to distance themselves and their sect’s private affairs from the ruling authorities and preferred to retain complete independence even financially.

Perhaps this historical legacy can provide an explanation for the position that was adopted by Shia scholars in Bahrain when they rejected the draft personal law (now known as the family law) whether it dealt with both sects or applied exclusively to the Shia. The Government presented the draft law to both parties but was rejected by the Shia whereas the Sunni section was then passed onto Parliament for discussion and was recently endorsed.

The Shia’s rejection of the draft law does not merely stem from their disagreement with some of its articles, but the root of the problem lies in their fear that regulating personal law would allow the political authority to interfere even more in their private religious affairs. This apprehension extends to issues far beyond those concerning the family and woman and could include all the religious affairs of the Shia. The Government recently gave up on its attempt to regulate religious rhetoric and institutions (mosques and husainiyat) in the hope that an agreement between the Government and religious scholars would be reached.

Any state is inclined to extend its domination to the private sphere and especially the religious one, and this is what worries some, for regulating religious rhetoric, institutions and activity in general is crucial for the development of the state and is also a necessity for the citizens themselves.

But how can this be achieved without the State’s interference and an expansion of its control? And how can scholars be convinced that regulating and institutionalizing religious activities does not necessarily constitute ‘negative’ interference from the Government?

The Government tried to convince the Shia firstly that accepting the law is in the interest of religious work and secondly in the interest of the State and its citizens. The Government also presented some plausible safeguards that it will not and does not wish to interfere in private religious affairs, which will be in the hands of religious scholars presently and in the future. But all this was not enough and resulted in hindering the progress of the new law.

On 27 May 2009, the law No (19) was signed by the King regarding family law for the Sunni section after it was endorsed by the Parliament. Article (2) of the law states that the law is only to be amended after consulting a specialized committee in Sharia law formed by royal decree half of whom should be religious scholars and Sharia law judges.

Some scholars believe that in fact, this law only came about due to Western pressure on the Bahraini Government. We, however, do not think that this is the case and believe that the introduction of the family law was a result of local and public demand. Regardless if this claim is correct, this is not a sufficient reason to reject the law as there are many families which have been subjected to cruelty and assault due to the absence of such a law and also due to the dominance of personal interpretations among judges who deal with family and woman-related issues. Until now, the safeguards of the Government have not calmed the fears of Shia scholars and further debate, discussion and understanding are needed between both parties in order to enable this law to materialize, which will hopefully take place soon, and will not be hindered by unfeasible demands such as changes in constitutional articles or the addition of new ones.

The Shia in Bahrain are partners in the three authorities of the State , and hence they are not strangers nor is the State a foreign entity to them. This should supposedly reduce the amount of sensitivity and mistrust even to a lower degree especially at this time. Some could see the rejection of the family law as indicating a lack of trust among Shia scholars themselves and their public, as though they are the weak link that can be easily broken even by trivial causes. The interests of the State do not contradict with the interest of its Shia citizens and the adoption of family law has advantages which all parties can easily see, whether it be those concerned with the issuing and implementation of the law or those affected by its implementation.