The President of Bahrain Women’s Union, Mariam Al- Rowaie:

We Support the Quota System to Help Women Win Seats in Parliament

The Bahrain Human Rights Monitor met the human rights activist and President of Bahrain Women’s Union, Mariam Al Rowaie. During this lengthy interview many human rights issues were discussed, especially the political role of women in Parliament and the Executive Authority. Rowaie called for half of the Shura members to be women. She also demanded that the Beijing Recommendations be implemented which would increase the percentage of female representation involved in decision-making to 30%. She also called for the Government to implement more of the recommendations of the CEDAW Committee and to remove all social barriers and cultural discrimination against women so that they can become a true partner in public life and equal to men.

There is continual talk regarding the possibility of a Bahraini woman reaching the House of Representatives in the next parliamentary elections. There are also some calls to adopt the quota system. Do you think women are going to succeed in the next election? And what is your opinion regarding the quota system?

Women will never succeed in the next election unless all parties within the Parliament are convinced that their participation in the legislative institution would be beneficial. Al Asala parliamentary bloc has already announced that this is impossible, claiming that Parliament is part of (presidency) and that women are not permitted to take on such responsibility. On the other hand, Al Menbar Al Islami bloc has kept quiet, and the Alwifaq bloc has been discussing the possibility of giving the opportunity to two women to stand as candidates. The Government, from its part, may continue supporting its previous position in this election also.

With regards to the quota system, the Union relies on the principles stated in the Bahraini Constitution, which guarantees equal rights to all citizens, men and women alike, as well as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Beijing Recommendation No. 182 which demands that the governments of the world increase the participation of women in decision-making to a minimum of 30%. This is in addition to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination (CEDAW) and especially Article 4 as this calls for state parties to adopt the principle of positive discrimination towards women. After discussing the official and unofficial Bahraini reports in Geneva in October 2008, two articles were allocated to this subject in the final recommendations issued by the International Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. According to the two articles:

- The Committee notes that the State party’s understanding of the purpose of temporary special measures, necessary in accordance with paragraph 1 of Article 4 of the Convention, is insufficient and expresses concern about such measures as unconstitutional and discriminatory. It is also concerned at the lack of any temporary special measures to accelerate de facto equality or substantive equality between men and women, in particular with regard to the participation of women in politics and in the workplace.

- The Committee urges the State party to adopt and implement paragraph 1 of Article 4 of the Convention and general recommendation No. 25, of temporary special measures, issued by the Commitee in particular in the field of women’s participation in public life and in the employment of women. The Committee recommends that the State party to disseminate awareness among the general public of the importance of temporary special measures to accelerate the process of achieving equality between men and women.

We in the Bahraini Women’s Union believe that the application of the quota system must coincide with modifying the current voting system to the list system and modifying the system of distribution of geographic constituencies. We also demand the State to increase the percentage of women to half in the Shura Council in order to adjust the low representation of women in the elected council (House of Representatives).

What are the main obstacles facing women in acquiring high positions in the State especially as members of the House of Representatives?

The main obstacle which Bahraini women encounter is the weak political will, which sometimes does not conform to the standards of society. The State could adopt a quota system in the Executive Authority in order to demonstrate their commitments to the Beijing work plan. Today, it is necessary to look into dividing the numbers of ministers and under-secretaries, ambassadors as well as memberships within the Shura Council equally between men and women. By doing this the State is able to enforce the constitutional right of women as citizens who contribute in the building and development of the country alongside their male counterparts. As for membership in the House of Representatives the main obstacles are:

  • The historic legacy of marginalization and exclusion of women. This has created a stereotyped image that politics and leadership are exclusive to men.
  • Confusion between traditions and true Islamic values and the use of this as an excuse for maintaining the status quo with regards to women’s position in society
  • Women’s inability to move freely, spontaneously and on a regular basis amongst the electorate due to social circumstances and cultural legacy.
  • The lack of independence of female voters as they usually follow their fathers, husbands and brothers.

What’s new about the Shia section of Family Law? Has the road been paved for its ratification? And what is the role and opinion of the Women’s Union in this matter?

The Shia section of Family Law has been ignored indefinitely due to the agreement between the Government and the Al Wifaq parliamentary block. The Law was withdrawn from the House of Representatives last year and the main problem is that this law has become part of the political game and is used as a bargaining chip between the Government and the opposing party.

The Women’s Union has continued its demands with regards to this law and has strived to create a societal consensus around the law. Some Sheikhs and Sunni religious figures have revised and commented on the draft, which later led to the ratification of the Sunni section; however the Shia parties have refused to do so with their section. The Union is trying to meet and discuss the issue, as well as open dialogue with some Shia figures.

To what extent women have benefited from the political reforms that took place in the country?

Women have benefited from the political reforms in the country in many ways:

1- Obtaining the full and equal right to participate in elections as candidates and voters in accordance to the Constitution. And also the right to the same employment opportunities, as well as representing the country in international arenas. What’s left is for the constitutional articles to be implemented.

2- The appointment of two female ministers, a number of public prosecutors and three Judges, one of which is a member of the Constitutional Court. Such positions were never available to women before the reform.

Is there any practical co-operation between the Women’s Union, Women’s societies and the Supreme Council for Women?

The Women’s Union represents 12 societies and aims to include more. As for the issue of co- operation with the Supreme Council for Women, both parties have signed a memorandum for cooperation. There also exists a coordinating committee between the Union and the Supreme Council.

To what extent has the Union succeeded in achieving its objectives and what are the obstacles that it faces?

The Union was newly established in September 2006. During its short life span, it has succeeded in realizing its goals through the implementation of many programs.

The obstacles which the Union faces include: the lack of funding, lack of owned headquarters and lack of full-time devoted board members.

To what extent does the Government implement international agreements relating to women, children and especially CEDAW?

Of course, there has been some progress in the position of women since Bahrain’s ratification of the CEDAW which includes:

- Increasing women’s participation in decision-making positions.

- Presenting periodic reports regarding the Government’s performance in relation to the implementation of international conventions.

- Giving women some privileges in civil service law such as maternity leave, breast-feeding hours and bereavement leave.

- The issuing of the Sunni Section of the Family Law.

However, numerous articles have yet to be implemented, such as:

- Bahrain’s reservations to CEDAW and its negative impact on the use of the substance of the Convention.

- Not amending discriminatory laws against women including the nationality law (the right of Bahraini women married to foreigners to transfer their nationality to their children just like men).

- The absence of essential legislations which help develop women’s position in society e.g. Family Law/Shia section, an anti-violence law, anti-discriminatory law and sexual harassment law.

- Bahrain, by not signing the Optional Protocols of CEDAW, deprives women of an important international mechanism. This is in addition to not exerting enough effort to introduce the mentioned Convention and publicize it in society.

- The absence of a legal framework in the Labour Bill regarding those who work in the private sector to cover new categories of workers, such as nursery teachers (3000 teachers) and household workers .

There are some who criticize the Women’s Union saying that its role is unclear and its social activities are insufficient, what do you think?

We accept any criticism with an open heart as we see it as a means for progress as long as it is objective. Despite its new establishment, and the unhelpful circumstances surrounding our work, we have nonetheless achieved a great deal. For example, we have pushed towards the issuing of the Family law, and currently we are striving towards opening channels for dialogue regarding the Shia section. We have also adopted a committee which provides legal support for women who were subjected to domestic violence. The Union has also set up essential projects such as eradicating of computer illiteracy and co-operating with both the House of Representatives and Shura Council in the revision of all laws relating to women. This is in addition to its role in the preparation of the unofficial report and its participation in the discussion session in Geneva on October 2008 for Bahrain’s official and non-official reports. It is also following up Bahrain’s adherence to the CEDAW recommendations and its membership in regional and international institutions, among others.