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A new book entitled “Organizing Women”, ISBN 1 85973 915 6, dedicated one chapter for studying political activism of Bahraini women.

Chapter 6 “Bahraini Women in Formal and Informal Groups: The Politics of Identification” was authored by Professor May Seikaly.


Book title “Organizing Women”

Edited by Dawn Chatty and Annika Rabo


First published in 1997 by Berg

Editorial offices:

150 Cowley Road, Oxford, OX4 IIJ, UK

70 Washington Square South, New York, NY 10012, USA


ISBN I 85973 910 5 (Cloth)

ISBN 1 85973 915 6 (Paper)


Chapter 6

Bahraini Women in Formal and Informal Groups:The Politics of Identification

Professor May Seikaly

At the beginning of April 1995, 310 Bahraini women signed and circulated a petition presented to the ruler of Bahrain, Shaikh Isa Bin Salman al-Khalifah, expressing their concern with the mounting wave of riots that had engulfed the country, and had left deep rifts in its society, grief at the number of deaths and strong bitterness and frustration at official handling of the crisis. Since December 1994, an uprising had erupted from among the less favoured strata of society demanding employment, better opportunities and justice. This was the tip of the iceberg and the circle of opposition, anger and accumulated bitterness acquired momentum and adherents in spiralling speed and vociferous activities. In addition to the class dimension of the conflict it also expressed sectarian and ethnic differences and animosities, and one common demand from all elements was the return of the short-lived democratic process that had been scrapped by the ruling family in 1975. Strife conditions created a network of common grounds between various currents, elements, groups and strata of the Bahraini society, Shiis and Sunnis, liberals, leftists and Islamists, workers, professionals and intellectuals, men and women. As a result contacts, relationships and exchanges between them were activated, thus clarifying and exposing ideological differences and channels of cooperation.

In this particular petition, the women of Bahrain, citizens and mothers addressed the grievances of the nation and its fears and demanded in clear and concrete terms redress of the deteriorating conditions through grassroot reforms of the political system. A return to a constitutional democracy was advocated as the channel in which women are to be involved in the process of political decision-making and sharing in national development.

In the statement, this group of Bahraini women were attempting to achieve two goals in one battle – national and social liberation. While their national commitment is clear, non-sectarian, in favour of social equality and participation, they were also proposing a gender agenda of equality and social justice. They were striking while the iron was hot. It is clear that they refused to mask their gender requests in the fervour of nationalist demands; demands that incorporated and masked the wide spectrum of societal categories of class, sectarian and ethnic groups, but not women. In view of the highly volatile and politically dangerous conditions that the country was passing through, such a challenging act, similar to the case of women driving in Saudi Arabia, is an expression of the autonomous, courageous, and undefeatabic spirit of women even under excruciatingly trying conditions. It is also an act which bespeaks of an underlying array of developments that Bahraini women as a group, and in groups have undergone and found now an opportunity to express. It is indicative and cynical that the reaction to their petition from the authorities in Bahrain was again in the same spirit of backlash that the Saudi women received – intimidation and unemployment.

Involvement of Middle Eastern women in the struggle for national liberation and reform is not new and Arab history is dotted with many examples, not the least of which are Algeria and the on-going struggle of Palestinian women. The struggle of Kuwaiti women for democratic rights and participation is a model often cited, and their achievements, however minimal applauded (Ghassoub 1987: 1 1; Ghabra 1993). These are issues of which Bahraini women are aware and bring up constantly. It was enlightening to relocate Bahraini activists who had experienced and lived through the anti-colonial demonstrations of the 60s and the 1971-5 Parliamentary protest movement in Bahrain. These secular nationalists were trained in the school of liberal nationalism of the 60s and 70s of the Nasserite era. During the peak of their activism, this brand of nationalists had fought for equal participation and a role in national development but were disillusioned. Today it is in the same spirit that Bahraini secular nationalists have petitioned for parliamentary participation again after twenty years.

Theoretical and Methodological Considerations

In order to understand the full significance of women’s participation in this popular protest experience it is essential first to situate it within the broader historical and theoretical context. It is under extenuating conditions that Bahraini women, their voice, role and contribution have had the opportunity to be heard and viewed. In this situation, the political context has provided the framework whereby Bahrain’s social and economic structures are exposed as well as the crisis of confidence between its government and people. Economic and social categories defining the problems of society are contested and redefined in terms of gender as an index of development, again highlighting the role women have achieved and reflecting the gendered nature of politics. In researching thc identity, rolc and status of Bahraini women, beforc and during the crisis, the gender system and its socio-cultural underpinnings, class location, state political ideology and its socioeconomic development strategy, are categories to be consciously referenced when analysing the dynamics between women’s involvement at this juncture (Moghadam 1993:14-16).Similar to other Third World experiences in equality is the core issue that the nation and women are protesting; economic, social and political inequalities on the national level as expressed in class, sectarian and ethnic differences. However another perspective to be kept in mind is that women as a subaltern within an oppressed social system, when caught up in a crisis situation, could find their causes and rights used as a battle field between the subordinating authorities and suppressed male society bargaining for agendas of their own (Mallon 1994).

The aim of this chapter is to investigate the evolution of women’s role, defined and focused as a result of socioeconomic changes and particularly highlighted in unt’olding crisis conditions. Women’s identity as defined by religious, social and cultural parameters is being challenged to new levels of expression. To research the changing roles of women as induced by the rapid socioeconomic changes in Bahrain and the Gulf region, women belonging to the various ideological currents, the secular liberals, the Islamists both Shii and Sunni have been interviewed during 1982-3 and in the summer of 1984. While the obvious Islamist current and its manifestations on women, society and self identity were the initial direction for the research, political events gave a more poignant dimension to the project when women were catapulted into the centre of the political scene. It was to take into consideration all women’s groups from the liberal secularists, to the active Islamists both Shii and Sunni. In addition to the fieldwork, this research has had the strength of my long-lived association with the Bahrainis, friends, students and acquaintances. While living in the country (from 1983 to 1993), the Bahrainis had been generous with their friendship, information and help, which also keeps my interest in their development alive through contact and follow up of events.

However there are many deficiencies in the availability of records as well as difficulties in extricating pertinent and cogent information on women. The focus of Middle East women studies has been confined mainly to Egypt, Iran and Turkey and to a lesser extent some areas of the Levant, notably Lebanon. Parallelling wider trends in history, until the late 1980s, a small amount of research on the history and role of women within Gulf society has entered the field of scholarly consideration. Many publications in the field have given Arabian Gulf women passing attention as part of larger theses on women of the Middle East in general; however it is the work of women of the Gulf themselves, those who identify the dilemmas of their changing status and devise solutions within the reality of their particular socio-political constraints, that has left the strongest impact on the field (Al-Torki; Al-Mannai; AlAwwadi 1990;Arebi 1994; Fakhro 1990). Nevertheless these are few and face serious limitations not encountered in other regions of Middle East women studies.

In spite of interest in the field by Gulf intellectuals, records are few and whenever recorded, infonnation is often constrained by politics. This constraint is most tangible now when in addition to Bahrain’s usual hyper-sensitive security fears, they have escalated into paranoia. Furthenmore until very recently there have been deliberate blackouts and cordoning by the international media on information coming out of Bahrain and on Bahrain. When this was sl ightly loosened up after January 1996, information provided to the US readers reflected concern with US security and barely alluded to the effects of the disturbances on the society itself. It is remarkable that even the most liberal US papers have barely given any coverage for such an inflammable situation.2 Britain, who has been more closely embroiled in the Bahraini crisis, has more recently, since January ’96, published many researched stories on the situation in its major newspapers.3 Furthermore, formal attention has been awarded the situation by the British Parliamentary Human Rights Group which has deemed Bahrain’s situation worthy of its attention (Parliamentary I IRG 1996).Although these sources along with the exiled opposition groups, visitors and residents of Bahrain provide information on events and their repercussions, it is still difficult to build a comprehensive picture of the evolving situation there. As a result, this part of the study is necessarily of an exploratory nature, since the succession of events and uncertainty over future developments concenning the political scene and strategies preclude any clear conclusions.

As a historian trained in the conservative school of the Public Records office and by formal means of historiography, I find research on women – a marginalized and often hidden sector of society—a challenge filled With professional minefields and uncertainties. One of the major difficulties faced is in retrieving the voice or identity of women and other subaltern from records archives and even from cultural concepts that have been constructed by patriarchal and controlling forces. Written sources do not yield char pictures of the suppressed and subsumed subaltern voice because these sources are loaded with nuances from various directions. Even women interviewed who are consciously aware of their identity and the role of societal and cultural biases, unconsciously convey their complex view of reality. The difficulty is in extricating a woman’s pure voice from the societal web while she remains subordinate within it. It is important to understand these limitations and accept that we are talking about approximations of a reality that cannot be fully confirmed.

Historical Overview

For an understanding of womcn’s participation in thc cvents of the Bahrain political crisis today, it is important to reconstruct the dimension of their role in the nationalist struggle of Bahraini history for the period prior to 1995. It is only by bringing to light the intersection of international, regional and local socio-economic developments that the current events could bc properly assessed. Internally the impact of this legacy on thc class, sectarian and ethnic makc-up of society was tremendous and involved women at every stage and period.

For the last fifteen years, Bahrain’s economic and political development had become compictely entwined with Gulf regional developmcnts, particularly that of its hegemonic ncighbour, Saudi Arabia. The economic and political alignment and subordination of the latter to the world capitalist system and thc unchallenged USA has become clear. This has also linked the wholc region as well as the Arab world to the same subordination. As a direct result of the Gulf War, Saudi Arabia became deeply indebted to the USA (Aarts 1994: 5). The more integrated the Gulf political-economic structure became in the global economy, the more important it was to the West to maintain its stability even at the price of overlooking its dependency, traditionalism, and authoritarianism.

Development of the economic and social structures of Bahrain, due to oil, experienced two distinctive stages: the first started in the 50s and culminated in the late 70s and the second unfolded in the mid 90s. Both have been prompted by the above mentioned international factor as well as regional and local ones. Even though Bahraini oil was discovered in non-commercial, limited quantities, the country is still dependent on oil production and labour; and because of low production, the state benefits mainly from refining and distribution. Economically, Bahrain is the weakest Gulf state and dependent upon its neighbour Saudi Arabia, which provides it with oil, funds, and investment. By the late 1970s, in an attempt to diversify income and create jobs, it started such industries as aluminium and a dry dock, and in the early 80s it offered Bahrain as an international banking centre. Since the late 1980s these enterprises have visibly weakened and more so after the Gulf War of 1991.

The tremendous growth in oil wealth after 1973, has been successful in building up the infrastructure and other manifestations of the state along modern lines and has provided citizens with a wide range of services such as education, health, social services, even entertainment. These have been central projects by the state, the supreme employer and provider of benefits. Therefore the ruling institution plays the major role in creating and withholding opportunities whether from women or any other subaltern. It has also rationalized its legitimacy through these achievements and by building a network of alliances based on tribal, sometimes religious and/or economic interests (Al-Najjar 1985; AlRumaihi 1982). Economic favours in the form of money or land donations, or control of power-generating posts are some of the means by which these alliances were and are cemented.

However this system has created superficially modern looking societies without solving the dilemmas that rapid Western modernization has brought. Change has come into conflict with traditional cultural value systems which control social behaviour that is tied to religion. The policy has always attempted to find a balance between commitment to modernization and economic development and commitment to the internal traditional socio-cultural forces. It has also manipulated both perceptions in order to create allegiance to its continued presence and control (Sharabi 1988; Moghadam 1993: 11). All modernization techniques introduced h] Bahrain since the inception of this state were tailored to endorse this relationship and confirm these roles. Modernization also meant the creation of departments and apparatus to ensure control and order.

Bahrain differs from other Gulf states in the make-up and origin of its population. According to a December 1991 census the population of Bahrain was approx imately 500,000, with 49.5 per cent women (Bahrain 1991). This population has varied origins: Arabs of tribal extraction, Arabs from the settled communities of the eastern region in the Arabian Peninsula, Arabs from Iraq, Persian/Arab tribes (Hawala) coming from coastal and inland Iran, in addition to a small number of Baluchis, Indians, and Pakistanis who have lived for generations in Bahrain and have become Bahraini. Each of these groups is large enough to leave an ethnic imprint on the fabric of society.

Shiis are a majority (the official estimate is 35 per cent, US estimate is 55 per cent and the Shiis’ estimate is 75 per cent) especially in the villages. Shiis are either descendants of the original Arab inhabitants and from the eastern quarter of Saudi Arabia, or Persians who have immigrated in the last fifty years. Sunnis are also either Arab of tribal origin (such as the ruling family), local Arab families of undefined origin, or people from Persian/Arab tribes who settled in Bahrain at different times since the late eighteenth century. These ethnic origins are obvious in linguistic variety, social attitudes and norms, but the people are distributed among most social classes, with the exception of the ruling Sunni family, and the rural villages which are almost exclusively Shii and mostly Arab.

Since early in the century, Shiis of Bahrain representing the majority of the working class have taken pan in movements against the established authorities asking for reforms. Such a history and tradition of rebellion is associated with Shii demands for economic equality, union protection and political participation (Khuri 1980; da Lage 1995). Even though Sunnis participated in most of these movements, by the fact that Shiis made up the majority of the economically depressed strata, these activities became associated with them. Whether in the pearl industry or in the oilfields or in government employment, Shiis have felt victimized as the first to lose their means of livelihood. Another historical reason for Shii disaffection is their opposition to the ruling family (the Al Khalifa), a staunch Sunni minority, who are viewed as occupying tribesmen, and have been accused of appropriating and misusing the resources of the country. While the main cause of Shii opposition is economic it also has an ideological base; this has often been fomented by outside inciters, mainly Iran. Sunni and Shii Bahrainis have also had many common causes especially in the nationalist movement against the British in the 50s and 60s and for popular participation in the government in the 40s, the 50s, the 70s and now again in the 90s. It was in the 1950s, that women began to support the male-led demands for reform. A few women are supposed to have unveiled in public in one of the protest demonstrations against the British.

By the 1960s regional Arab development combined with a rapidly growing generation of Bahraini university graduates further developed and politicized this protest current. The influence of liberation movements, Arab nationalism and political confrontations with colonialism fin the Arab world in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s fommed the political orientation of the young Bahraini generation. The tripartite attack on Nasser’s Egypt in 1956, theAlgerian war of independence, the liberation movement against the British inYemen in 1963, theArab defeat of 1967, the Dhofar revolution in 1971 and the Palestinian struggle against Israel all had their immediate reflections locally. Whether the reactions were spontaneous street demonstrations or the growth of underground political organizations or the emergence of civil servants with heightened sociopolitical consciousness, society changed in unprecedented ways. The unrest culminated in the popular movement for a parliament and political participation following independence from the British in 1971.

Male and female students educated in Beirut and Cairo, Baghdad and Kuwait, influenced by nationalist and radical political currents thriving in these university centres, joined political organizations. Whether left nationalist or pro-communist, the women wanted to take part in changing their society. Since the early 1950s women had organized charitable societies, but in the early 1970s voluntary women’s societies sprung up with political orientations. Women of the growing middle class and a few from the working class had benefited from the developing education system, the scholarships to universities in the Arab countries, and the need for Bahrainis in the job market.

Women’s earliest political experience was a disappointment when they were excluded from the short-lived liberal experiment with the parliament, partly because the traditional tribal orientation was still very strong in society and among both Sunni and Shii, but mostly because the radical and liberalized men in society did not endorse women’s issues. They had encouraged women to support social change and to contribute to political change; but when it came to women’s sociopolitical aims, men turned traditional and conservative. It was unfortunate for males too because the whole project was dissolved by the ruler before it really started.

During the 60s, women made substantial advances in education and employment and these advances gave fruit in the 70S. By the mid 70s women were very visible in Bahraini society. The younger, more educated urban generation discarded the abaya, drove cars, took part in political demonstrations, communicated with male colleagues from their student days and from work, were involved in politics, joined the Baathis, nationalists, and radical leftist groups and organized themselves in civil, non-government organizations to further social and political aims. Women’s societies, female sections of sport clubs or professional organizations gave them a role. They also aimed at achieving acceptance on an equal footing with men. As the latter accepted changes and the role of women in development, relationship between the sexes became more balanced and involved reciprocal respect and confidence. While the traditional gender values were not openly challenged, women were confident enough to compete with males for jobs and scholarships. With a strong drive to achieve and a nationalist commitment to build, women were active elements in the early years of establishing Bahrain’s modern society. The government was also anxious to build the infrastructure of the state and women figured as an important element in the ‘Bahrainization’ (control of the job market by Bahraini nationals rather than employing expatriate workers) of jobs as well as projecting a modern image abroad. This fact legitimized the more liberal behaviour of women in seeking education and socializing outside the home, a behaviour not fully condoned by tradition and the conservative society.

In spite of these many achievements, Bahraini women still had few personal and civil rights, especially in the villages and among the lower classes, which had practically been excluded from what was mainly an urban, middle-class social revolution. In rural areas women were unaware of their personal rights. Lack of, or very minimal education, economic depression, and conservative oppressive socio-religious institutions were the overriding causes of this condition. Even among the new urban middle class, change barely touched on feminism’s core issues. The maximum that women acquired was to establish their right to free education and limited participation in the job market. Activities of these women, through societies and personal relations, took a political approach that was often elitist and reflected competition between the different political currents. These modernized young women had unconsciously distanced themselves from the realities of their society and could not reach all strata of women by traditional mechanisms.

Following the 1975 Parliamentary crisis, political activities were banned and women acquiesced. It was a period of economic prosperity during the 70s and early 80s. While the 70s saw the emergence of an urban, largely Sunni middle class, the late 80s saw these developments reach the village, mostly Shii communities. However the difference between the two stages translated itself in economic and social class differentiations, constriction of opportunities and intensification of sectarian conflicts. Educational, health and other services both to rural and urban areas were built along with high-rise of fice buildings and other modern outlets. The local economic market expanded as various corporations (monopolies by certain families of established status and wealth) were set up and employment in the service sector increased. It was a period of major material expansion which raised the economic and social expectations of people at a time when signs of economic contraction as well as class and sectarian differences were felt.

These local conditions had been exacerbated by international and regional political and economic factors. The decade of the 80s saw the physical sign of Bahrain’s incorporation into the Saudi sphere of influence through the 22km. causeway connecting the two countries, the Iraq/lran war and the Gulf War, both very close to Bahrain and both affecting its population on many and far-reaching levels as well as the final retraction of Arab normalizing policies with Israel. The reversal in the fortunes of the oil-producing nations brought contractions in the liquidity strength of Bahrain and its off-shore operations and banking system, as well as in the available funds for state-sponsored projects. Saudi presence on Bahraini soil, mainly for entertainment, promoted socially and morally laden controversies within Bahrain’s conservative, religious society. Government animosity towards Iran and sometimes Iraq hit at a basic chord within the economically depressed strata, mostly the Shiis whose family and religious links with these regions were restricted and monitored. The quiet official endorsement of Western presence and influence in Bahrain deepened both anti-western and antigovernment feelings.4 All these factors contributed to the rise of unemployment and pauperization – street beggars became visible on the streets, and around the mosques of Manama. General social unrest increased also due to the perceived moral degeneration and the social and political inequalities. The government reaction was an iron-fisted policy of repression and control in order to protect Bahrain’s projected image of a haven for the business and entertainment industries.

It was in these conditions that religious Islamist movements found adherents and support; feelings of frustration, defeatism, isolation, impotence and discontent had gradually formed pronounced opposition elements in the society which found in the Islamist discourse refuge and response to its outcry against conceived injustices. With the complete absence of al I legal or political channels for expressing these grievances, revitalized Islam filled the vacuum.AII through the 80s the Islamic idiom was inching in on all levels of life and most particularly among the lower middle classes and the lower strata of society. While the Gulf society generally had always been a more genuinely religious and conservative one, when compared to other parts of the Arab world this modern return to tradition was shocking in its intensity and assertiveness.5 The religiopolitical thrust of these movements stimulated a discourse of hope and redemption induced by the modern crisis on the moral, economic and political levels (Ahmad 1984: 25). in view of the previously mentioned transformations in Bahraini society, the social implications of revived Islam should be explicit. An important dimension to this movement is the prominence of the womcn’s issue in its discourse and the creation of a modernized but reinforced traditional definition of the role. While discourses pertaining to gender are clearly used by Islamists as part of their platform and features of scif-dcfinition, it is also the discourse used in the cultural project of the leftists and liberal currents. Anatomy of Women’s Activism

Bahraini women underwent the same process of transformation that their country experienced in the 80s and early 90s. In spite of basic improvements in the living conditions, education and politicization of most women, the extent and amount of these improvements were neither uniform nor pervasive. In fact they reflected the socio-cultural differentiations that characterized the society by that date. Women too are stratified by class, religious and ethnic affiliation, education and age, as well as differentiation on ideological and political alliance and orientation. These differences have a bearing on the consciousness and activism of women which has been clearly shown in the latest political events there.

Education and employment have been the main channels that provided women of all classes with mobility and self-awareness, although access to either or both has been constrained by the economic and political system of the country. It is clear that women of the wealthy upper class, similar to women in the same class of other Gulf states and the Arab countries, have utterly different concerns than those of the economically less fortunate classes. While education remains an important index of modernization to them, it is not necessarily for the sake of employment. In Bahrain, similar to Kuwait, a few upper-class women hold high administrative posts, but their limited number makes them symbols rather than the norm. Furthermore it should be noted that the majority of those come from the previous merchant and petty bourgeois class who had benefited from the early economic boom associated with the state. The interest of this stratum is aligned with the establishment and its power base.

The concentration and thrust of this study however, has been primarily on middle-class women and its different layers, especially the lower middle class, as well as those of the lower economic strata. Economic development, state sponsored projects and public work have provided opportunities for mobility, especially for middle-class and upper middleclass women who had taken advantage of the changes during the 70s and 80s. Women in that category have become salaried and professional and, in spite of the constrained economic situation, they still have various options and solutions. It is the lower strata of that class and the lower classes who face restricted opportunities of work and economic advance; while they bad expectations of improvell1cllt by virtuc of education, an achievement that has come one generation too late, and to a subaltern within another less favoured sector of society. This has added to the women’s sense of social as well as gender inequality and accentuated their vulnerability.

Interviews with women of these classes have yielded information on their perceptions of themselves and their roles as active participants in the social process. It became clear that whether consciously or unconsciously these women are activists in all the processes of change their country is experiencing. While they all expressed views to the effect that education and employment have strongly influenced their identification, political idiom and activism was the underlying feature of their consciousness. Those who were interviewed in the first weeks of the crisis, in September 1994, clearly projected an identification with the particular political stand of their class, their religious sect and some with their ethnic origin. Political conflicts seem to have a defining impact on the way active and educated women view the world around them and reflect on their role in the process of change.


In spite of the negative experience of women within the movement for national liberation in Bahrain, nationalism still remains an idiom of cohesion and an important category with which to assess women’s active participation in the social and political culture of the country. Historically, nationalism should be positioned as one of the central vehicles through which the emancipation of women and their projection into the public arena was initiated (Abdo 1994: 149-52). it has produced a national culture, which even when political nationalism had been dissipated during the late 70s, 80s and further, continued to function as a linkage and cultural affinity among those who had participated in it.

Today, during the crisis, these elements have reformulated and re expressed demands for a progressive role under nationalist platforms. Nationalism is appropriated by all the parties on the Bahraini scene, liberals, leftists and Islamists, each defining it according to a different agenda. Nationalist liberals, seasoned active women, the first generation of university graduates, mainly from the urban middle class, both Sunni and Shii, who had reaped the advantage of the 60s and 70s period, have shown the continuity of the spirit of activism and its endurance. It is obvious that the goal of these women, like that of all Third World women, remains to end subordination on the international, national and personal levels. In the final analysis active conscious and politicized women arc demanding the repossession of control over their lives and ovcr their ability and power to make life choices. Whether consciously or not this group of activist women in Bahrain have publicized their lack of confidence in the nationalist and the Islamist forces at the realm of the opposition movement and have chosen to define their needs in a feminist paradigm. Nevertheless it is precisely these women who face the most painful dilemmas of deciding on priorities. They are the ones who, for the sake of national unity often pay, forsaking their rights as women.

The Veil

While the agenda, identity and commitment of the above women’s groups, having the strength of historical experience behind them, were clear and easy to reader the message of the women identified with the Islamist currents presented a much more complex, diverse and an emerging consciousness. The pervasiveness of the Islamic revivalist movement is more obvious among women because of the dress and behaviour required, and the young generation of women who have joined it see religion as the solution for dealing with modernization without jeopardizing the cultural and religious legacy of a society with such varied ethnic backgrounds and rapid accumulation of socioeconomic benefits (Tohidi 1994). Followers of this current are not only from among the economically depressed and youthfully impressed women but it has cultivated women of the liberal eras who had considered themselves politically radical and socially liberal. It is a wave that has swept most of the middle class and practically all of the lower, economically depressed strata. This wave of conservatism and the invoking of tradition and religion affected the view women have of themselves and their role in the social scheme.

Why was the Islamist movement so strong, fast-spreading and so appealing to women? In the Bahrain context the responses should be sought within the socio-economic crisis, the crisis of state legitimacy and the opposition to the political system, selective social justice producing inequalities, and the weakening of traditional structures particularly the extended patriarchal family. Islamists propagate the belief that Islam, tradition and culture are endangered and their salvation is through a reconstruction of authenticity within the religious identity. Gender is politicized and women given the roles of upholders of authenticity, propagators of generations and transmitters of morality and social values. In this active role women are articulating the identity of Muslim women and an Islamic world-view for Bahrainis. Women have an exalted family role, a traditional status and a gender linked to group identity. This should be given priority to all personal inclinations. The veil and the new Islamic trend in Bahrain are followed mainly by the young educated generation of women who have grown up in the 70s 1 and 80s and saw the economic constraints among the middle and lower | classes. Education remains the major inducer for young people, both | Sunni and Shiis to join the ranks of the Islamists and it is both in the L schools and at the university where conversion takes place. The National | University of Bahrain has played a crucial role in this process and has l offered conditions where both males and females met and were socially and culturally influenced. The number of women students is much higher than that of men, even though there is a policy of attempting to find a balance between both. Women students are very ambitious and hard working and unlike university male students they are usually chosen from the top performing students of high schools. In the last twelve years the female student body has changed to nearly 95 per cent veiled and strong pressures are continuously exerted on those who are not, to do so.6 A very large percentage of university students are from traditional and rural backgrounds. For them the university has been a forum of exposure, education and political consciousness. The campus became the arena where Islamists, Sunni and Shii spread their views and demonstrated in support of their convictions facing the bullets of the police.7 This new university has been the vehicle for popularizing higher education for all Bahrainis and particularly Shiis. Shiis are in the majority among both the faculty and the students by virtue of the same causes of economic, social and political realities and constraints already mentioned. As a result the Campus has become the target of of ficial punitive action against the Shii community who have maintained the more vocal and active opposition to the regime in the uprising, especially in its confrontational stage. Indications are that confessional criteria have been instituted by the administration through which new students could be admitted or turned away from joining the university.

The veil and the Islamic dress are the outward obvious signs of women’s adherence to the new Islamic trends. But the veil and the formal compliance with tradition does not necessarily mean commitment to all that its ideologues load it with. In fact all respondents, both Sunni and Shii, conceded that the veil was a source of affiliation and identification, giving them the peace, serenity and security that being in a group affords. Most of them also saw it as an affirmation of ethical and social customs. Both Sunni and Shii Islamic activists stressed that it is different to what their parents understood by veiling and religiosity. To this young generation the reconfirmed faith is due to an awareness, an understanding and an educated comprehension of the written word commanding veiling; the veil has been ordained and prescribes what a proper woman ‘ s attire should be. In fact, they insist that this new attire is not the traditional abaya, but follows particular Islamic prescriptions. In their view it is a modern, educated Muslim woman’s choice. It also signifies a whole spectrum of lifestyle, the understanding of which is also modern in its concern with segregation, education, the family and woman’s role.

Islamic activism is very common among the emerging lower middle class and the lower strata of both the Sunni and Shii sects, but it is more obvious and more spread among the Shiis. Both are a young generation who staunchly defend the veil, all stress the family and the role of women in it and her sacred role in creating the society and generations of Muslims, all call for education as being a Muslim duty. In this later issue, some stress it more than others depending on the class and background. They are united in the belief that Islam is the liberator of women and gives her rights and emancipation.

Sunni and Shii Activism

By analysing the positions of both Sunni and Shii women activists concerning a number of vital issues related to their religio-social perceptions – such as the veil, education, work, Sunni-Shii relations and differences, politics and social change – a framework was formed of common identifications and differences. It is clear that the approaches and attitudes of these women have been acquired in a similar process which has its roots in their sociopolitical background and influenced by what they perceive as Western knowledge. The failure of alternative national solutions has given these Islamization programmes the chance to influence women in different ways. But the obvious difference between Shii and Sunni Islamist orientations is in their structural base and operational philosophy. These in turn are controlled by a political tradition.

Within several of Bahrain’s major active Sunni societies, in which Islamic education and socializing are provided, women have established their own branches and sections. Although, at the same time, the participation of women within these organizations’ main political and social bodies remains limited and directed by male leaders. As such, the role of the woman projected in these orthodox societies remains fairly strictly bounded by the traditional, non-innovative confines of classical positions. It has been women associated with these currents who have confirmed this impression through the role they assigned to women and themselves.

Thc Shii Islamist currents, on the other hand, do not have a set structure of religious reference that binds the whole community. Religious referrals are either linked to Iraq, Qum or within Bahrain itself. Many of the religious mullahs have been educated in Iran at the Bahrain Studies Centre in Qum and others have studied in Iraq which remains an important centre of Shii scholarship. Shiis have no formal organizations either to channel the ideological perceptions of an Islamist orientation or to organize on the social level; these are illegal and banned by law.

Therefore Shii women, whether formally or informally grouped in their villages and quarters, through their professional affiliations, in the Ma ‘tam/Husayniyya (religio-social gathering-house similar to a mosque) or even in their extended family settings, express innovative, nonconformist platforms of activism. They view their roles in a wide range of options from the militant to the home-bound traditional position. This diversification and decentralized religious controls are expressed also in more grass-roots manoeuvrability whereby there is an overall cohesive political orientation by Shii women, of all strata, and their difference is in the technique of achieving social justice. While the professionals and middle-class women see their role as catalysts in attaining social cohesion for their community, through education, training programmes and self-help projects such as the charitable funds (SanadEq Khairiyya), the younger generation expresses its identity by participating in opposition and lately in public demonstrations. Today these charitable funds have sprung up as spontaneous projects to help needy families and to support village projects. Again the authorities have cut short their activities by banning them. This is similar to the Palestinian case, during the Intifada, when civilian spontaneous organizations took over from the formal structures to help the civilian population (Dajani 1994: 15). Since the late 70s, Shii women activists had tried to organize women in charitable organizations similar to the urban women’s societies but were denied permits to do so. Official women’s societies organized since the 50s had lost legitimacy to the Shiis as part of the loss of confidence in the political system with which they were identified. These societies were viewed with suspicion and did not develop a legitimacy separate from the regime, particularly since 1989 when they werc all subjected to a new law giving the authorities the right to monitor and scrutinize their activities.

It has been reported by both groups of active Islamist women that feminist issues are under debate, discussion and education; such issues as birth control, the importance of education and the role of women in the family. Among thy Sunni women’s societies these activities are organized in the form of lectures or internal group meetings with a preference for religious discussions and interpretations of the Quran. As for the Shiis, the Ma’tam is a very important venue where formal antl informal women’s gatherings take place often and where these issues are debated as lived problems and concerns. Furtherrnore the month of Muharam is a period of continuous education for women when teaching is intensified. During that month it is accepted social behaviour for women to congregate, listen to male preachers in the village squares and in front of the mosques and go to the Ma ‘tam for social and religious education.


In a quickly developing society, Bahraini women have experienced tremendous changes in the idiom and form they projected in order to express their particular gender identity, autonomy and subjectivity. Whi le in the 1 960s and 70s it was the idiom of national liberation, constitutional democratization, Western dress and political radicalization, in the 1980s and 90s it is the idiom of Islam, activism to fulfi I its message for a proper Muslim life and the veil as a symbol of its triumph. In both phases it has been women from within the rapidly changing social classes who have expressed these roles. In the earlier stage it was the urban middle-class women who had travelled, been educated, and broken the barriers of tradition. In this more recent generation it has also been the middle classes, mainly lower, and the lower classes mostly from rural backgrounds and still attached to conservative and traditional ideologies. Islam has found fertile grounds in a class still in transition and vulnerable to the economic and political pressures of the 80s. This explains, in some measure, the division and gaps between these two generations of visible women activists. The liberal, pro-secular first generation also come from conservatively religious backgrounds; however due to various causes they could never break through the class, ethnic or religious barriers to touch the rural, mainly Shii women’s sector. That needed another generation and Islam to do it.

Today, nearly four years after the Gulf War, the region as a whole and particularly Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain are facing the repercussions of policies binding the region to Western hegemony and economic controls. These states are confronting very serious backlash in the form of opposition/revivalist politics. In Bahrain, this opposition has taken the form of a popular grass-roots uprising which has been going on since the summer of 1994 and accelerated after December 1995 with a clear alliance between the liberal professionals and intellectuals, a wide range of Islamist structures (both Sunni and Shii), the lower middle class and the economically depressed lower stratum of society. In Bahrain as well as Kuwait there are clear indications of women’s involvement in these reactions, whether within the organized frames of the Islamist groups or from among the liberal intellectuals and independent elements. The demands of all opposition platforms is for a larger margin of democratization and more equitable share in the wealth distribution of the state. Kuwaiti and Bahraini women have been insisting again on the right to vote and to have a say in the direction of development.

In the latest events, Bahraini women were given exposure through the media due to their contribution in the activities of the opposition, in the negotiations and in giving the crisis a gender dimension. They have taken an active and physical role in demonstrations, particularly those which have been campus-based. Women students at the university have, in some instances, become their families’ breadwinners when brothers, fathers or husbands have been arrested. Their academic life and their family life have been disrupted by these disturbances and the reaction of authorities against their villages and communities. Whenever the situation has been reported in the international press or in the underground press of the leftist and Shii Islamist opposition fronts, the issue of women’s demand for democracy and their participation within it, are given prominence. Amnesty International has reported cases of young girls and also women having been arrested and whose whereabouts remain unknown, and to cases where women have been detained without access to their families or to medical and legal advice. More recently women have also died as a result of the violence while protecting their children and families. It is clear that women’s involvement in the opposition has increased as in the latest reports, together with teenage girls, women professionals, teachers and nurses, are reported to have been arrested and dismissed from their posts. The issue of arrests and long internment with no legal action and no recourse to humanitarian aid has added to the feelings of anger, frustration and bitterness. But of particular impact have been reports of physical and sexual abuse that young women detainees have been subjected to.

The all-women petition discussed earlier stands as a very significant contribution by women to the protest and refonn movement in Bahrain. The first popular petition which at least 6000 women signed, many of whom came from Shii villages, is also of great symbolic and political import.

Whether all thesc activities and events will lead to an immediate change in the condition of women is doubtful, but this is just one more step in the path for women’s struggle toward social liberation and to a better awareness of her capabilities, justifiable rights and the potential for a significant role in national development. Similar to Palestinian women during the Intifada, Bahraini women’s social and political consciousness has accelerated through political activism. This consciousness is central to their identity. It is clear that at every juncture of radical activism, women in Bahrain were able to extract some openings to improve their conditions then, and thus accumulate status-giving achievements. In the 1960s, women came out in the streets in opposition to Western colonial presence and repression. I n the 1 990s, they are again demanding constitutional rights and political participation—for society and themselves.


1. This is a revised version of a chapter by the author which appears in J. Esposito and Y. Haddad, eds, Islam. Gender and Social Change (forthcoming).

2. The earlicsl published analytical articles appeared in Rose a/- YusiJ ( 16 January 1995); Le Monde Diplomatique (March 1995); A/-~Sar4 al-Awsat (25–30 April). in the USA the earliest publications to refer to the situation were: The Wall Street Journal ( 12 June 1995); The Wa.shingtol7 Post ( 13 June 1995); The New York Times (2X January 1996); The Financia/ Times (30 January 1996); The LA Time.s (3 May 1996). US official concern with the disturbances has remained muted and directed towards the security of US personnel in the region and US interests.

3. The British media had picked up the Bahrain story by early 1995 and by January 1996 all the major publications in Britain carried one or more articles on all aspects ofthe situation and many gave accounts ofthe women’s role in the crisis. SeeThelndependent(allofJanuary 1996); TheGuardian(January, February and March 1996); The London Tmes, The Economist, The Ohserver (February and March); BBC radio programme (March 1996).

4. The fact that the Commander of Police, tan Henderson, was a British citizen had been a cause of national protest. In the latest disturbances, this was one of the issues that was raised in the petitions to the Emir.

5. From my own personal observation and experience during my stay in Bahrain, the pervasiveness of the movement by women towards the veil as the outward sign of an adherence to Islamic observance was significant. Bctwcen 1983 and 1993, the number of my students who joincd thc ranks of the veiled moved from 5 per cent to 95 per cent.

6. There are no statistics on these facts, however they are common knowledge among thosc who work at the university. Similar conditions exist in other parts of the Middle East (see Ahmed 1984: 22F2; Moghadam 1993: 122).

7. In the recent confrontations between the student demonstrations asking for political reforms, the police (reported to be mercenary Baluchis, and in another report to be Saudi national guards) shot two students dead. Women students are also reported to have demonstrated and made very incendiary statements.


Newspapers and Pcriodicals: Rose al- YusiJ; 16 January 1995 Crescent Inte/ national, 16 31 January 1995 Le Monde Diplomatique, March 1995 The Wall Street Journal, 12 June 1995 The Washington Post, 13 June 1995 Al-Sharq al-Awsat, 25 30 April 1995 The New Yor k Times, 28 January 1996 The Financial Times, 30 January 1996 The Los Angeles Times, 3 May 1996 The Guardian, January, February, March 1996 The Independent, February 1996 The London Times, The Economist, The Ohserver, February-March 1996

Parliamentary Human Rights Group, Bahrain. A Brick Wall, House of Lords, London 1996 (correspondence bctwcon Lord Avebury and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office of the British Government on the l human Rights Situation in Bahrain).


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