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Bahrain takes step towards unified family law

Bill governs marriage, divorce and custody of both Sunni and Shiite men and women

Image Credit: AP
A Bahraini woman carrying her child in the village of Tashan, Bahrain.
Gulf News

Manama: Bahrain’s justice ministry is reviewing a proposal by the Shura Council, the upper chamber of the bicameral parliament, for a unified family law that aims to improve the legal status of women regardless of their sect.

If the bill is passed, it would be a major breakthrough for families in general and women in particular in the country.

The bill governs personal status and family matters such as marriage, divorce and custody and covers the rights of men and women from both the Sunni and Shiite sects, the two main components of the Bahraini society.

Currently, Sunnis and Shiites have their own Sharia courts that deal with personal law issues and family matters.

The new law aims to have one family law for both.

Last week, the Shura Council passed the common family law bill submitted by four of its members and referred it to the government. In turn, the government should review it and present it to parliament within six months.

Shura members say the bill is important to “protect Bahrainis’ rights based on the Shariah Law in both Sunni and Shiite jurisprudence while guaranteeing the specificities of both sects”.

On his part, Shaikh Khalid Bin Ali Al Khalifa, Minister of Justice, Islamic Affairs and Endowments, said the government “supports all constructive efforts for a unified family law”.

“The law will contribute to consolidating the stability of the Bahraini family, safeguarding its entity and boosting its pivotal role in sustainable development,” he said.

It will also safeguard family rights according to jurisprudential doctrines within the shared denominations while taking into account sectarian specificities, he added.

The law was issued after a detailed study on the matter was conducted in consultation with the Supreme Judicial Council.

In May 2009, the Council of Representatives, the lower chamber of the parliament, endorsed a family law draft that covered only Sunnis after Shiite MPs rejected the draft section that applied to Shiites.

The Shiite refusal to endorse or even discuss the draft law reflected a serious lack of cooperation of senior Shiite leaders in Bahrain.

They allege that parliament is not qualified to decide on family matters rooted in religious jurisprudence.

They believe that only top Shiite leaders, such as Iraq-based Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, have the authority to legislate on such matters. The government in early 2009 submitted a draft law for both Sunnis and Shiites to the parliament, but eventually withdrew it after Shiite leaders opposed it vehemently.

The government then reintroduced aSunni-only version of the draft bill.

The Sunni family law draft was swiftly passed with only three Salafi lawmakers rejecting it.

The MPs consulted with Salafi leaders in another Gulf country who advised them to oppose it.The enactment of the law was celebrated with great jubilation by women’s rights activists.