Manama: As the six heads of delegations sat around the impressive table in the august hall, the gender split was clear.
Only one woman was representing her country at the annual Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) meeting of the heads of foreign media while five men represented the other members.
The GCC, established in 1981, comprises Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
“It may raise brows, but the percentage is exactly the same as the that of the women attending the World Economic Forum (WEF) at Davos, which has now stuck at 17 per cent for the past few years,” Khawla, a Bahraini woman, said.
For Bahrain, being represented by a woman at the national level even within the GCC is not unusual or a breakthrough in its traditions.
Maysa Al Dhawadi has been representing Bahrain at such meetings for the last three years.
And whenever there is now a group picture for the GCC foreign media heads, Maysa is the only woman.
When the GCC Days were held in the Japanese capital in April, Maysa was the only woman standing with 23 men standing on the stage. And she did not feel intimidated in any way as she oozed self-confidence.
For Bahraini women, taking centre stage or holding high positions has become an accomplished fact. In fact, Bahraini women today talk more about partnerships with men in the nation-building process and in exerting professional efforts at all levels.
Formal knowledge acquisition, political rights, opportunities to vote and run in elections and chances to hold advanced positions in institutions and companies are facts of life that are now deeply-rooted in the collective consciousness of the people and in all legal texts.
Bahrain, often cited as a pioneer in the region in championing women’s rights, has been pressing for a greater political, economic and social empowerment of women across all areas.
“Bahrain is constantly striving to involve women alongside men in the nation-building process based on the belief that women are a key element in the development of the country,” King Hamad Bin Eisa Al Khalifa said last year. “Bahrain is also eager to open wider areas for Bahraini women to serve their country in the political, economic and social areas. Bahraini women are efficient and competent and they have an important role in the development and prosperity of their homeland and in bringing up their children and offering them sound guidance,” the King said.
The women’s rights movement started in the 20th century, but it was consolidated at the official level by the establishment in 2001 of the Supreme Council for Women, the entity tasked with elevating the status of women in the kingdom and ensuring they receive their fair share in both rights and duties.
National strategies to empower women politically, socially and economically were designed and implemented. Companies were motivated to hire more women staff and to advance and promote women to higher positions through national rewards.
Women were trained on all aspects of participating in elections and were encouraged to take part in running and voting to ensure their voices and voted counted.
While in 2002, it was a novelty in the modern history of Bahrain, the sight of women campaigning to be elected has now become highly familiar.
Within ministries, several women have been promoted to advanced positions and many private companies today pride themselves on appointing women to top levels.
The 2014 joint report by the Organization for Economic Development (OECD) and the Centre of Arab Woman for Training and Research, an advocacy group for the improvement of women’s status and of data collection, indicators and statistics, said that Bahrain had the highest percentage of women in senior and middle management positions in the public sector among the countries studied in the region.
The percentage of women employed in the public sector in administrative senior positions was 45 per cent, a figure that exceeds the 29.1 per cent regional average for MENA countries. In addition, Bahraini women’s share of public middle management positions at 59 per cent surpasses that of men.
The rising profile of Bahraini women was internationally acknowledged when Shaikha Haya Bint Rashid Al Khalifa was elected president of the 61st United Nations General Assembly in June 2006.
Women in high positions
Bahrain has several women who hold high positions as ministers, ambassadors, diplomats, and judges.
“When we mention Bahrain, we are talking about a country that has, thanks to the reforms launched by His Majesty King Hamad, been witnessing high levels of women’s empowerment,” Maysa said at a GCC Forum.
“Bahraini women have been essential partners in drawing up and implementing plans and programmes for a comprehensive development of the country. They have had a pivotal role in the nation-building process, thanks to their full political and economic rights enshrined in the constitution and in laws that promote and defend equality and equal opportunities in line with international standards and criteria. We value highly the efforts of the Supreme Council for Women to elevate the status of Bahraini women and to empower them politically, economically and socially,” Maysa said.
Under an initiative by Princess Sabeeka Bint Ebrahim Al Khalifa, wife of King Hamad and Chairwoman of the Supreme Council for Women, December 1 was designated as the Bahraini Women’s Day so that the nation in unison pays tribute to women.
The day was last week again celebrated with great fanfare and outstanding women were publicly recognized for their work and contributions.
Last week, King Hamad commended the crucial role of Bahraini women in the kingdom's development process and emphasised Bahrain's commitment to providing full support to them as they continue their progress.
However, Bahrainis are not falling into self-complacency. They are well aware that while several miles have been covered, the way ahead is still long and arduous at times.
An international conference on ‘’ Women in Public Life: From Policies to Impact" held this week stressed the importance of formulating national guidance instruments that would be assist policymakers in Bahrain on how to use existing parliamentary tools in following up the efforts to raise levels of women’s development and close any gaps.