Manama: The upper chamber of Bahrain’s bicameral parliament on Wednesday endorsed a unified family law draft that aims to improve the legal status of women, one week after the lower chamber approved it.

The 29 members of the 40-seat Shura Council present during the session voted in favour of the draft and expressed their full support for a law that has been eagerly awaited by Bahraini women.

During the debate, Shura members from across the political spectrum held the view that the new law would make a significant difference in protecting Bahraini families and reinforcing the social fabric.

“This law is not just for families, but it is for all Bahrain,” Shura Chairman Ali Al Saleh said in his comments. “This law proves that there is no way anyone can divide us. It shows that we Bahrainis from various sects share the same core. By endorsing the law, we are reacting to all those who want to incite sectarianism and divisions.”

The unified family draft law was submitted by members of the Shura Council earlier this year in the hope of a major breakthrough for families in general and women in particular in the kingdom.

The bill covers the rights of people from both the Sunni and Shiite sects. Currently, Sunnis and Shiites have their separate Sharia courts that deal with personal law issues and family matters.

Earlier, on Thursday, the legislation had been approved by the 32 lawmakers present at the extraordinary session of the Council of Representatives.

The draft law won approval following a series of arguments in which lawmakers highlighted the scope of its provisions in protecting family bonds and strengthening the larger social fabric.

Justice Minister Shaikh Khalid Bin Ali Al Khalifa said that the new family law would reinforce the authority of the state and consolidate the rule of law.

“The new law in its current form will establish a new phase of strengthening the social fabric of the family in Bahrain,” the minister said following the unanimous vote by the Council of Representatives.

“I did take part in some of the sessions of the religious committee and I was proud of their patriotism and their keenness on religious ethics, values and the specificities of each sect.”

All articles in the proposed law are based on recommendations given by a religious committee set up by King Hamad Bin Eisa Al Khalifa comprising religious scholars from the Sunni and Shiite sects.

The draft law consists of 141 articles dealing with the provisions of engagement, marriage, custody, alms, alimony, and divorce, according to the Sunni and Shiite jurisprudence.

Following the approval of the two parliamentary chambers, the draft will become law and, when it comes into force as expected, it will apply to all family matters regardless of the sects and will not be amended unless a committee of religious scholars from both sects appointed by the king approves the changes.

The new law abolishes the Sunni section of the current family law that was approved by parliament in May 2009.

A relevant section of the law applying to Shiites was never promulgated after Shiite MPs refused to endorse or even discuss a draft law governing personal status or family matters such as marriage, divorce and custody. Their stance reflected a consistent rejection of such legislation by senior Shiite leaders in Bahrain who long held the position that parliament was not qualified to debate or decide on family matters rooted in religious jurisprudence.

Shiite leaders had routinely held the view that only top Shiite figures, such as the Iraq-based Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, were empowered to legislate on such matters and his decisions could not be altered or amended by any authority in Bahrain.

The government in early 2009 submitted a draft law that would appeal to both Sunnis and Shiites to parliament but eventually withdrew it after Shiite leaders opposed it vehemently. The government in March that year reintroduced only the Sunni section of the draft, to the great dismay of women’s rights activists within the Shiite community.

The Sunni family law draft was passed in a matter of minutes with only three Salafist lawmakers rejecting it.

However, several NGOs and activists have been calling for pushing forward with a common family law that would reaffirm a uniform civil code in the kingdom regardless of the opposition of some religious groups.