Manama: They are the "Brave Dozen" of politics in Bahrain in 2010.
Intelligent, educated, ambitious and determined to succeed, 12 Bahraini women tenaciously refused to be like driftwood on the waters of the Arabian Gulf and instead decided to energetically paddle towards the parliament and the municipal councils.
Nine women are contesting in the parliamentary elections and three are in the fray for municipal polls — both to be decided on October 23.
Latifa Al Gaood has already been assured of retaining the seat she won in 2006, with her opponent withdrawing at the last minute. The other 11 will have to overcome new and old challenges.
In the 2002 and 2006 elections, apathy and conservative social norms meant that women could not succeed, even though almost half of the voters were women.
Yet, the "Brave Dozen" are confident that the women and men of Bahrain will not let them down this year. Bahraini society is now sophisticated enough to choose those who will serve the nation, the women candidates agreed.
Ines Shabeeb feels that the society is now ready to help women enter the lower chamber.
"I am happy that the voters in 2010 are more aware of the standards and characters of the candidates in their constituencies than they were in 2006 and 2002," Ines said. "The voters will definitely choose the most competent candidates who will take up their issues in the parliament."
The idea of running for one of the 40 seats in the lower chamber was not new, Ines said.
"I have decided this year that my time has come and that I should move forward," she said at a public meeting. "My consultations with my family and friends have confirmed that I should make the bold move."
She dismissed allegations that her chances as an independent candidate were bleak.
"I would not have put my name forward if I had not been confident about my chances," she said.
"People should not underestimate my chances because I do have a lot of support."
Health, education and women's rights top her election agenda.
"These are important issues and I believe that I can achieve a lot in these areas," Ines said.
Raja Al Kiliti, running in the same third constituency in the Northern Governorate, expressed the same confidence about carrying her constituency despite the strong presence of Al Wefaq, Bahrain's largest society and bloc in the outgoing lower chamber.
"There are many people who allege that this is a closed constituency. It is not and I am running to prove my point," Raja said. "There are many people who have not decided for whom they will be voting and I have been massively encouraged to sign up as a candidate to get these votes," Raja told a gathering of women's rights supporters.
Political and economic issues top her agenda.
"There are also practical issues related to the status of women," she said.
However, she was prompt to note that she would not be focusing on women's issues.
"I am not going out there with an agenda to serve and help only women. I do not represent only women. Many men have in fact encouraged me to run and seek a seat in the parliament," she said.
In a worst-case scenario of losing in the elections, Raja said she would recall her experience with great fondness.
"This is a unique time for me and for those who have confidence in my aptitude. I will always be happy I could be part of this exciting experience regardless of the outcome," she said.
For Zahrah Haram, an independent candidate in the Central Governorate, her eagerness to seek more rights and a better status for women were the motivating factors for her to run in the polls.
"I strongly believe that women can and will do a lot if they are given the right chance," she said.
"We have had several initiatives to elevate the status of women and secure more rights for them. We now need to turn them into a sweet reality," she said at a gathering hosted to support women.
Her deep belief in God and her trust in the support of her constituents are the major factors driving her to seek a seat, she said.
"Bahrainis have now acquired a high level of cultural awareness and political maturity to cast their ballots freely and according to their convictions," she said in a clear reference to women who were reportedly made to vote for specific candidates by their husbands and brothers.
Zahrah's platform focuses on boosting the ability to enact laws and to monitor compliance with the legal texts, she said.
"We want our laws to be highly advanced and protect the interests of the people. Cooperation with the citizens is very important to ensure the success of the lawmaker," she said.
For Laila Rajab, there is a need to overcome resistance to the reforms launched by King Hamad Bin Eisa Al Khalifa.
"Bahrain is witnessing a great period — thanks to the string of reforms launched by the king," she said.
"However, there are impediments on the way forward, mainly related to sectarianism. All citizens have to work together to find solutions and tackle the issues before they become too formidable to tackle," she said at the gathering.
Laila, running in the ninth constituency of the Central Governorate, said she was not awed by the status of her main opponent, Khalifa Al Dahrani, the man who chaired the lower chamber in 2002-06 and in 2006-10.
"I, of course, respect my brother, Khalifa Al Dahrani, and I am not running in the elections as a challenger or to prove myself. I have signed up because it is a right enshrined in the constitution and because I want to serve my country and my fellow citizens," she said.
The voters' growing awareness about the candidates' educational levels and competence has inspired her to run, she said.
"I know that most of the constituents want a change and I tell them that change is coming. All that they need to do is to know their candidates well and vote for the most competent," she said.
"What we really want is that the competition in the constituency should be fair and that political funds should not be used to tilt voters' wishes," she said.
Her platform focuses on improving health and education services, tackling employment, preserving public funds and boosting living standards.
Muneera Fakhroo — the candidate who in 2006 was only a few votes away from making history by becoming the first woman to win a much-coveted seat on the Central Governorate, said she still believed in the rights of women to hold leading positions.
"My experience of 40 years in various areas has taught me that women must get actively involved in the political struggle in order to achieve their goals," she said at a public gathering.
"As I am writing a book on women and the industry, I have met several women working in the industrial field and I have noted that several of them complain about [discrimination that does] not allow them to reach top positions. I will make that an issue if I win a seat. I will have a direct link between legislation and the most important issues in the Bahraini society and families," she said.
Muneera, running in the fourth constituency of the Central Governorate, said that candidates had greater chances of winning if they were backed by a political society.
"That is why I chose to be part of Wa'ad and to run on its ticket."
Wa'ad, Bahrain's most liberal party, had immense problems in 2006, convincing voters that it did not group together atheists and anti-religious members after its detractors spread the word that its candidates did not believe in God and should not be elected.
Muneera attributed the decrease in the number of women candidates in 2010 compared to 2006 to a lack of support.
"When women in 2006 miserably failed, many female candidates decided to give up the struggle in 2010. There has to be more support for women," she said.
Breaking all the rules
Huda Al Mutawa, a media expert at the University of Bahrain, might not be familiar with the book of Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman, titled First, Break All the Rules, but that is precisely what she did and in a spectacular manner.
She, like Muneera, ran in 2006 and did not win. But she broke all rules in conservative Muharraq, Bahrain's second largest city, by boldly walking into the tent of her opponent who was telling his audience that women should not be elected and that their rightful place was at home.
Interrupting Ebrahim Bousandal's anti-women speech, Huda scorned at his remarks and told the audience that voters should elect their representatives for their brains and not for their looks.
"Elect me for what I represent and for not what I wear," she said as she took off her veil. She became the instant darling of liberals, but that was not enough to secure her the seat.
She now has a second chance. She is again running against Ebrahim Bousandal, the incumbent MP representing Al Asala, the flagship of Salafism in Bahrain, in the second constituency of the Muharraq Governorate.
"I hesitated a bit before deciding to run because I am still paying the debts I incurred because of my participation in 2006," she said.
"However, when I saw that no woman had signed up in any of the eight constituencies in Muharraq, I decided to run. I hope that this decision will be rewarded."
Like all women candidates, she insisted that candidates should be elected based on their merit and not on their gender or social or family ties.
"Volunteers should also side with candidates who deserve to make it to the lower chamber because they can together build a strong campaigning team that could make inroads," she said.
However, Huda's biggest shock is the inability of the Bahraini society to trust women to perform competently in the parliament.
"I am shocked that today, some 80 years after Bahraini women proved their worth in public life, there are people who still have doubts about their competence. Why can't these people look positively at the wisdom, determination and fortitude of Bahraini women? I do not think that Bahraini women need to prove anything beyond their past achievements," she said.
Bahrain has had several women ministers, ambassadors and judges. The only Arab and Muslim woman to chair a United Nations General Assembly is from Bahrain. The first woman from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to win a seat in an elected parliament is from Bahrain. The list of firsts is long, but not a single woman won in 2002 and only one in 2006.
"One way to change this is to limit the number of terms a lawmaker can serve, so that women have better chances," Huda said.
Her platform highlights security, comfort, health, education planning and national unity.
Mariam Al Rouwaie is not at all awed by the presence of a strong opponent in the form of incumbent lawmaker Jasem Al Saeed in the first constituency of the Southern Governorate.
"I am optimistic about women's chances now that we are in the third term of the parliament," she said in a press statement.
"There is a need for changes in the constituency and I will build on my wealth of experience accumulated from years of social work and activism to help people," said the candidate who has often spearheaded activities to elevate the status of women and promote their rights.
The fight against Al Saeed will be held under the theme of revenge since the two sparred before. Al Saeed won, but Mariam was a brave combatant.
Basima Saleh will face two candidates, one independent and one representing Al Wefaq, the largest society in the country.
However, Basima, an independent, like all other women running in the elections, is confident that she will overcome the challenge and secure a seat in the lower chamber.
Sabah Al Dossary, a municipality council hopeful in Muharraq, is confident that her past showing is a strong indicator that she can, this time, win.
"In 2006, I got 1,300 votes and such a high score means that my chances in 2010 are intact," Sabah said. "I am a staunch believer in social work and even though I did not win in 2006, I kept up my activities for the sake of my fellow citizens," she told supporters.
Her platform involves getting more people involved in municipal and social work through committees to help boost the capabilities and scope of social activism.
"The less fortunate people and those with special needs should be given special care and attention," she said.
Fatima Salman, the second municipal council hopeful, also wants to spread charity work and help the needy, "be it in Bahrain or elsewhere."
"I have been involved in charitable work in Africa and as a member of the Red Crescent Society, I have also made diverse contributions locally," she said.
For Mahrah Gareeb, the call of the local community to serve on the municipal council was too strong to be ignored.
"I was requested to run in the municipal elections. I had slight hesitations in the beginning, but when my constituents encouraged me, I decided to answer their call," Mahrah said in a statement to the press.
"Their trust in me is really important and I am now really inspired to serve my country and my fellow citizens. I know that I can go a long way."