King Fahad Causeway, Bahrain. Image Credit: Twitter

Manama: A historically high number of women are running for seats in this month’s parliamentary and municipal elections in Bahrain.

Given the momentum of recent achievements by women in several areas, change is most likely. Traditionally, conservative ideology has hindered greater representation of women in parliament and the municipal councils.

“It is time for Bahraini women to lead the parliament, especially as 47 candidates are running in more than 26 constituencies, most of whom hold academic degrees,” Hala Al Ansari, the Secretary General of the Supreme Council for women, said last week.

The council is the official body tasked with elevating the status of women politically, socially, and economically.

When the kingdom in 2002 held its first national polls following the promulgation of the constitution that allowed women to vote and run in elections, only eight women signed up. The remaining 169 candidates were men.

However, even though the number of women voters was higher than men, and despite a massive campaign spearheaded by Bahrain’s First Lady Princess Sabeeka Bint Ebrahim Al Khalifa to support women across the country, none of the women was elected.

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First Lady Princess Sabeeka Bint Ebrahim Al Khalifa Image Credit: Supplied

Various reasons were then put forward to explain the poor results, from lack of support from families to overall conservative social perspectives, to outright opposition from mainly religious societies that opted not to field female candidates.

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Fawzia Zainal campaign Image Credit: Supplied

Women candidates were also blamed for not mastering and even possessing the knowledge, aptitudes and skills to promote their electoral platforms, communicate and open up dialogue with voters.

Increase in political participation

“Talking with complete strangers about issues was a social challenge for many women,” Amani, a journalist, said. “There was a great deal of willpower and determination to go ahead, but society was not really ready yet.”

Calls for introducing a quota system in the 40-member Council of Representatives, the lower chamber of the bicameral parliament, were rejected on constitutional grounds.

Those who opposed the quota system maintained that women and men are equal before the law and there can be no derogation to the articles and provisions of the constitution.

“Bahrain has progressed beyond the stages of ‘empowering women’ and Bahraini women have reached a stage where all the factors that allow them to participate spontaneously and naturally in public life are available,” Al Ansari has often said.

Women of Bahrain

“In this new stage, women and men are equal in rights and duties. Women have the same opportunities as men and the only difference is the level of competence and aptitude in a full and equal partnership in the progress of the nation.”

In the 2006 elections, Lateefa Al Gaood, an accountant, made history by becoming the first woman in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries to be elected to a parliament.

To some, it seemed like a small step, but to Bahraini women, it was a much-needed breakthrough to help them out of the mould in which they had been frozen for a long time.

However, women’s rights advocates said voters and the media should have given female candidates greater consideration and recognised their merits and competence.

“The media was not fair towards women in 2002 and 2006,” said Shahzalan Khamis, a lawyer who tried twice to win a seat in the lower chamber. “The press was obviously under the spell of specific political groups and focused on them while ignoring women.”

She singled out Islamist societies, both Sunni and Shiite, and accused them of abusing religion in their election campaigns, misinterpreting Quranic verses for self-serving purposes and employing them to make people vote in their favour.

“They also used a wrong interpretation of religion to ban the participation of women in elections as voters and candidates,” she said.

None of the three religious-political societies that in 2006 dominated the lower chamber - thanks to their 32 combined MPs - nominated or supported a female candidate. In 2010, they again decided not to name or support women.

Al Menbar and the now-dissolved Al Wefaq explained they could not field a woman candidate because they were concerned she would not secure sufficient votes to win.

Al Asala, the Salafi formation, argued it did not believe in women getting actively involved in a demanding political process.

Khalid Al Hattab, a Bahraini analyst, told Gulf News that the stance was not a matter of discrimination against women.

“Many voters are concerned that women would focus their efforts on achieving gender equality instead of work on the enactment of laws that would secure better living standards for all people,” he said.

However, critics of this view referred to the performances of MP Lateefa Al Gaood in the 2006 and 2010 terms, to refute the argument.

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According to official figures, 49 women initially signed up to run in this year’s elections, 41 for the parliament and eight for the municipal elections. In the last polls in 2014, there were 36 women candidates.

“Women are capable of making changes in parliament. Society has made great progress towards empowering women politically. I hope we can reach a good number this year. We are up to it,” Aalia Al Junaid, running for the first time, said.

Rights activist Abdullah Durazi said he expects to see at least four women win seats in the elections this time amid greater voter awareness.

Sawsan Mohammad Kamal, a candidate, said that her election would depend on how conscious the voters are.

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“I am optimistic about the increasing awareness among voters and their keenness on electing competent candidates who can achieve their aspirations and hopes,” she said.