The Gulf State of Bahrain is known for its extravagance. Gloating over multi-million dollar investments in tourism, sports and banking, the kingdom does not shy away from showing off with the Grand Prix races, or celebrity visitors the likes of Kim Kardashian.
This alone, makes the Kingdom look like a miracle of some sort to many who associate the Middle East with subsequent failures, instability and conflict.
However, what does not make international headlines anymore is a resilient and defiant social movement and creative forms of civil disobedience challenging the kingdom’s legitimacy and holding it accountable to its human rights violations. For decades, but especially since the uprising of 2011, Bahrain housed a call for democracy and fundamental rights, which consequently led to thousands of people jailed and tortured - some even to death. Many continue to be jailed for merely advocating for democracy and fundamental rights. Two things Western democracies have ample support for in theory but not so much in practice, especially outside their borders. The US, and UK, and many other EU states, are the biggest enablers of Bahrain in arms and trade.
But so called Western democracies are not Bahrain’s only supporters. In June 2016, UN Women accepted money from the Bahrain royal family to launch the HRH Princess Sabeeka Bint Ibrahim Al Khalifa Global Award for Women Empowerment, despite the fact that Bahrain continues to systematically target women human rights defenders who are at the forefront of a committed struggle for fundamental rights and justice.
As endemic to any professional in the non-profit world, I have the privilege to travel around the world and talk about my inspiring partners in Bahrain, the majority of whom are women, who shift tides and waves with their committed activism. Each time, wherever the topic is raised, I detect a wave of suspicion in the eyes of those who are foreign to the region, questioning the mere fact that women from the Gulf are at the forefront of a revolution against the most illegitimate regimes in the world. As challenging deep rooted orientalism and colonialism which portrays women of the Gulf and the wider Middle East as subordinate and suppressed, and also the many systematic ways in which they are prevented from carrying out their legitimate human rights activism, has now turned into a routine exercise - allow me to illustrate.
One of Bahrain’s inspiring women’s rights defender, writer and blogger Ghada Jamsheer remains in jail since she was detained on 15 August 2016 at Manama airport in Bahrain. Ghada, President of the Women’s Petition Committee (WPC), has been sentenced as a result of her tweets about corruption allegations at King Hamad hospital, which is run by a member of the Royal family. As of today, she has not been released from Isa Town Detention Centre for Women, notorious for poor health conditions and ill-treatment. Two hundred people have signed a petition to help free Ghada. Ghada, a single mother who is in poor health, is a fierce and strong advocate for fundamental freedoms in Bahrain and will be before an appeals court on November 7th.
Bahraini human rights defenders face prison or exile if they speak out - and the grip of control on their work has tightened in recent months. Travel bans are used as a repetitive tactic to destabilize and demoralize human rights activists in Bahrain, and make them feel claustrophobic in their own homes. At least two dozen human rights defenders and members of organized civil society have been banned from travel since June. Nedal Al-Salman, Head of International Relations for the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), is a renowned activist who provides advocacy support for women and children. Nedal has not been permitted to leave Bahrain since 29 August 2016. The travel ban deliberately prevented her from participating in the 33rd Session of the UN Human Rights Council, during which she was going to call for international action to immediately and unconditionally release all human rights defenders, and to expose human rights violations.
Travel bans are clearly part and parcel of a trend to target women human rights defenders. On 27 August 2016, Bahrain’s authorities banned human rights defender Ebtisam Al-Saaegh, Networking Officer for Salam for Democracy and Human Rights, from entering Saudi Arabia through the causeway from Bahrain. On 22 August 2016, BCHR reported that Enas Oun, Head of BCHR’s Monitoring and Documentation team, was prevented from flying to a human rights workshop in Tunisia. Additionally, on 29 June 2016, the authorities at the airport prevented journalist and torture survivor, Nazeeha Saeed, from traveling. Subsequently, on 17 July 2016, Nazeeha was summoned to the Public Prosecution where Bahrain’s Information Affairs Authority (IAA) accused her of allegedly “practising journalism without a permit.” On 13 June 2016, Jalila Al-Salman, Vice-President of the dissolved Bahrain Teachers Society, was prevented from traveling to Oslo to receive the 2015 Arthur Svensson Prize in recognition of her union activism and commitment to human rights. She was allegedly tortured when she was jailed for her activism in 2011.
Before the travel bans mounted, on 06 June 2016, Zainab Al-Khawaja arrived in Denmark with her two children after she was forced to leave Bahrain, following threats of prolonged jail sentences. Zainab was released from prison on 31 May 2016, where she was kept with her 15-month-old son Abdulhadi alongside other inmates with Hepatitis C. The government attempted to demoralize her as a mother, by subjecting her son to concrete health risks. Her sister Maryam Al-Khawaja, Co-Director of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR), already lives in Denmark in exile facing a one-year prison sentence and four other cases if she returns to Bahrain.
On Bahrain’s crackdown targeting dissenting women, Maryam Al-Khawaja said, “The Bahrain regime loves to promote itself as progressive for international legitimacy - especially on the issue of women. But the one time there is no gender-based discrimination is when it comes to the targeting of defenders. Using both conventional and unconventional tools, the regime continues to target WHRDs; and much of it is because allowing them the space to speak challenges the very image they are trying to sell abroad.”
Maryam is right. Bahrain’s Foreign Minister openly flaunts the authority of the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights, saying in June, “we will not waste our time listening to the words of a high commissioner who is powerless.” When evidence points to the contrary, it’s hard to comprehend how anyone could believe the words of the Foreign Minister, who said in September at the 33rd session of the UN Human Rights Council, that Bahraini women have made great achievements. He noted that Bahraini women have been appointed to the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) and the Executive Board of UN Women, a fact that has had very little positive influence on the lives of women human rights defenders in Bahrain.
Bahrain’s attempts to intimidate women are not new. During the popular uprising in 2011, Bahraini women were at the forefront of cyberactivism through online blogs, Twitter, and other social media outlets, not only exposing day-to-day human rights violations on the streets, but also calling for international solidarity to reclaim their rights and freedoms. Their citizen journalism contributed to global attention for the pro-democracy demonstrations where formal media outlets failed. The Kingdom attempted to silence resilient women through arrest, detention, and imprisonment where no fair trial existed. Authorities tortured human rights defenders in the prisons; and women in particular were subjected to sexual assault and forced removal of the hijab. BCHR has documented the arrest of more than 300 women since 2011, including human rights defenders, doctors, teachers, poets, and students, many of whom endured inhumane treatment while in detention.
So one must ask: How do we envision the next decade of the Middle East, if we don’t side with human rights defenders in Bahrain and the wider Gulf? Bahrain’s resilient and dissenting women advocate for justice and rights in Bahrain and the wider region at the cost of their own safety and wellbeing. What is of grave concern is they do this while being largely ignored by the international community. Let’s spell it out loud and clear: there is no long term peace and stability for the region if there is no direct and strategic support to its most socially conscious citizens. These committed women and the wider communities they are a part of are the backbone of hope in the Gulf, and wider MENA.