A Women’s Perspective on the Violent and Oppressive Bahraini Regime
FRIDAY FILE - AWID interviewed pro-democracy activist and lecturer Dr Ala’a Shehabi* about the current violence and persecution against Bahraini citizens and how women are contributing to the fight for democracy and rights.
By Rochelle Jones
Contemporary Bahrain’s simmering unrest
The Kingdom of Bahrain is a small archipelago of 33 islands near the western shores of the Persian Gulf with Saudi Arabia to the west and Iran to the north. King Hamad was the Amir between 1999 and 2002, and has been the king since then, and the Al Khalifa family have held power for centuries. Touched by the wind from the ‘Arab Spring’ revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, and tired of being denied real citizenship and rights, protestors took to the streets in early 2011. The government of Bahrain responded with a violent and oppressive crackdown that, to date, has killed around 80 people and imprisoned hundreds.
The Bahraini Government claims it has since instituted a number of human rights and democratic reforms, for example, the King commissioned the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) into the abuses that occurred in February and March 2011 and promised to implement the recommendations. However, the BICI report itself, as well as the government’s response to it, have been criticised as not good enough. Bahrain Watch through its project called “Government Inaction” says “The recommendations fall far short of the gravity of the findings. Some issues are completely absent, and others incorrect… the recommendations in the report are directed at the Ministry of Interior, pitching the problem as one due to a dysfunctional police force rather than one where there was an operational command structure following orders from the very top echelons of power”.
Amnesty International has also criticised the government’s implementation of the BICI recommendations. Their Middle East and North Africa Programme Deputy Director recently said “The authorities say the human rights situation has improved, yet they put restrictions on NGOs, including organizations such as Amnesty International, which is not allowed to be in Bahrain on weekends when most protests happen, and when the police resort to tear gas and the use of force.”
AWID interviewed Ala’a Shehabi – a Founding Member of Bahrain Watch - and asked her what it is like in Bahrain at present: “We are now in a normalised state of repression in the face of an unceasing frequency of protests. Over the past few months a silent crackdown has targeted many of the local protest organisers, including some well-known activists such as Zainab Alkhawaja and Naji Fateel, [and] journalist Ahmed Humaidan… Jails are literally thronging with political prisoners - so many that it is difficult to keep track. The security forces target different villages each night [and] keep them under siege as they raid houses and arrest young men. Many of those arrested continue to complain of systematic torture and forced confessions, including two women who were arrested after they protested at the Formula 1 race track.”
The continuing violence and persecution against citizens demonstrates that the government have not only failed to address people’s demands for palpable political and economic reform but they are in fact actively trying to silence them. Since 2011, protests have persisted and accounts of human rights violations are continue unabated. For example, human rights activist Zainab al-Khawaja, whose sentence to three months in prison on a charge related to an ‘illegal gathering’ was upheld on 9th May. This sentence will now be added to the one she is currently serving - three months and 22 days for "insulting an officer". Her sister Maryam al-Khawaja, is also a government target – she fled Bahrain and now cannot return for fear of being detained and tortured. Their father is a prominent human rights defender who was beaten, detained and tortured in 2011 and is now currently serving a life sentence. A report of six people who have been sentenced to a year in prison for using Twitter to ‘insult’ the King has also just been released.
Bahrain refracted through the eyes of women
Women have been major participants in the uprising. At the beginning of April women took to the streets of the west coast town of Malkiya protesting against the Grand Prix and voicing their support for jailed political prisoners - but were dispersed with stun grenades and tear gas.
Discussing the role of women, Shehabi says: “For those who know about Bahrain's history, the scale and size of female participation in the uprising is unprecedented. The black abaya is no longer stereotypically a symbol of forced passivity; it is a protesting woman's uniform that disguises her from the predatory gaze of the police that hunt her down in her village’s alleyways”. Shehabi continues: “Women are equal partners if not leaders in the movement. The main strategy is to use various forms of protest, and for Bahrainis to make their unwanted presence felt and visible through subversive activity. The government would like people to remain in the confines of their villages so that the country looks like it is business as usual. In her variety of roles, as lawyer, doctor, teacher, mother etc. the practice of dissent occurs in sometimes visible and sometimes subtle ways. Female doctors, for example, are important for treating injured protestors in homes so they are not arrested, at the same time, women are maintaining safe houses for hundreds of protestors with arrest warrants [against them] who are in hiding.”
Women share the same demands for democracy as men in the face of an oppressive government, which often means that specific women's rights issues are put on hold in order to focus on broader, democratic reforms. Equality, according to Shehabi, “on the basis of class, sex and sect is the innate desire of women who are fighting for structural change in the political system”. Women recognise that “the entire system needs deep radical reform, a system which is based on citizenship and not on servitude. The concept of citizenship should protect the women’s rights, therefore the focus is on demanding equal citizenship in a democratic system that puts an end to corruption, human rights abuses, and discrimination which affects everyone. Women have not resumed discussion of the personal status laws which began in 2005.”
While women and men may be fighting the same battle in Bahrain, women activists and human rights defenders are, more often than not, treated differently simply because they are women. Shehabi asserts that women face a double discrimination, from both the government and society, “Many women like myself, lost our jobs as a result of sectarian and political targeting.”
According to the BICI report, the use of sexual violence has re-emerged as a tool of torture by the authorities, and Shehabi corroborates, saying women are frequently threatened with rape in detention “as most recently claimed by the two women, Nafeesa Al Asfoor and Rihanna Almosawi who were arrested whilst attempting to protest at Bahrain's Formula One race circuit last month.” Shehabi importantly highlights, however, that “there is plenty of evidence that men are routinely sexually abused in detention as well. My husband was sexually abused in prison, as well as many friends who were arrested at some point or another. It is considered the most effective way to humiliate and dishonour a human being, so it is an important tool for a brutal security apparatus to use in the process of retribution, coercion and to obtain forced confession. This happens routinely in police stations and in secret torture centres. The fight to end torture against men and women, including sexual violence is still ongoing and begins by first exposing and documenting it. The state refuses to hold those who oversee the apparatus of torture accountable, and the charge of 'torture' is rarely invoked. I know this, because I filed a case on behalf of my husband who identified by name the officers who tortured him and the colonel who ordered them [to do it]. The case was dropped for lack of evidence, despite firm forensic evidence.”
The way forward for Bahrain is uncertain at this point but the stability of Bahrain is of considerable strategic and economic interest to the United States - which has their Navy’s Fifth Fleet stationed there. Whether the U.S will exert pressure on the Bahraini Government is unclear – but the U.S State Department criticised Bahrain in their recently released annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2012. Further straining relations and the Bahraini Cabinet just approved a parliamentary proposal to "put an end to the interference of U.S. Ambassador Thomas Krajeski in Bahrain's internal affairs." Shehabi believes the only way forward is a complete transformation of the current framework of power that will not come from within. She says her husband’s case “has partly shaped my belief that the political system is unable to reform itself, because it lacks the will and desire to change - like a drug addict that needs intensive rehabilitation to quit an addiction - Bahrain needs a radical shake-up in the highest echelons of power and a change in the entire governance structure. That is the only way to end oppression and guarantee freedoms.”
*Dr Ala'a Shehabi is a British-born Bahraini lecturer, writer and pro-democracy activist in Bahrain. She has a PhD in Economics from Imperial College London & worked for two years as a policy analyst at RAND Europe. In Bahrain she is a founding member of Bahrain Watch and the Bahrain Rehabilitation & Anti-violence Organisation (BRAVO).