Bahrain Women Take Pride in Vital Protest Role


MANAMA, BAHRAIN — Women in Bahrain are known to play more of a role in public life than in most neighboring countries. They drive, vote, and some are active in politics.
So it was no surprise to find on arriving here that Bahraini women were also prominent in protests. During a recent demonstration outside the U.N. office in Manama, women, most of them wearing black abayas, stood apart from male peers, carrying pictures of men who they say had been tortured and signs asking for global support.
Noura, 24, was one of the few women not wearing a head scarf. “I am here because Bahrain has to change,” she proclaimed, though boldness in baring her head did not extend to being identified by full name. “For years now, the Khalifas are dividing the power among themselves,” she said, adding that she was Sunni like the ruling family, but that the Bahraini news media very often report that the protesters are all Shiite. “There are Sunni people like me criticizing the fact that most of the minister posts and important positions are in the hands of one family,” she insisted.
Indeed, two days of reporting turned up some women like Noura who were Sunni and critical of the ruling family, while others, like Sawsan Haji Taqawi, a member of Parliament, who criticized the opposition, were Shiite.
Mrs. Haji Taqawi said she had been attacked by some in the opposition for taking part in elections. “I can only say don’t be fooled and believe that for all of them, democracy is meaning the same as for people in the West,” she said, claiming that much of the opposition had a more conservative religious agenda and would not support the empowerment of women. “Mistakes have been made,” she conceded, “and we need to work on it together. But how should this happen, if the opposition is not willing to sit down?”
Perhaps the “mistakes” have left too deep a scar. King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa ordered an inquiry by an independent commission, led by M. Cherif Bassiouni, an international law expert. According to its final report, 35 people died this year during protests, including five security personnel. Hundreds were wounded. A total of 2,929 people were arrested, the report said, and at least 700 remain in prison.
Five detainees were tortured to death while in custody; some were beaten with rubber hoses and wires, and others endured electric shocks.
Rula al-Saffar, 49, president of a Bahrain nursing society, was detained for five months and said in an interview that she and others had been “tortured with electric shocks.” She witnessed the torture and beatings of others, she said.
She spoke softly, smiling often, yet with a sadness in her green eyes. Mrs. Saffar said she had no idea she was being arrested when the police summoned her for questioning in early April. Her husband was told to return in two and a half hours; instead, she was unable to talk to him for days.
Mrs. Saffar was accused at trial of treating wounded demonstrators while neglecting police officers or Sunnis (which she denies) and of protesting inside the hospital and sentenced to 15 years in prison. She is now out on bail, pending appeal. She says that one of her interrogators, who used violence, was a female member of the ruling family.
Abdel-Aziz bin Mubarak al-Khalifa, a ruling family member and international counselor at the Information Affairs Authority, said the Bassiouni report had confirmed that prisoners had been mistreated but did not name any perpetrators. “No one is above the law,” he insisted, adding that 20 police officers had been prosecuted. There will be further investigation, and “anyone who has committed wrongdoing will be punished,” he said. The king has also pledged that his country will reform and distanced himself from killings and torture. For the opposition, this is not enough. Their protests continue, and they refuse dialogue.
Farida Ghulam, 52, is Shiite; her husband, Ibrahim Sharif al-Sayed, is Sunni. He founded the National Democratic Action Society in 2001 and was sentenced to five years after the uprising this year, accused of planning to overthrow the regime. She works in the Ministry of Education as the head of evaluation.
“Our party had no religious agenda. We were mainly focusing on corruption and empowerment of women,” she said. This, she said, was not a goal of the biggest Shiite bloc, Al Wefaq, with which her group has aligned: “We know that we have very different views if it comes to women, but right now our focus is to have a reform of the government.”
Mrs. Ghulam’s family story hints at a situation more complex than often presented. Although she and her husband went into outright opposition starting in 2002, their son is studying in Michigan on a scholarship from the crown prince. “I am not saying that all people in the ruling family are bad,” Mrs. Ghulam said. “I would prefer that a reformed royal who is truly democratic would govern, than a religious dictatorship. But unfortunately the rulers don’t want to listen.”
“There is a lot of suspicion now in the society in Bahrain. The mentality became, ‘You are either with us, or with the others,”’ said Badria Yousif Naqi, in her mid-50s.
“We as Bahraini women have to do something, for the sake of our children,” she said, her eyes welling with tears.
She is among more than 200 women who have created a “national society” — political parties are called societies — uniting women of all religious and social backgrounds.
“We women want to build a network to overcome the mess, which our men have created,” said Reem Alfaez, 39, who works in the Health Ministry and serves as the vice president of the Bahrain medical society. “We and our children are the ones caught in the middle of all this. We need real reforms in Bahrain, also of the government.”