- By Habib Toumi, Bureau Chief
Manama: Bahrain's lower chamber has defeated a motion to interrogate the culture minister over remarks deemed offensive.
Shaikha Mai Bin Mohammad Al Khalifa last week accused conservative lawmakers of sending "mercenary children" to spoil a concert held at a cultural centre as part of the Spring Festival, an annual cultural event promoted by Shaikha Mai Bint Mohammad Al Khalifa, the culture minister.
In the ensuing intense argument, Shaikha Mai said that there were no "real men" at the lower chamber, prompting several lawmakers to say that they would complain to the king and that they would not hold any session until the minister is sacked.
However, the lawmakers later revised their plans and opted to interrogate Shaikha Mai over the festival and other cultural events she held. The motion to quiz the minister was submitted by 19 of the 40 lawmakers in the lower chamber.
Under the lower chamber's bylaws, the motion needed to be supported by 21 lawmakers and Al Asala, the expression of Salafism, and the Islamic Menbar, an offshoot of the Muslim brotherhood, have deployed great efforts to garner the needed support for the session on April 10.
On Monday, Prime Minister Prince Khalifa Bin Salman Al Khalifa made a visit to the lower chamber where he stressed the importance of close cooperation between the government and the parliament.
"We are keen on the closer cooperation between the two branches and which constitutes a robust basis for democracy in Bahrain," Prince Khalifa said. "We will never tolerate any element that would disturb or disrupt this cooperation," he said.
The stress on cooperation has reportedly influenced some lawmakers who changed their view and decided not to go ahead with the grilling of Shaikha Mai, the third woman to hold a government portfolio in Bahrain's history.
In the vote, only 14 supported the grilling, seven short of the required number while 19 opposed it. One lawmaker abstained from taking sides while two of the MPs who submitted the grilling motion did not show up at the session. MP Mohammad Al Amadi, representing the Islamic Menbar, walked out in protest.
The four women in the lower chamber, Lateefa Al Gaood, Sawsan Al Taqawi, Somaya Al Jowder and Ebtissam Hijris, sided with the minister.
Shaikha Mai, the former assistant undersecretary for culture and the minister of culture and information, has had several standoffs with conservative MPs over the cultural activities she has held.
While Shaikha Mai is pushing for high-level and highly visible cultural events in Bahrain, conservative lawmakers claim that some of them were onerous and scandalous.
In the latest standoff this year, several MPs opposed called upon the minister to suspend cultural festivals, arguing that Bahrain should show compassion and sympathy with the people suffering in Syria.
However, their calls have been resisted by Shaikha Mai and liberals who insisted on the significance of culture in promoting dialogue and interaction with other countries and civilisations.
The stand-off slid into controversy when reports emerged that a mosque across a narrow street from the Shaikh Ebrahim Cultural Centre, where cultural activities are held, was asked not to call for prayers and avoid the use of loudspeakers.
The reports were denied, but Islamists' groups used them to attack the Spring of Culture Festival, an annual event held in March.
Last week, angry protesters met near the centre where Shaikha Mai and a large audience, comprising dignitaries and diplomats, were attending a Qanun recital and shouted at them. The guests had to leave under security escort.
Shaikha Mai in November 2008 became culture and information minister in a limited cabinet reshuffle.
The former assistant undersecretary for culture and heritage was the second woman in the government, and the third woman to hold a ministerial portfolio. In July 2010, the culture ministry was set up after the former culture and information ministry was split up.
Shaikha Mai is popular among intellectuals and writers for her efforts to promote culture in Bahrain and for promoting respect for Gulf traditions abroad.
Instrumental in establishing several private institutions by buying and restoring old buildings, mainly in Muharraq, the traditional area of artistic activities in Bahrain, Shaikha Mai has also organised events to highlight the contributions of poets, intellectuals and thinkers.
Shaikha Mai helped register Qalat Al Bahrain, an ancient sea-front castle that stands as a reminder of the Dilmun civilisation, on the Unesco World Heritage List and was the main driver behind the annual Spring Festival, a cultural event featuring performers from around the world.
She courted controversy in 2007 after a parliamentary ad-hoc panel pronounced her guilty of gross negligence by allowing a Lebanese dance troupe to stage a "sexually-charged and depraved show" during the festival.