As a new visitor to the Kingdom of Bahrain, it was difficult to judge which was the more surprising sight: the iconic London taxi, albeit in white livery, or the woman driver in the hijab at its wheel. Hadija, it turns out, is one of only 15 female taxi drivers in Bahrain. Her husband supports her unusual choice of career and she endures the professional driver’s usual quandaries, such as passengers being unsure as to their correct destination.
As unexpected a sight as she may be in Bahrain, it is thrown into even greater contrast by the kingdom’s proximity to Saudi Arabia — a mere 25 kilometres away — the profoundly socially conservative homeland of the Prophet Muhammad, where women are still not allowed to drive, let alone vote like their Bahraini neighbours.
In 1990, a convoy of 50 Saudi women who had learned to drive abroad drove through the centre of Riyadh in protest at the country’s ban on women motorists. The Muttawa, Saudi Arabia’s religious police, held an emergency meeting, presided over by Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Baz, whose previous rulings included the statement that the earth is flat and that the sun revolves around it, finally settled on a ruling that while technically the women had not broken the law of the Koran, which was written some years before the motor car was invented, they had offended the spirit of pious Islamic practice.
Hadija laughs as she describes how Saudi women, once over the bridge connecting Saudi Arabia to Bahrain, elbow their husbands out of the driving seat to take command of the wheel.
So how good do women have it in Bahrain? The constitutional monarchy of Bahrain launched political, social and economic reforms after the succession of King Hamad in 1999. The National Action Charter of 2001 was endorsed, as Bahrainis are proud to tell you, by 98.4 per cent in a national referendum and included giving men and women equal rights in public and political affairs. A bicameral system was set up with one elected and one appointed chamber.
Women were granted the right to vote and stand in national elections for the first time in the 2002 election. Both that election and the following one in 2006 had hefty turnouts of 58 per cent and 70 per cent respectively. The turnout among women was higher than among men. Democracy in Bahrain is only eight years old and the results of this year’s elections in November will be interesting.
The king’s wife, Shaikha Sabika bint Ibrahim al-Khalifa, chairs the Supreme Council for Women, founded to empower women politically and economically and to elevate their social and legal status. It also trains female candidates to take part in a general election.
There are two women ministers in the Shura, or upper house, whose members are appointed by the king. The head of the lawyers’ association is a woman. Furthermore, in 2008, Houda Nonoo became the first Jewish ambassador from an Arab country to be appointed to Washington. The fact that she’s a woman pales beside that fact.
For an eight-year-old democracy, two female government ministers isn’t bad. Our own coalition cabinet boasts only four. It is broadly admitted, however, that the elected chamber, the 40-strong lower house, is not yet comfortable with the idea of women in politics. Dominated by Islamic and tribal MPs, the lower house has been criticised for trying to impose a restrictive social agenda and curtailing freedoms.
The main Islamist parties are unwilling to back women candidates, who are not allowed to campaign in mosques like their male counterparts. The first — and so far the only — elected female member of parliament, Latifah al-Qoud, stood as the sole candidate for a constituency and won the seat by default when registration closed.
At a meeting with the Speaker, Khalifa al-Dhahrani, and other members of the lower house, I was struck by the contrast between the MPs — all traditionally-garbed men — and the interpreter and photographers, all of whom were women. This proved to be a somewhat guarded encounter, reduced to a question and answer session about the parliamentary process. One of the men refused to shake hands with the women visitors.
Meeting the upper-house delegates — three women and a man — is an altogether cheerier, more open occasion. They make no attempt to disguise their collective opinion about the narrowness of the composition of the elected chamber. Dr Nada Haffadh, a medical doctor and the Minister for Health, says: “The Shura is a broader picture of Bahraini life than the Lower House.”
Her female colleagues — Aisha Salem Mubarak, an educationist who has a PhD in information systems management, and Dalal al-Zayed, a lawyer — would seem to bear this out. These well-educated professionals exemplify the king’s stated aim of giving a voice in the Shura to minority communities, such as women and technocrats, within the legislative process.
No cover-up: Despite a relatively liberal attitude towards women, 85 per cent of them wear veils in Bahrain
There is a discussion about the national strategy for women’s advancement and how headway has been made in amending current laws to ensure women’s rights are equal to men. The delegates all candidly admit that there still much to be done about discrimination against women in criminal law, especially with respect to domestic violence.
On a lighter note, all three agree that sometimes women’s rights have been taken too far, such as when it came to making provision for the nursing and feeding of babies. The law for civil servants was amended to allow mothers two hours’ feeding time a day during work hours for the first two years of the child’s life, which they concede is excessive. Women are better integrated in Bahraini business life than in politics, but with nine women candidates definitely standing in the November election, and possibly up to 20, it is generally agreed by the delegates that one or two should get in.
The left-wing journalist and author, Sameera Rajab, also a member of the Shura, does not echo the upbeat tone of her female colleagues. “My colleagues in the Shura speak diplomatically,” she remarks, adding that women will not be integrated into parliament in the face of Islamist conservatism. The cost of running a political campaign, she says, is prohibitive for women. The cost — well over £100,000 — must be footed by the candidate, not by a political party, or society as parties are known in Bahrain. “It was disappointing for women when not a single female was elected in 2002 and the only woman elected in 2006 ran unopposed,” she concludes.
Over dinner, she is openly critical of the kingdom. The last 30 years have not, in her view, been good for women in Bahrain. She blames the malign influence of the Iranian revolution and the rise of militant Islam since 1979. Using her own family as an example she says her mother’s generation and her own youth were “very liberal” in Bahrain, but that her daughter, now in her twenties, has enjoyed no such experience: “Before 1979, no woman wore the hijab in Bahrain. Now 85 per cent of females wear it, even nine-year-old girls in school. My daughter can’t wear freely what she likes, or go where she wants, because of strong social pressure.”
There is, however, no sign of the hijab adorning Shaikha Mai bint Muhammad al-Khalifa’s person. The glamorous Culture and Information Minister goes about her job in three-inch heels. She is a woman in a hurry and has several ambitious schemes to beef up Bahrain’s tourist industry, such as her bid to have its pearl-diving traditions listed as a Unesco world heritage site. Her influence as a female role model is demonstrated by her nomination by Forbes magazine as one of the “50 Strongest Arab Women”.
Even as more opportunities in the workplace open up to women in Bahrain, though, there is a paradox: women are still reluctant to vote for one another. It is demonstrated by the attitude of Hadija, my taxi driver. When I asked her what her ambitions were, Hadija said that she wanted to own her own taxi company. But would she ever vote for a woman? “No!” The idea of women showing political, as opposed to personal, solidarity with each other evidently still takes some getting used to.
While female emancipation in Bahrain has evidently only just begun, it is hard to see the process being reversed any time soon. The big question raised by this remarkable experiment in the heart of the Arab world is: when will the neighbouring Kingdom of Saudi Arabia dare to follow Bahrain’s example?