Bahrain Leads Arab World on Women’s Rights

Between Morocco and Pakistan there is no Islamic country which has consistently and dedicatedly done more for the rights and upliftment of women than Bahrain. It’s a tiny island the size of Singapore but thanks to its enlightened leadership, liberal society and the open outlook of its populace, women of Bahrain have never had to fight for their rights. These were always given to them on a platter.

One has to affirm this since the country’s prime minister this week “voiced pride in Bahraini women’s effective voluntary work at the domestic and GCC levels, as well as their remarkable successes in the political, economic and social fields,” as a local daily reported. The GCC or the Gulf Cooperation Council is the six-member union of the leading Arab oil-producing countries in the Gulf – Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar.

The prejudices of race, religion and gender have never come in the way of women’s advancement and the government’s promotion of their causes and interests. The leadership’s care and concern for women’s rights and advancement has manifested itself in a variety of ways.

For example when the first parliamentary elections were held in the country, women were allowed to contest and vote as a matter of course at a time when this right was no available to women in some of Bahrain’s neighbouring countries. There was no debate on the issue. Indeed the King’s wife went out to invite women to vote and elect the representatives of their choice. This is saying a lot considering that barely 60 years previous to that, in Britain suffragettes were still fighting for this right tooth and nail.

Bahrain was also in the forefront of women’s education as soon as the oil money began to flow back in the 1930s. The immediate consequence was the opening of schools, including for girls. So today you meet families where the grandmothers are as aware and articulate as their young kin.

Bahrain never imposed any dress code on women either, leaving it to them to draw their own redlines. And no profession was barred to them. Today you see them as policewomen, pilots, bankers, business executives and CEOs, doctors, nurses, ministers and ambassadors as far afield as the US.

The liberal attitude of the government as well as the populace has also meant that even in higher institutions of learning there is co-education, something not allowed even in expatriate schools in some neighbouring countries.

And finally, there are government-sponsored institutions to look after widows and take care of battered women.

What is the reason behind this liberalism, tolerance and openness on the part of both the government and the local populace? The fact that Bahrainis are the only people in the region who are not Bedouin. For thousands of years they have been an enterprising community mingling with foreigners with a high percentage of its people belonging to the mercantile communities.

For the record, they were trading with the Indus Valley civilization millennia ago. And this interaction with the world beyond Bahrain’s shores seems to have cleansed its people of all the traits which originate in a closed mind.

Brij Sharma is an Indian journalist and editor based in Bahrain. Brij tells us the interesting stories we don’t usually hear from the middle east country.