by Suad Hamada
Women come as second or third priority to the Parliament in Bahrain as MPs consider them to be weak voters. This is the case even though 148,000 women participated in the parliamentary and municipal election in 2006 from a total of 295,000 voters. MPs and election candidates don’t take them seriously as they believe that they are influenced by their male relatives.
In the first legislative terms, few draft laws concerning women were passed by the appointed and elected houses, such as extending maternity leave from 40 days to two months and the daily breastfeeding break from one to two hours. Amendments of legislations that are of great importance to women didn’t interest some MPs, while others preferred to be on the safe side and ignore them to avoid criticism from the public.
Important bills are still awaiting deliberation inside the parliament, such as the family law (that regulates the judging procedures of inheritances, marriage, divorce and child custody at Sharia, or Islamic, courts) and nationality law (that gives local women the right to grant their children and foreign husbands Bahraini passports similar to those issued to male citizens).
MPs underestimate the power of women or avoid addressing their needs to prevent conflicts they might face from majority conservative voters. Lawmakers prefer to push for public proposals such as housing services, salary increments and commodities subsidies rather than calling for amendments to discriminatory gender equality legislations.
“The parliament is only four years old, so we shouldn’t start to be judgmental from now as the first legislative term that ended in July 2006 was dedicated to establish good parliamentary practices,” former MP and lawyer Yousif Zainal said.
Politician and woman activist Dr Muneera Fakhro doesn’t agree with Zainal as she said that if MPs were pressured from the beginning, then many draft laws and parliamentary proposals concerning women could have been approved by now.
Dr Fakhro said that women need to fight for their rights by approaching MPs to convince them to address their needs in proper manners. “Parliamentarians shouldn’t underestimate the power of women as they represent almost 50 per cent of voters, so pleasing them could results in better winning chances for MPs.”
Dr Fakhro, with the help of women societies, plans to pressure MPs to pass many bills concerning women, especially the family law.
“Most MPs don’t know the needs of women, so we have to explain them and suggest amendments to some laws and then use our pressuring power to pass them,” she explained.
Dr Fakhro concluded that if MPs wouldn’t take women seriously, then female voters should vote for those who appreciate them and consider their needs.
The first female parliamentarian that won unopposed in the 2006 election seems to offer little help to women as Latifa Al Qaoud prefers to be referred to as a good lawmaker, rather than the first female MP in the Arabian Gulf.
“I’m proud of being the first female MP in the region, but that shouldn’t overcome my determination to be good deputy similar to other MPs,” she said.
Although the second legislative term started four months back, Al Qaoud has avoided addressing any topics concerning women.
Although Al Quad has been shunning the needs of women, she prefers to lead a conservative lifestyle. As a highly educated female, she still loves traditions and therefore promised, when she learned of her election win, to not stop wearing Abaya (traditional head and shoulder cover) even during the parliament’s proceedings. “We should reserve our traditions and heritages to protect our identity as after all without characteristics that we can call them our own, Bahrain wouldn’t be recognized in the world,” Al Qaoud said.
Al Qaoud must know better about the harms of living in men-oriented society as she contested in the first parliamentary election after the political reforms in 2002. She was the only female candidate who managed to reach the second round with higher votes than her rival. She failed in the second round only because other male candidates who didn’t make it in the first round gave their votes to her opponent.
Expectations of Al Qaoud were high, but when she started her parliamentary works she focused on the financial aspects of legislations. She joined the future bloc and then the financial committee.
“I joined the bloc because it meets my political agenda and I get along with its members, while I selected the financial committee because of my financial background as a director at the Ministry of Finance,” she explained.
Regarding her feelings about being the only woman among 39 men in the parliament, she said: “What is wrong with working in a parliament with all male MPs as after all Bahrainis men and women are used to working with each others in almost all workplaces.”
If MPs continue to consider women as second class citizens and Al Qaoud goes on with her ignorant approach, then women should react by seeking assistance from NGOs or find mechanisms to attract lawmakers’ concerns.