by Suad Hamada
Women’s empowerment apparently clashes with the not-so-hidden agendas of Kuwaiti and Bahraini parliamentarians. Dirty politics have resulted in the recent resignation of the first two female ministers ever to join the cabinets in either country.
In Kuwait, Health Minister Dr. Massouma Saleh Al Mubarak resigned shortly after being grilled by the parliament over irregularities in her ministry, as well as about a fire that broke out in a public hospital that caused the death of one patient and injuries to others. Last month in Bahrain, Health Minister Dr. Nada Haffadh resigned over conflicts and arguments with Shiite Conservative MP Mohammed Al Mizal so heated that they made newspaper headlines.
Dr. Al Mubarak is a modern, educated Shiite woman who dresses conservatively: she wears the traditional headscarf (Hijab). She is also a happily married woman who has three daughters and a son. Before joining the cabinet, she was a professor of political science at the University of Kuwait. She received her doctorate degree in philosophy from Denver University (DU) in the United States in 1982. She also holds a master’s degree in philosophy from DU as well as another in political science from North Texas University. Dr. Al Mubarak is a specialist in international relations and international law and is also an advocate of women’s empowerment and human rights in the Third World.
When she was appointed to the cabinet, the minority Shiite community in Kuwait appreciated the Kuwaiti Amir’s decision to select a Shiite woman. Though ending years of a male monopoly on the cabinet, Dr Al Mubarak stressed to the press that she was selected for her qualifications and not because of which Islamic school of thought she observed. She said that she preferred to be called the first Kuwaiti woman to join the government rather than the first Shiite woman.
Dr. Haffadh was appointed Minister of Health in Bahrain in 2004. In 2002 she was appointed as a parliamentarian for the 40-member Consultative Council (Shura), the part of the two-chamber legislature which is appointed by the King. Dr. Haffadh studied medicine in Egypt and at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland before returning to Bahrain to practice. She worked for the Health Ministry both as a doctor and in administration.
Dr. Haffadh is also Shiite and follows the predominantly Shiite health ministers that preceded her. While Bahrain is approximately 70% Shi'a and 30% Sunni, the ruling family and the majority of government, military, and corporate leaders are Sunni Muslims. In Bahrain there is an unwritten quota for Shiite community representation in the Cabinet, especially for the Ministry of Health, which has a majority of Shiite staff. But Dr. Haffadh and her doctor husband are liberals and are against categorizing people according to their faiths.Both women chose similar words in announcing their plans to resign: Dr. Al Mubarak said that she would resign to avoid “burning up Kuwait”, while Dr. Haffadh simply said she would “resign for Bahrain”.
The Kuwaiti parliament is one of the oldest in the Arab world, with a majority of conservative Sunni and Shiite MPs wielding power in the government. In contrast, the elected house in Bahrain, or Chamber of Representatives, is comparatively new: it was only established in 2002 with a majority of middle-class Sunni and Shiite conservative MPs - citizens with few political skills and no power over the government. Both parliaments are male dominated; out of 40 members, the Bahraini parliament has only one female MP (Lateefa Al Qaood) who won her seat unopposed.
While Dr. Haffadh has been reappointed by the King as a Shura Member, Dr. Al Mubarak still has no official post. However she is widely recognized in the region as a good activist, professor and writer. And though Dr. Haffadh’s appointment may seem an honor, in my opinion it seems more like a demotion when she could have joined a private medical practice along with her husband. (The Consultative Council, or Majlis al-shura, is the upper house of the National Assembly, the main legislative body of Bahrain. The Council is comprised of forty members appointed directly by the King of Bahrain. The forty seats of the Consultative Council combined with the forty elected seats of the Council of Representatives form the National Assembly.)
The situations and problems facing the health ministries in Bahrain and Kuwait are different yet both suffer from the deep-seated corruption that emerged during the early years of independence in the seventies. The myriad problems facing the ministries couldn’t be solved quickly and when the two ministers accepted their posts they were well aware of the challenges. Consequently from the start they acknowledged they would need support and encouragement, but indicated they were confident they could solve the problems, given enough time.
Public health services in Kuwait are still below standard, although it is one of the richest countries in the world. But one of the biggest health issues facing this oil-rich country is the misuse of resources. In the Health Ministry, this includes the practice of sending patients abroad for medical treatment. Too many Kuwaitis use their influence with staff in the Ministry of Health to get included in the out-of-country health treatment scheme and then use the opportunity to vacation at the government’s expense. Some patients even postpone their travel unnecessarily just to be able to travel during summer and escape the scalding heat. The biggest scam built into this scheme is that relatives can go with patients, so in some cases entire families have gotten free vacations at the government’s expense. This issue has been harshly criticized in Kuwaiti media and has even been portrayed in TV soap operas. Dr. Al Mubarak was the only minister to tackled the problem, weathering clashes with those MPs who use their power to process travel-abroad health applications for their voters. She issued a ministerial order in 2007 to regulate which medical conditions and what criteria qualified a patient for this option.
Medical negligence is the other major problem facing the health sector in Bahrain; the situation is aggravated because there is no investigative body to probe cases of negligence. According to Dr. Lena Al Qasem, head of the patient complaint office at the Ministry of Health, the number of patient complaints is on the rise. The office received as many as 65 so far this year, up by 13 from the whole of 2006. Most complaints are filed by expatriates against the country’s private hospitals. Bahrainis have voiced anger against the Salmaniya Medical Complex (SMC), a government owned hospital, in particular.
Poor remuneration has led to a shortage of trained doctors and nurses, forcing them to leave public hospitals to join private clinics or to accept job offers outside the country for the promise of higher pay. There is consequently a dangerous lack of supervision and control over the misuse of drugs.
Dr. Haffadh tried her best to control these problems, beginning with raising the salaries of doctors and nurses to keep them in the public health sector; she also intensified stricter controls over unnecessarily prescribed drugs.Shiite MP Mohammed Al Mizal, a noted conservative, used his influence and support among the largest bloc, Al Wefaq, and some fame-loving parliamentarians like Salafist independent MP Jassim Al Saidi to make Dr. Haffadh their favorite enemy. She became a target only because she was a daring woman and a serious parliamentarian. They continually discredited her efforts to address the country’s health needs by citing the corruption that took place before her time as a yardstick against which to measure her. No single deputy questioned her honesty, but many of them interfered in the ministry’s affairs, provoking her just to get easy publicity and hog the newspaper headlines. No one stood up for her and demanded that she must be given enough time to correct years of dysfunction in the ministry.
Throughout the parliament recess this summer, MP Al Mizal secured his place in the limelight by repeatedly attacking the minister in press statements, by demanding that she quit, accusing her of not cooperating with him and worst of all, revealing confidential documents that had been given to him only as part of internal ministry investigations.
Though Dr. Haffadh did her best to be a successful minister, she failed in her dealings with the parliamentary investigation committee. Comprised of seven members, and chaired by her rival Al Mizal, the committee was charged with probing the functions and issues in the country’s health care, mainly at SMC and ER. Dr. Haffadh didn’t oppose the formation of the panel and was in fact very cooperative in the beginning. However the attitudes of its members eventually got under her skin and made her sometimes a little hostile during their proceedings. She took particular offense at the attitude and behavior of Al Mizal, especially when he walked into SMC and forced a lab technician to carry out an alcohol test on a medical staffer who he thought might be under the influence.
Al Mizal saw to it that the incident was covered in all the local newspapers, including his assertion that the staffer was drunk when he caught him. Dr. Haffadh denied the accusations, explaining that the man in question was an alcoholic, but had returned to work only after finishing rehabilitation.
Dr. Muneera Fakhro, herself an activist and politician, was the most powerful female candidate in the 2006 parliamentary election. She dismisses the allegations that Dr. Haffadh was targeted by other MPs simply for being a woman, but agrees that Dr. Al Mubarak was hated and forced to leave because of the conservative and tribal members of the parliament.
While Dr. Al Mubarak suffered the same intimidation tactics in Kuwait, she was also caught in the middle of the conflicts between the Kuwaiti government and the parliament over the recruitment of members in Royal Families into the cabinet.
Ultimately both women were the victims of dirty politics, but Dr. Al Mubarak felt the heat because from the very beginning, conservative MPs opposed her appointment – not only because of her gender, but also her religious background as a Shiite. However, according to Fakhro, when Dr. Haffadh was appointed in 2004, no one objected to her appointment. Doctors Al Mubarak and Haffadh might have failed to effectively deal with other MPs, but they succeeded in leaving the cabinets with their dignity and self-respect intact, Fakhro says.
Much has been said about their resignations and the reasons behind them, but it’s important to realize that both achieved a very significant goal: they broke through the gender barriers that have for so long maintained men’s iron hold on politics. Some see their resignations as a setback to women’s empowerment in the region, but I think Bahraini and Kuwaiti women have yet to show their real capabilities. The list of female achievers in both countries is long; most notable among the women pioneers are Shaikha Haya Al Khalifa, a lawyer who became Bahrain’s first woman ambassador when she was posted to France in 1999, who then was elected by acclamation in 2006 to be General Secretary of the United Nations (the third woman ever to hold that post); Kuwaiti poet Suad Al Subah and Bahraini freedom-fighter Dr. Sabika Al Najar, Secretary-General of the Bahrain Human Rights Society (BHRS).
Both women now join the ranks of those women who have fought for equality. Similarly they have enormous potential to succeed both within or outside of the cabinet.
About the Author
Suad Hamada has been a journalist in Bahrain since 1997. Her writing focuses on politics and women’s empowerment in both Bahrain and the larger Arab region. She has participated in national campaigns for the elimination of discrimination against Bahraini women, seeking to give them a voice in a society - that while liberal in comparison to its neighbors - still marginalizes and oppresses its female citizens.