By Sally Saar
International perceptions of Bahrain can be deceptive. After two decades of unprecedented change, Sally Saar documents the evolution of the notorious Gulf State, the social tolerance and the role of women in guiding its future.
I have lived in Bahrain for over two decades – half my life. Having spent such an important part of my life here, I call Bahrain home. When I first arrived on the island, the airport was the size of a luxurious mansion with the same door used for arrivals and departures. There was only one bridge connecting Manama to Muharraq and one highway that ran all the way from Manama to Isa Town and Hamad Town. We did not have mobile phones or internet and relied on landlines and letters to communicate with our friends and families across the globe. Sitra Bridge was considered a nightmare even back then and the only shopping mall was Yateem Centre.
So, what has changed?
Bahrain has come a long way. There are now more people, more cars, roads, areas, bridges, cities, communities and the inevitable more international businesses and competition that has fuelled growth further. The number of residents and expatriates has increased; some live and work in Bahrain while others commute to Saudi Arabia. Families prefer living in Bahrain as there is so much more freedom.
I have worked along side Bahraini women since the day I arrived. What struck me when I first arrived in Bahrain was the tolerance and kindness of the people I came across in the workforce. To my surprise there was a large multi-cultural community that had lived in Bahrain for generations. Christmas, Diwali and Eid saw people traipsing all across town greeting each other and sharing meals. I first experienced the Ramadan canon in Bahrain and the girguan festivities when children would come hammering on my door asking for sweets and snacks, a bit like Halloween. I was in awe of how people happily and openly celebrated everything together with their friends and neighbours.
Ultimately Bahrain is an Islamic country, with the Islamic Sharia’a being a principal source for legislation. Peoples’ lives are entwined with religion and culture. A culture so strong, that community elders still meet in majalis’ or local coffee shops on a regular basis where family, community and business issues are resolved amicably. Dirty laundry is never washed in public. The country also has community day care centres where senior men and women come during the day to meet, talk and learn skills but return to their families in the afternoon. No one is ignored in the community.
The societal norm as in all Eastern communities is for women to be married with a family by the age of 30 years. Women are encouraged to complete their higher education but do not leave home until they are married and men generally bring their new bride into the family home. Parental blessings of the bride and groom are obtained before any marriage is agreed upon. A marriage in Bahrain is considered to be between two families and not just two individuals.
In Bahrain, women work side-by-side men in all sectors, at all levels. Women are treated with respect and men in general are very courteous and polite to female colleagues and friends. We women use this politeness to jump queues all the time and ask super market staff to help us take the shopping out to the car. As much as we love our independence – we appreciate the pampering a lot more.
Let’s be honest here, it’s not really a man’s world – as the saying goes – behind every great man there is a greater woman. We cannot underestimate what women have achieved.
Western expatriates and foreign media are often under the misconception that Muslim women have no rights if they wear a hijab – so far from the truth and certainly not in the Kingdom of Bahrain. We are lucky enough to live in a tolerant society that has women representatives in parliament, Shura council, banking and in the corporate world leading major private businesses. Many of these women wear the hijab and many do not – it is a personal decision; a freedom of choice.
For many years, one bone of contention was the unified family law or Personal Status Law, which had seen much criticism for a lack of consistency in their judgements. Based on women’s demands, the Supreme Council for Women headed by HRH Princess Sabeekha bint Ebrahim Al Khalifa spearheaded a campaign that put pressure on the government resulting in the passing of the family law in 2009. With the new law, matters of divorce, marriage and child custody were recognised and not left up to the discretion of a judge. The law was created to protect women in our society –a great achievement and sends a visionary message to the world.
Let’s not forget, the Shia’a AlWefaq Party rejected this law and therefore to date the women who you see in the opposition led protests cannot disobey their religious leaders’ orders or the men they live with. How can these women go out in the streets and demand freedom and equality when they have no freedom, voice or equality in their own homes or within their community!
Bahraini women are making history: the country’s leadership is more far-sighted than the West gives them credit for.
We had the first woman in the cabinet in 2004 and a second in 2005. Sabah Khalil Almoayyed was chairwoman of the Bahrain Bankers’ Society and, until February of 2004 was Acting CEO of Ahli United Bank. She was the first woman in the Gulf to hold such a senior banking position.
In June 2006, Bahrain was elected head of the United Nations General Assembly, and used the honour to appoint Shaikha Haya bint Rashid Al Khalifa as the Assembly’s President, making her the first Middle Eastern woman and the third woman in history to take over the post. Shaikha Haya Al Khalifa is a leading lawyer and a women’s right advocate who had also served as Ambassador in France. We currently have a Christian ambassador, Mrs. Alice Thomas Samaan in the UK and a Jewish ambassador, Mrs. Houda Ezra Ebrahim Nonoo in the USA.
As recently as February 2012 two remarkable ladies launched their own designer label Noon by Noor (owned by Shaikha Noor bint Rashid Al Khalifa and Shaikha Haya bint Mohammed Al Khalifa,) in New York – the first GCC fashion label to walk on the runway of the New York Fashion Week. Noon by Noor designs are being worn by the biggest names in Hollywood – an admirable feat.
The leadership continues to be supportive of women within our community and one can see women holding key powerful roles. Women in Bahrain have been instrumental in propelling the female workforce to a new level. Their accomplishments are commendable and have certainly set a precedent and benchmark for the young female workforce which is the future of the Kingdom of Bahrain.