Since February 14th 2011, Bahrain has been experiencing a massive popular uprising in which large numbers of women from different socio-economic, political and religious backgrounds have taken to the streets to demand greater rights, freedom and democracy. They were met with a brutal crackdown from the Interior Ministry and Bahrain Defense Force, which left seven demonstrators dead and scores injured. In light of international media frenzy, diplomatic condemnations, and rising public anger, the government withdrew its armed personnel to allow the public a free space in which to express their discontent and demands. It is here that aspirations for the future of Bahrain are being formulated into a plan, and it is here that tens of thousands of Bahraini women with demands for a more democratic and more just future are staking their claim.
To mark International Women’s Day, we look at the reflections of one woman from ‘the Pearl’.
I meet our subject in Bahrain’s financial district in downtown Manama. A Bahraini twenty-something, suited and heeled with short brown hair and softly lined eyes, she walks to our meeting from her banking job in one of the high-rises a few minutes away. In her own experience, the recent wave for social and political change in the Middle East sparked her involvement in Bahrain’s February 14 uprising.
“I was never politically active on the scene in Bahrain, but when things started out in the rest of the region, in Egypt and Tunisia, I became a little bit more aware of the issues in the region in general, and then [became more active] in Bahrain in specific. When the February 14th movement started I was just curious.”
As a first-hand witness to developments, including the brutality of the state’s armed personnel, she says her position changed from reporting back from events on the ground to becoming part of them. “I’ve always been compassionate about the cause [of democracy], but I wasn’t exactly sure where that fits in, and I wasn’t sure if I agreed with the way things were going to turn out. And no one knew or expected how things were going to escalate.”
“At first I just ran around the island taking photos of the protests and just trying to see what was going on – but then the first victim fell and I decided to go to the funeral. We went to the procession, and then I decided to just be there, witness things. I was never involved but I kind of had at the back of my mind what these people’s demands are, where they’re coming from.
“As things escalated in Bahrain, and then they lost another victim, people on the streets just started getting angrier and angrier, I became slightly more involved. I think slowly, I started – not to lose objectivity – but to become heavily involved, and more involved than I originally intended to be. I kept trying to be as neutral, to report back to people I knew, at least the people around me who are very confused to say the least. I mean there are a lot of rumors and a lot of people who are sitting in the comfort of their homes and judging and deciding and analyzing the situation based on I don’t know what … but they’re not there, they haven’t seen any of it – so for me it became very very important, even if I was not heavily involved in person that I was there because I wanted the message to be objectively transformed to people who were curious.”
“I believe, for our generation, if you haven’t lived through it you prefer to – if you haven’t seen it you’re completely removed, you don’t want that baggage and you move on.”
… الشعب يريد
“All the demands stem from the same source – political reform. [The demands] are not economical, they’re just a flow through – if you fix the main problem then it trickles down. The big point for everyone is to live in a country where you feel you can contribute. Whether there are [unfair] laws, the way people are treated, where you can apply for jobs – anything from your basic rights or what things that you’re allowed to say out in public or out loud – all of these things, on normal days you can just bat an eyelid and look the other way, but when things get to a certain point you do realize that these things are very very important, and they are part of everyone’s rights.
“I’m definitely part of the movement to ask for more reforms – the pro-democracy … the camp that asks for more rights, for more freedoms, to be able to say what they want, and freedom not to be discriminated against, to gather, to express your own opinions – all of that. They are very simple rights, and people shouldn’t have to die defending these rights in a country as progressive as Bahrain is being portrayed in the outside world.”
Although systemic sectarian discrimination against Bahrain’s Shia majority is a major cause of discontent and unrest, poverty, an unjust system, and a lack of rights is a cross sectarian, cross gender and cross generational problem, she adds.
“I have been very privileged in my life, what I know is that there is a lot of discrimination based on sect and it’s systemic, it’s definitely a group-rights thing. But I think that a lot of people are unhappy; a lot of people feel that this country could give them more. There are a lot of people who are in poverty and they are not just Shia. Maybe because Shia make up the majority, it’s more visible, but if you go to areas like Muharraq and Riffa [predominantly Sunni areas] there are a lot of people who can barely make ends meet.
“I don’t feel these people are happy or feel that they are being given the opportunity or chance to thrive – this basic need that everyone requires to be able to work hard and try and to get somewhere in life is not equal for everyone – and that spreads across sect.”
On the Women of the Revolution…
“[The experience], it completely changes you. First of all you’ll never be the same person again, that’s for sure. So you can take one of two things – either become completely numb and fall apart, or become stronger. And I think [the second is true] for a lot of people, especially women, the ones that I’ve seen and that I’ve talked to in Lulu.
“I have never ever expected people to be this resilient in Bahrain, especially after the first attack by the police on Thursday morning. When people retook the Pearl, and I came running to the roundabout, and the ground still had the blood of people who died there on it – and they were there, and people just kneeled and they started praying. It was one of the most emotional things that I’ve seen in my life, it was just unbelievable and I wanted to do exactly the same.
“I just thought that after all these people that died it would be a few people who were just completely fearless, they don’t care if they die, it doesn’t matter, they just go [back] and whatever happens, happens. Which is true, but it wasn’t just this small group. It was everyone. I reached there and it was filled with men women, children, families and they all went back and there was a sense of accomplishment, even though it was just heartbreaking, but they just felt that they needed to go back there just so that all these lives are not gone for nothing.
“And there were so many women there and they decided that they’re camping there and they’re not moving. I went around – women of all ages, all groups, some of them related to the people who passed away in previous years, some of them related to the recent victims – but most of them were not. And each one of them had a very different story to tell – they would come to us and they would want us to tell their stories. And you know that never happens – because before everyone would be too afraid to actually speak up, just afraid of being caught. And a lot of them were happy to share their full names, they’re like, “I want you to write this and I want you to tell my story because this is not fair, and this is my life”.
“I spoke to mothers who were heartbroken over their children, they had sons and daughters who were educated, very well educated, no jobs, staying at home after years of graduating there is nothing. No one should have to go through this especially when Bahrain- not as rich as other countries in the region but you do have the money – it’s just in the wrong places and the wrong hands.
“I saw a lot of younger crowds being very heavily and actively involved, especially in the demonstration – we thought the majority would be older, mother-types, but there are a lot of younger women, who are just bold and brave and they would stand and hold their signs and protest– they are so proud, they whole-heartedly believe in this cause, and they’re so passionate – it’s very moving.
The Personal is Political
“For me, before any of this happened, I was never happy with the status of women’s rights in Bahrain – you open the newspapers and you read all these different stories and it just makes your blood boil. And I wanted to help out – especially the cases about women abuse by their husbands, or rape cases, or discrimination in the workplace just because you’re a woman. We have a long way to go and we’re not going, we’re not starting – we’re not even on the right direction, because each case, anything that happens, any case against women or of that nature is taken one by one, and that’s no way to build a country, or a precedent.
“The judicial system is a mess, to say the least, and so no- it’s not good enough for me to live in a country, even if I am a professional and I have my education and I have a good job – if I were to get married tomorrow and then my husband decides to bash my head against the wall and I would go and complain, no one will take my side. And that’s a scary thought.”
“Right now, what people are asking for is separation of powers and then to actually have a proper legislative body that is separate from the executive. It’s debatable as well, the whole structure and how it’s going to end up, but people are asking for rights to be able to participate, have their input into how things are run in the country. That’s the first step: you’re setting the framework for proper laws and all these different changes in different aspects of our social system to flow through. When you have a proper system you can lobby for all these different kinds of laws. Right now if you have a problem, it’s a dead end. For me, from that point of view, this [uprising] is very important.”
Reflections on One Woman’s Voice
“I think what I’ve taken from this, honestly, is that when you know something is wrong you do need to speak up. You cannot be neutral, you cannot decide to just ignore everything that is happening outside – because you’re part of this, and you’re part of this country. And if you want it to get better then you need to play your part, however small that might be, to be vocal about it, to be active about it- and not just stay at home and hope things will just get sorted.”
“We reached this stage because people were quiet, and they kept burying this under the mat and saying things will get better, or there are no problems, or these are not big problems – until things reached a boiling point, and then just exploded. And you know, all of that could have been avoided.
“I’m staying hopeful. A lot of things could play out, there are a lot of variables right now, but I truly believe and truly hope this will push for things to become better … and [for Bahrain] to become more transparent- that people will be more aware of why this movement happened to begin, and then get something positive out of it that’s hopefully going to be for the good of everyone in Bahrain.”
[You can support the “Women of Lulu” by signing their petition, “A Better World for All.”]