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Le genre des États

Between Women’s Empowerment and Emancipation.

Societal and Political Determinants of Reforms in the Kingdom of Bahrain
Magdalena Karolak


L’objectif de cet article est d’évaluer les réformes récentes d’autonomisation des femmes à Bahreïn à travers le concept foucaldien de gouvernementalité. Bien que l’analyse révèle que l’autonomisation des femmes suit les logiques politiques et économiques, le discours officiel n’est pas dénué de contradictions. D’un autre côté, les mouvements d’opposition ont également montré une approche pragmatique de la participation des femmes dans la société. L’article met en évidence l’écart entre les efforts d’autonomisation et d’émancipation des femmes de Bahreïn et, en fin de compte, montre certaines opportunités créées par le Printemps arabe.

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  • 1 Al‑Mughni, Tétreault, 2000, p. 237‑260; 1995, p.64‑80.
  • 2 Carvalho Pinto, 2012.
  • 3 Krause, 2009.
  • 4 Seikaly, 1998, p. 169‑189.
  • 5 Pandya, 2010, p. 31‑58.
  • 6 Kabeer, 2002, p. 19.
  • 7 Ruane & Todd, 2005, p. 238.

1This paper builds on the research on female empowerment and emancipation in GCC countries by authors such as Haya al‑Mughni and Mary Ann Tétreault1 on Kuwait, Vânia Carvalho Pinto2 on the UAE, Wanda Krause3 on Qatar, to mention a few. In the case of Bahrain, the works of May Seikaly4 on women’s activism in pro‑reform movements as well as Sophia Pandya’s research5 on the transformations of female religiosity are especially noteworthy. The core argument of the paper is based on the distinction between two concepts, namely, emancipation and empowerment. Following Kabeer, empowerment will be defined as “the expansion in people’s ability to make strategic life choices in a context where this ability was previously denied to them”6. Regarding emancipation, it refers, on the one hand, to “a process by which participants in a system which determines, distorts, and limits their potentialities come together actively to transform it, and in the process transform themselves”7. The implications of this approach are as follows: from the point of view of an individual’s engagement, empowerment is a passive process, while emancipation is an active one. Also, being able to make decisions does not entail actually making them so the effects of empowerment may remain restrained in practice. On the other hand, through an active engagement, emancipation fosters a person’s freedom and self‑confidence. This research focuses on the interplay between empowerment and emancipation in Bahrain in the past decade and analyzes their effects on Bahraini women.

2This paper is structured as follows. Firstly it presents the theoretical and methodological background centered on the Foucauldian concept of governmentality applied to the realities of the rentier state. Sections 2 and 3 are a detailed analysis of political and economic empowerment strategies from the point of view of governmental logic. Section 4 provides an overview of the official discourse on female empowerment put forward in the media and shows its contradictions in legislative practice. Section 6 focuses on the resistance to the official discourse and its alternatives. Section 7 discusses the potential for empowerment and emancipation and, especially in light of the Arab Spring in Bahrain, assesses their implications for the future.

Public policies and Governmentality in the Bahraini rentier state

  • 8 Mitchell, 1991, p. 95.
  • 9 Foucault, 1982, 1986, 1991, 1995.

3This research is grounded in the study of state‑society relations. While rejecting the dichotomy between state and society, it posits that their boundaries are fluid and depend on the “producing and reproducing” of the line of difference8. For the purpose of analysis this research employs the concept of governmentality developed by Michel Foucault9.

  • 10 Sellers, 2010, p. 6.
  • 11 Luciani, 1990, p. 76.
  • 12 Schwarz, 2008, p. 607.

4Indeed, within the context of Western liberal democracies, followers of the Weberian tradition of bureaucracy have asserted “a sharp analytical distinction” between state and society. However, recent research on state‑society relations claims, on the contrary, that “society is not simply acted upon by the state, but has actively shaped the actions of and outcomes of state activity”10 through participation in elections, activism in political parties, corporate interests, etc. Similarly, within the context of the Arabian Gulf, the rentier state theory established a clear distinction between state and society. This theory maintains that “revenue from abroad dramatically improves the state’s ability to buy legitimacy through allocation and increases regime stability”11. In the rentier context, political support is obtained in exchange of the redistribution of wealth to the citizens. Since the state does not rely on public taxation but gets its sustenance from oil rents, political rights are withheld from society following the inverted formula no taxation, no representation. Consequently, state acts independently from society. On the other hand, once society adheres to “an implicit social contract [...] through which political rights are substituted for state provided welfare”, the system becomes fairly stable12. Citizens are simply better off supporting the state, while remaining politically passive. Nonetheless, recent attempts of the GCC governments to empower various segments of society, for example women, contradict the assumptions of the rentier state theory. Contrary to expectations, the Gulf authorities began to promote investments in strengthening their citizens’ participation capacities through education and rights empowerment activities, among others. The paradox of the GCC initiatives in light of the rentier state theory is clear and the question of why rentier states would use oil rents to motivate citizens’ participation, not to restrain it, is crucial to understand.

  • 13 Krause, 2009.
  • 14 Foucault, 1982, p. 221.
  • 15 Lemke, 2007, p. 18.

5In order to analyze female empowerment initiatives, I follow Krause’s application of the Foucauldian concept of governmentality to the rentier state13. The concept of governmentality undergoes transformations throughout Foucault’s work; nonetheless its major contribution is a novel approach to understanding power. According to Foucault, power is omnipresent and structures the field of action for others14. Power is not static but rather should be understood as an act. In his early works, Foucault concentrates primarily on power‑establishing institutions such as schools, prisons, and hospitals, etc., that monitor and coerce society. Later on, Foucault’s attention shifts towards power‑producing knowledge that is divulged to society through the very same institutions. Once knowledge is internalized and becomes a sort of “truth”, society disciplines itself. This shift towards power/knowledge should not however be understood as a reduction of state sovereignty but rather as a move from formal to more informal techniques of government15. Power/knowledge is represented in the diagram below.

Diagram 1. Representation of the Power/knowledge discourse

Diagram 1. Representation of the Power/knowledge discourse

Source: Juniper (2007, p. 280)

  • 16 Lemke, 2001.

6It is important to note that in this framework, the exercise of power is “rationalized”16 since the power/knowledge discourse serves specific purposes, with the ultimate purpose being the survival of the state.

  • 17 Krause, 2009, p. 7.

7Governmentality in Western liberal democracy no doubt differs from the governmentality of a rentier state. Indeed, Krause asserts that rentier governmentality “aims for greater control over civil society through strategies of cooptation, facilitated predominantly through rentierism but also through coercion, as well as through techniques of neo‑liberal governmentality, assisted by a limited and controlled form of ‘responsibilization’”17. Female empowerment initiatives in the Kingdom of Bahrain shall be discussed within the context of rentier governmentality. Empowerment reforms, which led to the establishment of a quasi‑governmental body, the Supreme Council for Women (SCW) in 2001 as well as other allocations to women’s rights, must be understood within state rationalities.

8This research aims at analyzing the power/knowledge discourse that relates to female empowerment in Bahrain. Furthermore, it assesses how this official discourse is translated into policies and how these policies affect and impact society. Consequently, the method of discourse analysis is applied to published and unpublished documents including, among others, official websites and newspaper content. Moreover, this paper positions female empowerment discourses in their historical context in order to assess governmental rationalities behind the empowerment policies, based on literature review as well as an analysis of recent developments. The goal is to understand how and to what extent women’s issues fulfill state rationalities. Secondly, as Foucault asserted, whenever there is power, there is resistance to power; this research will seek to understand what the fields of contestation dealing with women’s empowerment are, and how they contribute to the dynamism of the power/knowledge discourse. Thirdly, this paper will assess the extent of emancipation and empowerment for Bahraini women.

Rationalities of women’s political empowerment in Bahrain

  • 18 Foucault, 1991, p. 103.

9As governmentality is “at once external and internal to the state”18, the rationalities of state activities should be analyzed from the point of view of their external and internal driving forces. The political empowerment of women in Bahrain serves both internal legitimacy deficit rationalities and external legitimacy needs.

  • 19 Seikaly, 1998, p. 170.
  • 20 Peterson, 197 , p. 297.
  • 21 Zahid & Zweiri, 2007, p. 9.

10The first step towards political empowerment was marked by women participating in the nationwide referendum on the National Action Charter in 2001. This document set out a plan for political reform, which would cement a new deal between the state and society. Indeed, the rule of the late Amīr ‘Isā b. Salmān Āl Khalīfa (1961–1999) lacked popular support and was, in its last years, based mostly on coercion. Starting from 1973, Bahrain was ruled singlehandedly by the amīr under the state of emergency law, which caused growing anti‑government ferment. The ultimate years of the amīr’s rule left Bahrain in a state of permanent upheaval known as the “Intifāḑa” (1994–1999) marked by open clashes with security forces as well as petitions for reform addressed to the amīr. Women were an integral part of the pro‑reform movements19. Women’s participation in the referendum was thus crucial as Sheikh Ḥamad b. ‘Isā Āl Khalīfa was searching for a new type of legitimacy after ascending the throne in 1999. Following in the footsteps of state formation in the Arabian Gulf, leadership was vested in the person of a sheikh who would gain his position through inheritance or through personal efforts. However, without some support from outside the tribe, the sheikh would only ever be primus inter pares20. In the gradual rise to power, facilitated by British domination of the region, tribal sheikhs acquired the title of akīm and later that of amīr. As part of the political reforms, Bahrain became a monarchy since in “a new post traditional Persian Gulf […] tribal affiliations may no longer suffice to legitimize a ruling tribe”21. The authority of the monarch aimed at encompassing society as a whole, while going beyond the unstable sheikhly authority of tribal leaders.

11Through their participation in the referendum, women were recognized as an integral part of society. Consequently, following this line of thought, they gained suffrage rights as well as the right to stand for elections in 2002. Furthermore, women were appointed to prominent public offices. Women joined cabinets as ministers of Health, Social affairs and Culture, and Information. Women were also appointed to serve in the Shūrā Council, the upper house of the parliament. These appointments were not limited to members of the royal family but included also professional women from different backgrounds. Choosing Christian as well as Jewish female, Shūrā members highlighted the multicultural approach of the new ruler aimed at strengthening his authority beyond social divisions.

  • 22 NDI, 2002.

12On the other hand, women stood as candidates in the 2002 parliamentary and municipal elections, yet failed to win any seats. The public focused especially on a parliamentary candidate Laṭīfa al‑Qa‛ūd, who was expected to win. This was assumed because, first, because the King’s wife, Sheikha Sabīka, lives in that governorate and had made no secret of her desire to have a woman win; then because the Southern governorate is heavily militarized and people believed that the military might have heeded Sheikha Sabīka’s call to put a woman in parliament; and, finally, because voters at the polling station seemed energized by the prospect of a woman gaining an elected seat22.

13Yet, al‑Qa‛ūd, a British‑educated civil servant, lost in the second round to a Sunni cleric. The emphasis put on electing female MPs was reflected in al‑Qa‛ūd changing electoral districts in 2006. As a result, she ran unopposed in the scarcely populated and remote islands of al‑Ḥawār. She became the first woman MP elected in the GCC. Her election symbolized not only the women’s support for the political system but also the importance of women serving their country as loyal citizens. Consequently, the Supreme Council for Women (SCW) conducted further political empowerment programs providing women with necessary skills training as well as funding for their political campaigns.

  • 23 Lambert, 2013.

14The role of women in the new political system served also external legitimacy needs since “elections and women’s political rights are well‑accepted international norms that states in the Arab Gulf have traditionally been rather resistant to adopting”23. Additional women appointed to represent Bahrain on the international scene would also promote Bahrain’s liberal image and its commitment to democratic reforms. In 2000 Sheikha Hayā Rāshid Āl Khalīfa, one of the foremost Bahraini female lawyers, became a Bahraini ambassador. She was subsequently elected president of the UN General Assembly. On the other hand, choosing such appointees also aimed at cementing international alliances. Hudā Nūnū, a Jewish female became Bahrain’s ambassador to the USA, while Christian Alice Sam‛ān was deployed to the UK; both countries are vital allies of Bahrain and contribute to its stability.

15Political liberalization reforms, undertaken under the rule of Sheikh Ḥamad b. ‘Isā Āl Khalīfa (1999–….), boosted female empowerment in the field of politics. These reforms were motivated by clear internal and external rationalities. The rationalized use of power promoted female economic empowerment.

Economic empowerment rationalities

  • 24 Oil resources come from the Saudi offshore field, Abū Sāfa, to which Bahrain was fully entitled in (...)

16Bahrain is a small island country, its oil reserves have already dried out24 and economic factors such as soaring unemployment rates and a rising cost of living have led to waves of social unrest in the past. In order to spur economic growth, Bahraini authorities pursued policies of economic liberalization in the 2000’s to reduce the share of the public sector and to attract foreign investment. Female empowerment and participation in the economy could help promote sustainable development regardless of oil resources, foster job creation and serve household needs. Given the expected benefits for the national economy, the rationalities behind empowerment reforms are especially strong.

  • 25 Ahmed, 2010.
  • 26 Gender Gulf, 2008.
  • 27 Löfström, 2009.
  • 28 Weeks & Seiler, 2001.
  • 29 Bahrain Factsheet, 2009.

17To begin with, eased procedures allowed women to process all business related paperwork on their own instead of employing male representatives, thus boosting female entrepreneurship25. As a result, in 2008 more than one third of Bahraini businesses were owned by women26. Indeed, international studies suggest that women’s low participation in the workforce has a direct negative impact on the country’s GDP27. Case studies assert that female participation in business ownership shows an even stronger correlation with GDP growth28. Moreover, female business activity may ease the problem of job creation as it is estimated that over the next decade 100,000 Bahrainis will enter the job market in this country with roughly 1 million inhabitants29.

  • 30 Tamkeen, 2011, p. 23.

18Secondly, women’s economic empowerment is linked to the “Bahrain Economic Vision 2030”, a broad initiative to develop the country unveiled in 2008. As sustainability requires greater inclusion of Bahrainis in the job market, Tamkeen, an employment agency, was established under the umbrella of the government. In a joint effort between Tamkeen and SCW several grants were awarded to businesswomen in the fields of transportation, fashion design and photography, in order to foster female entrepreneurship30. Furthermore, Tamkeen provides job training as well as training and employment programs in cooperation with Bahraini‑based companies in the fields of hospitality, travel and tourism, quantity surveying and healthcare addressed to both Bahraini men and women. Within these schemes, Bahraini women may get training for jobs traditionally performed by expatriate female workers such as air hostesses, healthcare professionals and assistants or hospitality staff. Moreover, Tamkeen also takes steps to increasing female employability in the male‑dominated parts of the economy. Women are thus on the forefront of Bahrainization, a program to nationalize the job market, taking up jobs for expatriate women but also gaining access to the male‑dominated parts of the economy. New legislation encourages employing Bahraini women, as part of the process of nationalizing the workforce, each Bahraini women counts as two Bahraini men when fulfilling the Bahrainization quota.

  • 31 Bahrain Economic Quarterly, 2011, p. 16.
  • 32 Kelly, 2009, p. 3

19Female empowerment in the economy may also provide a solution for Bahraini households. Despite centrally‑directed redistribution policies, Bahrain’s pattern of socio‑economic disparity is quite visible: according to calculations, in 2010, 22% of Bahraini households remained below the relative poverty line31. Moreover, while the relative poverty rate was set at 463 Bahraini Dinars (1228 USD) per month in 2010 prices, the minimum wage for a Bahraini national is 250 Bahraini Dinars (663 USD). Thus, a working man’s salary may no longer be sufficient to support his whole family. As a result, expectations towards wives in Bahrain have changed dramatically and “young men nowadays look for a wife that can help with family expenses”32.

20The rationalities behind women’s economic empowerment are thus dictated by economic needs. The country’s economic sustainability as well as household economic security cannot be achieved without an active female workforce. It comes as no surprise that media campaigns and official discourse specifically stress the issue of women’s economic empowerment.

Official discourse and its contradictions in practice

21The importance of women in the official discourse was highlighted by the introduction of Bahraini Women’s Day in 2008. Themes for the nationwide celebrations have included so far women’s pioneering role and their success in promoting Bahrain worldwide (2008), women and health and security: midwives, nurses, technicians and doctors (2009), the role of women in voluntary work (2010), women in the national economy (2011) and women’s achievements in sports (2012). The themes partially reflect women’s empowerment in the economy as well as their participation in new domains in the public sphere. The day is an occasion to reward women working in private and public companies. Furthermore, women’s achievements in breaking gendered stereotypes are highlighted in the local media. Newspapers devote several articles to presenting female candidates running in the national elections and closely follow their campaigns. Similarly, women who break into the traditionally male‑dominated jobs, such as female judges or female pilots are highly praised and draw a lot of media attention. Media promotion of women also included how they opened up new areas in the process of Bahrainization. Newspapers and magazines had in‑depth profiles of Bahraini women working as flight attendants for the national airline as a way to increase social acceptance of the job, usually performed by expatriate women. On the other hand, Bahrainization strategies are sending women a clear message. A Tamkeen nationwide campaign adopted the slogan “Achieve your potential” (below). Although the same slogan was also addressed to Bahraini men, it suggests that women can also find fulfillment elsewhere than at home duties, through their involvement in professional careers.

Image 1. Tamkeen economic empowerment billboard (example)

Image 1. Tamkeen economic empowerment billboard (example)

22The power/knowledge state discourse portrays Bahraini women as active citizens. Through their activities and achievements in the public sphere, they make up a vital part of a society working to secure the country’s future. Official discourse refers to Bahraini females as “key partners in national growth” on “equal footing with men”.

  • 33 Krauss, 1987, p. xii.
  • 34 Giacaman, Jad and Johnson, 1996.
  • 35 Sabbagh, 2007, p. 12
  • 36 These limitations were reflected in reservations to a number of provisions of CEDAW.

23However, these ideas of partnership and equality are not without contradictions. Patriarchal influence still runs strong in the legislation and in new regulations adopted after 2002. Patriarchy, “a hierarchy of authority that is controlled and dominated by the males”33 and which is characterized by the precedence of the elderly over the young, originates in the family and is a basic institution in Arab societies. Families are run by men and within this patriarchal structure, female and male obligations and spheres are strictly separated34. According to current conservative representations, women’s roles are confined to the household where they act as mothers and wives35. The family ought to be a safe haven where women can find protection. Despite the fact that Bahraini women are invited to actively join the public sphere, their subordinate position is visible, among others, in the nationality, labor and inheritance laws and in the lack of legislation guaranteeing protection from violence36, to name a few.

  • 37 Article 18 of the Constitution of Bahrain (2002) stipulates that "people are equal in human dignity (...)
  • 38 Hijab, 2002, p. 6.

24Even though Bahrain has recently adopted progressive legislation guaranteeing gender equality37, Bahraini women cannot pass citizenship on to their foreign husbands or on the children born out of these unions. It is assumed that within patriarchal structures, “family is also central to political identity. Political identity comes through male genealogy. The Arab nation is seen as descending through a series of patrilineal kin groups. Citizens have to belong to a male‑defined kin group to belong to a religious sect, to belong to the nation, and to acquire the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. Children are assigned both the religious and political identities of their fathers. By not allowing women to pass citizenship on to their children (or their spouses), most Arab states cement the linkage between religious identity, political identity, patrilineality, and patriarchy —that is, between religion, nation, state, and kinship”38.

25Children born to Bahraini women in mixed marriages can claim exemptions from government fees as well as the same healthcare and education benefits as Bahrainis if they reside in the kingdom; however they are excluded from political, employment and housing benefits. In this context, the lack of recognition of women as full citizens underlies the more general issue of access to social welfare, which prioritizes men’s roles in the households.

  • 39 Esplen & Brody, 2007.
  • 40 The Global Gender Report, 2010.
  • 41 Personal, Family and Legal Status of Bahraini Women, 2008.
  • 42 Al Najjar, n.d.

26Similarly, in patriarchal societies, women find themselves often discriminated against in the job market. The gender pay gap is widely accepted as men are expected to earn more since they are the primary breadwinners in the family. As a result, women’s work is valued less and gets less recognition39. In average, a Bahraini woman earns 76% of the income of a male worker for a similar job with the same education and experience40. Gender stereotyping contributes also to the persistence of the glass ceiling41. Even though the general legislation supports the idea of gender equality, labor laws “do not prohibit or provide protections against gender‑based discrimination in the workplace”42, thus women who face discrimination find it difficult or even impossible to question such practices.

27Furthermore, patriarchy is embedded in the religious‑based laws that govern inheritance. Due to a different perception of social obligations in Islam, genders get treated separately in the legislation as men are held financially responsible for their families. The legislation differs depending on Sunni and Shī‘a sharia; yet the share of a female heir is always significantly smaller than that of a male heir. Despite codification of the Personal Status Law for Sunnis in 2009, the laws do not reflect the changing expectations of Bahraini men regarding their wives’ financial contribution to the household since it upholds the gender difference in inheritance matters. However, it is important to note that 10.84% of Bahraini families are supported by a woman. Therefore a lack in appropriate legislation may contribute to cementing the link between poverty and households headed by women. In any case, non‑Muslims cannot inherit from Muslims and vice versa, which sets a limit to multiculturalism.

28The area of violence against women remains a blank spot, as the Penal Code stipulates that “nothing is considered a crime as long as it is the exercise of a right granted by law or custom” [art. 16]. Violence against women by male family members is accepted in conservative segments of society as the right to discipline female family members. Among the many types of abuse, in case of sexually motivated violence, Bahraini laws provide women with little protection. A rapist can escape punishment if he marries the victim (Article 353 of the penal code), while spousal rape is not considered abuse since a husband is entitled to his conjugal privileges even against the wishes of his wife.

  • 43 See a detailed account of struggles to pass on Bahraini nationality through mothers since the 1980' (...)

29All in all, the experience of recent years shows an attempt by the official discourse and policies to channel women’s empowerment. Despite the existence of women’s emancipation movements, within rentier governmentality, paragovernmental bodies can only be primarily responsible to enact empowerment strategies, and even their recommendations are not always put in effect43. The co‑optation of grassroots movements remains yet another option, which will be discussed further on. The extent of adopted policies is “rationalized” by the survival of the system. A strong need for legitimacy and economic development called for a prioritizing of reforms in these areas, while empowerment within the family remains a controversial topic among conservative parts of society. Progressive reforms in this domain could easily reduce the legitimacy of the system, turn away its traditional supporters gathered around Sunni Islamist associations, and strengthen the tenacity of the existing opposition. It is also important to note that female grassroots activism may not always be directed towards women’s issues, which is especially clear by their participation in opposition movements.

Resistance to the power/knowledge discourse

30Within the power structures described by Foucault, resistance aims not at eradicating power but at harnessing it. Also, resistance seeks acknowledgment of particular, subjective “truths”. In Bahrain, resistance to the power/knowledge discourse focused on pushing for more progressive political reforms that would grant society greater access to power. Consequently, various opposition groups have used power‑harnessing tactics through their participation in parliamentary elections and through direct action.

  • 44 Al A’ali, 2007.
  • 45 Zahid & Zweiri, 2007.
  • 46 Kinninmont, 2007.

31Indeed, the limited political liberalization reforms soon turned disappointing for some, as in comparison to the Constitution of 1973, the role of parliament was reduced in 2002. It was re‑established as a bicameral body with a lower house elected through universal suffrage and an upper house selected directly by the king. In the legislative system, the upper house has to approve all bills proposed by the lower house. Moreover, the king can ultimately veto any bill. To show their discontent, Shī‘a political associations boycotted the parliamentary elections in 2002. This step allowed Sunni candidates to dominate in parliament, while the system retained its legitimacy. Consequently, a new approach was sought and in 2006 the largest Shī‘a opposition group, al‑Wifāq (“the Accord”), announced its participation in the upcoming parliamentary elections. Nonetheless, harnessing power through established channels proved difficult. The Shī‘a opposition denounced gerrymandering that would give Sunnis a certain advantage in the elections. Furthermore, participation in the parliament was not a particularly fruitful experience as proposed bills were often rejected by the upper house44. In 2006 relations were further inflamed by a leaked report that allegedly implicated governmental officials in a plan to naturalize Sunni citizens to weaken the Shī‘a majority45. The participation of the opposition in the current political system may have been disappointing, leading to the formation of splinter groups that would boycott the current political system and aim at harnessing power through direct actions46.

  • 47 Pandya, 2010.
  • 48 Seikaly, 1998, p. 170.
  • 49 Personal, Family and Legal Status of Bahraini Women, 2008.
  • 50 Ahmed, 2010.
  • 51 Hamada, 2009.

32Despite a growing political awareness among women 47 and their involvement in opposition groups, the focus put on harnessing power led to the neglect of women’s causes. This was also the case in 1994 when women actively participated in widespread anti‑government protests; yet a petition addressed to the government by protesters only vaguely alluded to “the role of women in these changes”48. On the contrary, since female empowerment reforms were part of governmental strategies, they met fierce resistance from opposition groups. The manner in which the implementation of a unified Shī‘a and Sunni personal status law was obstructed provides an insightful example. Discriminatory practices in religious court rulings are common. Due to the absence of written law, all court rulings are subject to personal interpretation. This leads to a lack of consistency, rampant contradictions, and moreover, to a gender bias since judges usually side with men. These practices were detrimental to women. Women would endure hardships to be granted a divorce if they initiated it and proceedings could take up to ten years49. They could easily lose the custody of their children; and be either unable to claim alimony or be granted insufficient funds. Ultimately, the husbands could prevent their wives from living in the same house forcing them to move in with relatives. Since Bahraini civil courts do not have jurisdiction over religious courts, it is not possible to appeal unjust verdicts. Codifying a personal status law would thus have greatly improved women’s conditions and the consistency of court rulings. Resistance to codifying the Shī‘a sharia was based on the grounds that laymen should not interfere in issues traditionally reserved for sharia scholars. Power was the underlying reason for the resistance since the law was perceived as an attempt at undermining the traditional authority of Shī‘a religious leaders and shifting it towards governmental agencies. Previously, Shī‘a sharia had remained an autonomous domain within the community of followers. It came as no surprise that a demonstration organized by al‑Wifāq against the introduction of the personal status law for Shī‘as gathered 120,000 people, mostly women, while women’s rights activists rallied only 500 people in support of the law50. Moreover, hardliners called for nationwide unrest if such a law were to be implemented for the Shī‘a community51 leading SCW to pull out of the unified law initiative.

33Events in the Arab Spring further boosted the engagement of women in the opposition movements. Women had participated in gatherings and demonstrations in the past; yet during the gatherings around Pearl Roundabout they addressed mixed gender audiences and proved themselves as leaders within the movement. As a result, they faced the consequences of their actions and were detained and incarcerated. Moreover, for the first time women became “martyrs” of the opposition movement during operations carried out by the security forces. The firm attitude of female protesters was embodied in their willingness to sacrifice their lives for the movement. Female martyrdom became a leitmotif of the opposition’s social media (below).

Image 2. Female martyrdom figures

Image 2. Female martyrdom figures
  • 52 See, for example, Hamoud, 2011.

34It was assumed that violence against women would cause a strong condemnation of governmental forces on an international level. Yet, despite the involvement of women in the protests, opposition groups failed to incorporate specific gender issues in their statements as their goals were firmly centered on harnessing power. As a result, attempts at directing attention to women’s emancipation needs52 hardly had any results.

“Truths” in flux and negotiation: female empowerment and the Arab Spring

35The Arab Spring events called for a re‑negotiation of the power/knowledge discourse. The resignation of all 18 al‑Wifāq MPs from parliament left the lower house with only 22 serving members. By‑elections to the parliament were thus necessary for the continued performance of the system and for maintaining its legitimacy. Within the power/knowledge discourse analyzed previously, the election of female MPs would furthermore boost the system’s legitimacy on national and international levels. Indeed, 3 female MPs elected from the opposition‑dominated districts joined the already serving MP Laṭīfa al‑Qa‛ūd, an independent pro‑government MP, in October 2011. The fact that the new MPs included the first female Shī‘a MP to ever serve in parliament made the case even stronger. Despite low electoral turnout, female political empowerment remained clearly the domain of the government, and thus ultimately called for the re‑negotiation of gender strategies among opposition groups.

  • 53 Walid, 2007.
  • 54 Hamada, 2010.
  • 55 See the speech of ‛Alī Salmān at al‑Wifāq 2012 General Conference, Salman, 2012.

36The opposition represented various groups, and the movement was partially unstructured. Nonetheless, two political associations that had in the past participated in the political system joined the Arab Spring protests. They included a small secular, liberal Wa‛d (“Promise”) association and the previously mentioned Islamist society al‑Wifāq that gathered a large number of followers; however their approach to female activism differed. Although Wa‛d had fielded one female candidate in the past, the association had never won an election. On the other hand, members of al‑ Wifāq were divided over the issue of female candidates53; no females had ever been fielded partly due to political opportunism. In the quest for harnessing power through parliamentary elections, it was thought that female candidates would cost al‑ Wifāq seats thus go against its aim54. The official discourse grew more in favor of female empowerment after the Arab Spring as growing female engagement in the opposition movement led al‑ Wifāq to reconsider its stand on female candidates. Women were included in the association’s secretariat and its leadership confirmed the opportunity to list female candidates if women desired to stand for future elections55. Despite being limited, these proclamations marked a change as women’s participation in male‑directed movements for political and social reforms had previously limited their ability to stress female empowerment issues.

37Ultimately, the National Dialogue would prove an important step to reconciling female empowerment policies with emancipation aspirations. The aim of the dialogue was to forge, through a series of debates, a compromise on the most prominent political, economic, social and human rights issues. Talks included a session devoted to women’s issues, which included 12 women NGO associations. The results of the National Dialogue were made into recommendations to be approved and implemented at a later stage. Participants acknowledged the necessity for further reforms regarding protecting women against violence, equal rights in the workplace and political and economic empowerment, passing Bahraini nationality on to children born from Bahraini women in mixed marriages and reviewing the salaries of female workers in the private sector. Despite these important considerations given to female emancipation grassroots movement, the recommendations put forward still had to be approved by the king before being implemented.

Empowerment vs. emancipation

  • 56 Sabbagh, 2007, p. 11.
  • 57 Janardhan, 2005.
  • 58 Toumi, 2006.
  • 59 Bille and Moroni, 2006.
  • 60 Grewal, 2010.

38Rentier governmentality has put forward female empowerment as a high priority for the political system. Despite clear rationalities behind empowerment practices, the visibility of women in the public sphere may bring about important changes in societal attitudes towards women, from men and women alike. Sabbagh points out that “women’s daily lives and practices are reinforcing patriarchy”56. Indeed, in recent years women have supported views that reduce their ability to become full actors in the public sphere. For instance, 60% of Bahraini women opposed obtaining full political rights in 2002 and entering what is traditionally regarded to be a male sphere57. However, the practice of granting suffrage rights has eliminated this initial rejection among female population. Similarly, changes have occurred among men. In the 2002 and 2006 elections female candidates running in the elections were breaking an established social order, which caused tensions. Many female candidates reported male candidates directly pressuring them to withdraw in electoral districts58. Moreover male candidates used the conservative division of gender roles to discredit their female opponents. In 2006 female candidates received phone messages threatening them to withdraw immediately from the race59 and acts of vandalism were committed against female candidates60. In 2010 though, the level of social acceptance of women candidates had increased. Women did not face criticism or intimidation, which proves that voters acknowledged their active role in the political process. Due to a change in mentalities, in 2010 Laṭīfa Salmān, a candidate in the municipal elections, became the first Bahraini woman to win a popular election, while directly challenging a male candidate.

  • 61 Malhotra et al., 2002.
  • 62 Compare the role of women in building a national identity in the UAE in Carvalho Pinto, 2012.
  • 63 This issue is not specific to Bahrain. It occurs similarly in other Gulf countries and has long bee (...)

39Nonetheless, female empowerment is limited by the boundaries of rentier governmentality. The extent of reforms may not necessarily serve all the needs of women or serve all women. It is important to note that empowerment is an all‑inclusive phenomenon which, apart from political and economic dimensions also includes socio‑cultural, familial/interpersonal, legal and psychological aspects61. Thus, rentier governmentality, although using women’s issues in varying aspects in GCC62, cannot provide a holistic solution to female empowerment. The area of empowerment within the family illustrates this phenomenon. Female emancipation finds itself limited to reforms initiated through official channels as in the past grassroots activism, despite its undisputed importance, yielded no significant effects on legislative changes. Rentier governmentality leads to a paradoxical problem: how to encourage social activism in some areas but not in those that are theoretically not beneficial for the system63. The National Dialogue provided an unprecedented opportunity to join efforts at emancipation with empowerment strategies. The results of the recommendations have yet to be seen and still depend on the benevolence and interests of the political system. Nevertheless, tempering and neglecting emancipation efforts may ultimately lead to a passive society characterized by an over‑reliance on governmental agencies. On the other hand, growing female activism in the opposition movement may further lead to the rejection of empowerment policies that could benefit women. Budding focus on women emancipation needs among the opposition leadership must also evolve into firm commitments and consistent approaches that would have women’s interests as a goal.


40It is clear that important steps in empowerment have been undertaken within the context of rentier governmentality. In the long run however, emancipation efforts may be hampered by expecting governmental bodies to lead reforms. The success of women suffrage in Kuwait, as well as the reversal of female empowerment laws in Egypt, confirm that emancipation requires the cooperation of various stakeholders: political actors, grassroots activists, men and women. Divisions in society following the Arab Spring and the unclear outcome of the National Dialogue put the future of emancipation for Bahraini women into question.

41Given the fact that emancipation requires a joint effort by various actors, further research is needed to assess the subjective experiences of femininity and masculinity in the Kingdom of Bahrain in light of recent events. On the other hand, the impact of the official discourse on young generations, their resistance to it and its negotiation should be studied further. Studies should also focus on the emancipation of women at the level of family and households as well as how the role of women in efforts at Bahrainization affects the status of expatriate women.

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1 Al‑Mughni, Tétreault, 2000, p. 237‑260; 1995, p.64‑80.

2 Carvalho Pinto, 2012.

3 Krause, 2009.

4 Seikaly, 1998, p. 169‑189.

5 Pandya, 2010, p. 31‑58.

6 Kabeer, 2002, p. 19.

7 Ruane & Todd, 2005, p. 238.

8 Mitchell, 1991, p. 95.

9 Foucault, 1982, 1986, 1991, 1995.

10 Sellers, 2010, p. 6.

11 Luciani, 1990, p. 76.

12 Schwarz, 2008, p. 607.

13 Krause, 2009.

14 Foucault, 1982, p. 221.

15 Lemke, 2007, p. 18.

16 Lemke, 2001.

17 Krause, 2009, p. 7.

18 Foucault, 1991, p. 103.

19 Seikaly, 1998, p. 170.

20 Peterson, 197 , p. 297.

21 Zahid & Zweiri, 2007, p. 9.

22 NDI, 2002.

23 Lambert, 2013.

24 Oil resources come from the Saudi offshore field, Abū Sāfa, to which Bahrain was fully entitled in 1996.

25 Ahmed, 2010.

26 Gender Gulf, 2008.

27 Löfström, 2009.

28 Weeks & Seiler, 2001.

29 Bahrain Factsheet, 2009.

30 Tamkeen, 2011, p. 23.

31 Bahrain Economic Quarterly, 2011, p. 16.

32 Kelly, 2009, p. 3

33 Krauss, 1987, p. xii.

34 Giacaman, Jad and Johnson, 1996.

35 Sabbagh, 2007, p. 12

36 These limitations were reflected in reservations to a number of provisions of CEDAW.

37 Article 18 of the Constitution of Bahrain (2002) stipulates that "people are equal in human dignity and they are equal before the law in regards to their public rights and duties. No discrimination on the grounds of gender, origin, language, religion or belief is tolerated".

38 Hijab, 2002, p. 6.

39 Esplen & Brody, 2007.

40 The Global Gender Report, 2010.

41 Personal, Family and Legal Status of Bahraini Women, 2008.

42 Al Najjar, n.d.

43 See a detailed account of struggles to pass on Bahraini nationality through mothers since the 1980's in Kelly, 2009; also nationality discourse in Kuwait in Al‑Mughni and Tétreault , 1995, p. 64‑80.

44 Al A’ali, 2007.

45 Zahid & Zweiri, 2007.

46 Kinninmont, 2007.

47 Pandya, 2010.

48 Seikaly, 1998, p. 170.

49 Personal, Family and Legal Status of Bahraini Women, 2008.

50 Ahmed, 2010.

51 Hamada, 2009.

52 See, for example, Hamoud, 2011.

53 Walid, 2007.

54 Hamada, 2010.

55 See the speech of ‛Alī Salmān at al‑Wifāq 2012 General Conference, Salman, 2012.

56 Sabbagh, 2007, p. 11.

57 Janardhan, 2005.

58 Toumi, 2006.

59 Bille and Moroni, 2006.

60 Grewal, 2010.

61 Malhotra et al., 2002.

62 Compare the role of women in building a national identity in the UAE in Carvalho Pinto, 2012.

63 This issue is not specific to Bahrain. It occurs similarly in other Gulf countries and has long been the case in other non‑democratic Arab countries. See notably the literature dealing with State feminism in Arab countries, for instance, on the subject of Jordan see articles by Latte Abdallah, 2009 and 2010.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Diagram 1. Representation of the Power/knowledge discourse
Crédits Source: Juniper (2007, p. 280)
Fichier image/jpeg, 52k
Titre Image 1. Tamkeen economic empowerment billboard (example)
Fichier image/jpeg, 636k
Titre Image 2. Female martyrdom figures
Fichier image/jpeg, 71k
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Magdalena Karolak, « Between Women’s Empowerment and Emancipation. », Arabian Humanities [En ligne], 1 | 2013, mis en ligne le 30 mars 2013, consulté le 16 mai 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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