Bahraini women are battling a male-dominated society and powerful Islamists in their quest for reforms that would shift jurisdiction over family and women’s affairs from Islamic to civil courts.
Majida, 32, whose 12 year marriage was annulled, was deprived of her children and sent back to her family home following a decision by an Islamic court. In the absence of a personal status law in Bahrain, sharia (Islamic law), in both its Sunni and Shi’ite interpretations, is the only arbiter when it comes to marriage,
divorce, child custody and inheritance.
But after years of struggle, Bahraini women have finally found an influential supporter. The first lady of the Muslim island kingdom, Sheikhasabika al Khalifa, who chairs the Supreme Women’s Council, has sponsored a Bill for a personal status law that would still be based on the sharia.
It faces resistance from the religious establishment, particularly among Shi’ite clerics, who have recently brought thousands of people on to the streets to protest against the proposed law.
‘‘It is inconceivable that in the 21st century there is a country that does not have a personal status law,’’ said activist Ghada Jamshir. ‘‘The clerics are opposed to the law because it limits their powers. They would be overridden by legislation and would no longer be able to issue verdicts according to their whims.”
Jamshir heads a women’s committee lobbying for the law and was charged last may with publicly defaming the Islamic judiciary by distributing pamphlets and of insulting a judge during a telephone conversation and in court. She was acquitted of the charges on December 28.
Afaf al Jamri, a Shi’ite activist who is a member of the main Islamic National Accord Association Opposition Party, supports the proposed law.
‘‘This code is a necessity and a fundamental demand for women,’’ she said. ‘‘The situation of many Bahraini women is tragic. Each neighbourhood has an average of four women who were thrown on the street by their husbands after, say, 30 years of marriage just because they wanted to have younger wives.” Jamri highlights the plight of many women when it comes to monthly alimony.
‘‘Judges delay cases for years and years leaving many women without alimony. And then after years of suffering they receive 30 dinars ($ 80 ) per child,’’ she said.
A government fund was created recently to help women awaiting Islamic court decisions on alimony, according to another activist Mariam al Ruwei, who is in favour of the family law.