Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Women-Friendly Bahrain

Still some two weeks out from Bahrain's upcoming by-elections, and the results are already pouring in. In classic democratic fashion, 3 of the 18 vacant seats (that's 1 in 6 or about 17% for those of you counting) are already filled, and all without that pesky process of actual voting. The procedure, in case you're the ruler of an autocratic regime who likes to give the impression of political liberalism, works something like this:
  1. Recruit a lot of people to sign up as candidates so that it looks like the elections are SERIOUS BUSINESS.
  2. Decide which of the candidates are right for you.
  3. Politely suggest that the other candidates drop out (or, if you must, allow your preferred candidate to run unopposed).
  4. Your candidate wins.
  5. ???
  6. Profit!!
Yet by far the best part of this pre-election election procedure is that you can cherry-pick your MPs from among various under-represented social groups that the people and countries who observe international elections care about, including women, ethnic and religious minorities, and so on. Sure, it's nice when you appoint, say, a female Jewish ambassador to the United States from among your country's 36-strong Jewish community; or when you appoint a female Christian to head your delegation to the UN, but obviously it comes off as a bit more genuine if you can give the impression that such individuals are actually popularly-chosen rather than appointed by royal decree.

Thus it is clear that the Bahraini authorities have hit the jackpot with their newest first-female-something-in-the-Gulf, Sawsan al-Taqawi, who has just been declared the winner of the second Northern Governorate constituency (not sure about the location here off-hand; anyone?) after her opponents pulled out of the race. (Imagine that.) Somehow, despite her winning by default, al-Taqawi has received a congratulatory cable from King Hamad claiming that
This success is the result of the progress achieved by Bahraini women in all areas and their participation in the nation's overall development and their determination to contribute to building the future of the country.
I guess among the many areas where Bahraini women have "achieved progress" is in mastering the art of registering their names as electoral candidates, since that is all al-Taqawi did. They also have gained proficiency in the creation and deployment of large campaign posters. This one reads: "Sawsan al-Taqawi: You may as well vote for me, because I'm going to win either way."

Yet we've not even reached the real kicker: not only is al-Taqawi the second elected female MP in the Gulf (second only to Bahrain's own Latifah al-Gaoud, who in 2006 and 2010 won unopposed in Bahrain's Southern sixth district--aka "the unpopulated sixth"), but al-Taqawi is also a Shi'i, which makes her the first Shi'i MP not affiliated with al-Wifaq.

I'll give you a second to wrap your mind around that.

Apart from al-Taqawi, finally, winners have also been declared in Muharraq's sixth district ('Abbas al-Madi) and the Central sixth (Jawad Hussain) after the withdrawal of their opponents.

With three seats already down and the likelihood of others to follow, then, there's a good chance that Bahrain's authorities won't even have to rig the elections through (among other means) "general" polling centers located at strategic points such as the Saudi Causeway and the airport, five of which are rumored to be deployed this time around. Because if you're a tribesman from the Saudi branch of the al-Dawasir making the trek to vote in the Bahraini elections, it's a real time-saver to have a polling center right on the causeway. You can vote, grab a quick bite to eat, and then head back to Dammam.

Undeterred by the country's first Shi'i MP from outside its ranks, finally, al-Wifaq continues to fight the good fight using the tried and true method of weekly Friday festivals-cum-rallies. Now in its 11th iteration, this week's National Unity Friday will take place in Tubli under the headline "The Will of the People." (Incidentally, I once traded t-shirts with a Yemeni wearing a shirt from 'Ali 'Abdallah Salih's re-election campaign that has the very same slogan. I have not yet worn the shirt.) That's a 4:30pm start, people, so let's get there on time.

In any event, whatever you might say about al-Wifaq's National Unity festival campaign, you can at least be happy with the improvement of this week's electronic flier, which goes old-school with its photo of the members of Bahrain's leftist National Union Committee of the 1950s, whose mixed Sunni and Shi'i membership sought to unify both committees against the country's rulers. (For more on this see Khuri's book.) Grade: 8.5/10.

Update: the Bahraini government could certainly use the positive PR of its "second woman MP of the Arab Gulf" right about now. The Independent is running a front-page article criticizing Bahrain's invitation to a British arms show (see also the related opinion piece, "A Regime We Should Not Do Business With"). This follows the well-circulated Sept. 9 editorial in The Washington Post titled "Bahrain Needs U.S. Attention Now."

Finally, people digging through the newest round of Wikileaks cables have uncovered additional nuggets from the U.S. Embassy in Bahrain, in particular the three-part series "Political Islam in Bahrain" and the two-part series "Bahraini Political Scene," both of which are making their way around the Internets via a Twitter account, @Absology, specializing in the Bahrain-related Wikileaks cables.

The mostly historical "Political Islam in Bahrain" (from 2006):

Part I: Haven't found this yet..
Part II: Islamists Succeed in Promoting Agenda in Parliament
Part III: The Liberals Strike Back

The more royal family politics-focused "Bahraini Political Scene" (from 2006):

Part I: Government Harasses Democracy Activists as Elections Approach
Part II: Royal Family Conservatives Tighten Reins on Politics

Update 2: Add to that today's front-page article in the New York Times: "Bahrain Boils Under the Lid of Repression."

Update 3: And a funeral procession in Sitra for the most recent dead demonstrator has morphed into a full-blown rally (sound familiar?); see video below. The AP summarizes the ensuing clashes with riot police.


  1. Good to see you back thought you lost hope in the Bahraini dilemma.

  2. the second Northern Governorate constituency include about 10 villages on budiya road from moqsha, karanah until Maqabah.
    Their previous MP was Ali AlAswad who fled Bahrain to avoid arrest like Matar as he was talking much to media.

    Dhahrani Lauds Election of 2nd Woman MP: bit.ly/pxHBdW

    Back in May 2010 :
    Dhahrani: 'Society not ready for women in politics'.

  3. List of governates: http://www.capital.gov.bh/pages/pdf/govlawe.pdf

    The area is along the Budaiya Highway. You can see the street blocks referred to here: http://fordqa.multimap.com/world/BH

  4. Women rights is one of the last bastions of PR that the regime keeps hanging on to (with the sacrecrow of our islamist buddies taking them away of course) so I wasnt really surprised when she won unopposed , I was however surprised when I knew she was shia ( a fact which for some reason I feel wont make it to pro-regime news outlets in the gulf) .Nonethless they are trying as much as they can to show that these elcetions are not a joke and this is one of their ways to do it .

  5. I think Taqawi was Shiite, but transferred to sunni

  6. Justin, and don't forget, Alice Samaan was also appointed as the ambassador to the UK: http://www.mofa.gov.bh/Default.aspx?tabid=3186&language=en-US

    Take a look at her CV... Is that all it takes to become an ambassador to the UK?

    US: female Jewish ambassador
    UK: female Christian ambassador

    And of course, check this out (in regards to Taqawi): https://twitter.com/#!/SawsanTaqawi/status/113026390810562562

  7. Ali AlAswad letter to Ms Taqawi

  8. @Anon: Thanks. It figures that she would be elected in the most quintessentially Shi'a district of Bahrain (along al-Budaiyi' Rd.).

  9. Justin, one more for "Women-Friendly Bahrain":

    He [the king] noted there would be a woman deputy in the COR for the first time. "We designed a constituency for her," he said, and she had no competition for the seat. She ran in 2002 and almost won, getting 45 percent of the votes. Her participation in the COR is good for Bahrain, the King stated.


  10. Great article. But I don't understand why you ignored 14 feb coalition's activities and plans. They do have a huge following from the people, especially after al-wefaq lost many after they publitised their demands.

  11. I don't actively ignore them; I sometimes just forget to look up their fliers on the forums I visit. (If you come here often you'll notice that this is a common theme and I often have to add their flier in the updates section.)

    Anyway, I'll do what I can to try to remember.

  12. 14 Feb coalition:


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