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Vote for Women!

October 8, 2010

I’m back in Bahrain after a lengthy visit to the UK and a very short visit to Jeddah.  It’s been a pretty intensive few weeks, culminating in a 16-hour-a-day dash to complete a major bid to a Bahrain government department. We made the deadline with 15 minutes to spare – it was amazing to see how many other bidders were in the same boat. Lastminute.panic still rules in the Middle East!

Here in Bahrain we are in the middle of election fever. On October 23 the people will be electing a new parliament and municipal councils across the island. Wherever you drive there are huge hoardings, in Arabic of course, of the various candidates. Some in western suits, some in traditional dress. Some look grim and determined, others chirpy and cheerful. Unlike those discreet little lamppost posters in the UK, these are monster hoardings, with the candidates accosting you at every turning in the road.

The past couple of months has been a difficult time for Bahrain, with political disturbances which have been well reported in the local media, culminating in the arrest of a number of alleged terrorist plotters, and rioters who specialize in burning tyres on roads. Whether the unrest has been orchestrated to coincide with the elections I leave to better informed commentators.

But the striking difference between these elections and those we’re used to in the West is the relative absence of women candidates.

Bahrain leads the way in the Middle East in its policies of encouraging women to play a part in the Kingdom’s business and social life. Since I arrived in Bahrain a year ago, I have had the pleasure of meeting a number of bright, talented and enthusiastic women who make what seems to me to be a great contribution to the country. There are female business leaders, ministers and ambassadors. So why are only 6% of the candidates for election to parliament female? And why, out of 188 candidates for the municipal elections, are there only 3 women – less than 2%?

The other day I asked a male Bahraini friend the same question, and got an interesting answer.  The issue, he says is multi-layered. First, the political and religious societies are reluctant to nominate women. So women who want to stand generally have to do so as independent candidates. The cost of running an election is high – according to my friend, the average cost of a campaign seems to be around BD20,000 – lots of posters to pay for. That’s a lot of money for anyone without substantial means. Also, my friend said, the Supreme Council for Women helped have helped a number of female candidates to stand in previous elections, but without great success. But the biggest issue, he says, is fear of failure. Why would you stand for election if you believe that you have no chance of success?

One of my female Bahraini acquaintances, who works in another GCC country, puts it this way:

If I was in Bahrain I would not stand for election.  People in Bahrain will always put you in a corner and decide that you are either with the government, or with this party or the other. And if you try to be different, they will say that you have an ulterior motive. Also women do not like to be criticized, and the Bahrainis are hard to please, so no matter what you do you will always be judged differently. 

Women in general in Bahrain are very busy, very rarely that you see a family with a house maid, so the woman works, and once she is at home, she does her second job, while the husband watches football or read the newspaper.  So if she stands for election, that is going to be a third job.

Also maybe their husbands or fathers will not allow them – we still have these types by the way. We (women) are not completely free to do what we think is right, and elections are not considered a duty on women, despite the fact that we are equal in education and work.

I would prefer be in the Shoura house (the upper house) rather than the parliament, as the former is by appointment.

A little unkind to the hard-working men of Bahrain, perhaps, but her comments are not far in other respects from those of my male friend. However, I’m not about to dip my toes into the whirlpool of political debate in a country in which I’m a guest. But I’m a male feminist when it comes to women in work and politics. I have run companies staffed and managed by a majority of women. One of our most successful managers joined us from school at the age of 16 with virtually no qualifications. Within fifteen years she was a head of department, and is now in a very senior role with one of the world’s leading recruitment firms.

In the UK, 22% of Members of Parliament are women – not great, but better than 20 years ago. The new cabinet in Switzerland contains a majority of women. In Afghanistan, despite Taliban intimidation, 406 women stood in the recent parliamentary elections, and 64 of the 249 seats were reserved for them. And on the world stage, Margaret Thatcher (who to this day, even in her dotage, scares the life out of me) and Hillary Clinton have shown that women in politics can be as tough and incisive as any man. Should I have mentioned Sarah Palin in this context? I don’t think so…

But let’s also remember that it’s only ninety years or so since women in the UK got the vote, and until fairly recently, female representation in parliament was relatively sparse. Bahrain is to be congratulated for initiatives to bring women into politics – for example, through the appointment of representatives on the Shoura Council. But when it comes to elections, the prevailing opinion still seems to be that politics is a man’s work.

As my male friend points out, cultural barriers inhibiting the advancement of women will take time to break down. He believes that things will change as more women achieve prominent roles in business and government. Muslim friends cite the example of the Prophet Mohammed’s first wife, Khadijah, who was a successful businesswoman in her own right, when they make the case for the promotion of women in business.

I’m not the first to say this, but it bears repeating: women represent a reservoir of talent that is yet to be fully tapped in many countries in the Middle East. In this respect Bahrain is ahead of the field. Meanwhile I suggest that the country needs more role models like Sheikha Haya bint Rashid Al Khalifa, who was the President of the UN General Assembly in 2006, and Lateefa Al Gaoud, Bahrain’s first female MP, to show the way to the talented women of Bahrain.

Anyway, on October 23, the people of Bahrain will speak. Let’s hope that Mrs Al Gaoud does not remain in splendid isolation.

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