Bahrain Women Demand Codified Family Law, 2000-2009.

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Timing
Time Period:  
Time period notes: 
The timing of the methods is unclear. The leading organization formed in 2000. They won a partial victory, of a codified family law for Sunni.
2000
to
2009
Location and Goals
Country: 
Bahrain
Goals: 
The Women's Petition Committee demanded a codified family law in order to end the corruption in the shari'a courts.
 

At the time of this campaign the court system in Bahrain was divided into civil and shari’a sections; civil courts heard civil, commercial, and criminal cases, while shari’a courts heard cases involving marriage, divorce, alimony, child custody and support, nursing, paternity, and inheritance. The lack of qualified Bahraini judges resulted in several problems in the courts. Despite claims that Bahrain’s shari’a court system helped to preserve an Islamic way of life, judges’ decisions were reportedly based on personal opinions, rather than on “fiqh,” Islamic jurisprudence.

Several groups and NGOs united in a campaign against the shari’a courts, lobbying for a law that would shift jurisdiction over family and women’s affairs from the Islamic shari’a courts to the civil courts. One of the main leaders, Ghada Jamshir, was a Bahraini women’s rights activist and an ardent campaigner for the reform of shari’a courts in Bahrain and the Arab Gulf states. She was also a Muslim reformer and an ardent campaigner against child molestation and perversion with infants, which Jamshir argued was sanctioned in Islam. She was largely known for her fiery speeches and in-your-face approach, and she led a group of women who had recently received what they charge were unjust decisions in the shari’a courts. Jamshir has argued in the local and regional press that Bahrain’s shari’a court judges were corrupt and unqualified, and that they routinely discriminated against female litigants. According to Jamshir, “thousands of women and children are under the mercy of an incompetent judicial system and unwritten family laws, struggling for years to get a divorce or child custody, and living under social rejections and hardships.” Many activists shared Jamshir’s belief, which led to their creation of the Women’s Petition Committee in 2001. The committee was a grassroots organization that waged a bold campaign against the shari’a court system. As a result of the formation of this committee, seven incompetent judges were dismissed, but the newly appointed ones were based on political affiliation rather than competence. The Supreme Council for Women (SCW), a government agency dedicated to developing programs that would improve the lives of Bahraini women, also formed in 2001.

Jamshir arranged noisy protests, spoke out in Arab media, and complained to local and international leaders in order to bring attention to the issue. Throughout the campaign she hoped to fix the systematic bias against women in divorce cases, a husband’s right to custody of children from age seven, and customs allowing “temporary marriages” that amounted to prostitution and the abuse of young girls. She also wanted to remove shari’a judges that abused their power to interpret the Koran as they wished, and she eventually to have the civil courts replace the shari’a system.

The struggle against the shari’a courts had lasted almost two decades, starting with The Personal Law Committee (PLC), which was formed in 1982 as a loose network of representatives from various women’s NGOs. Through raising public consciousness, securing the advocacy of legal experts and clerics, and lobbying the government, the PLC worked toward the goal for a codified personal status law. The committee also provided the government with a set of measures that they felt was necessary to resolve the courts’ problems. Some of these demands included: an initiative to draft a unified law based on shari’a; the active participation of lawyers, jurists, and members of NGOs in discussions of the substantive details of the law; the introduction of fixed standards for judges’ training, qualifications, and experience, along with regular and compulsory review courses in fiqh; the immediate removal of judges who did not meet these standards (regardless of their lifetime appointments), and impartiality in the appointment of new judges.

At the same time that King Hamad began to initiate selected reforms, the Women’s Petition Committee also began working toward shari’a court reform. Instead of slowly working toward producing a model for a new law, Jamshir’s goal was to shock Bahrain into action by exposing the personal stories of the plethora of women that were ruled against in the shari’a courts. Describing instances of bribery, violations of shari’a principles, and sexual favors in exchange for favorable verdicts, Jamshir horrified the Bahraini public. She also organized demonstrations at which women held signs revealing their case numbers, the ruling judges’ names and the verdicts, along with statements about how the rulings contradict Islam. Jamshir’s most famous case was that of Baadriyya Rabi’a, a mother who lost her two children in a custody battle with her ex-husband. The WPC publicized Rabi’a’s case and provided her with legal assistance to appeal the judgment. The unprofessional handling of the case embarrassed the government so much that they immediately took action to redress some of the damage. The six judges that were known to be the most corrupt or unqualified were “retired” from the bench in 2003.

Members and supporters of the PLC also backed the formation of a new codified family law. The PLC shared many of Jamshir’s views, but took a more moderate approach, working with lawyers, religious scholars, and members of Parliament to formulate and submit their own draft law to the Royal Council.

On May 3, 2003, King Hamad announced the formation of a committee to draft a family law. A draft was completed, the majority of which applied equally to both Sunnis and Shi’i. In Friday sermons, public addresses, and the press, Shi’i clerics denounced the King’s actions as being influenced by the West, and blamed female activists for wanting to destroy the Islamic family structure and usher in a Western-style family in which wives could roam freely in public and divorce at will. In response, the activists organized demonstrations in favor of the draft initiative and denied the clerics’ accusations. Furthermore, Farida Ghulam, a leading member for the PLC, published responses to those accusations and argued that the clerics’ goal was a political one – to consolidate their own power over the people.

After months of constant public debates between activists and clerics, the king decided to shelve the draft and instead take a different approach, one that would enlist the support of the public. During the following two years, the SCW began to assess public opinions on the issue of a family law and compiled evidence of the need for a law.

For example, in 2004, the SCW commissioned a study to gauge Bahrainis’ opinions about the prospect of a codified family law; 73% of those surveyed said they thought a codified law was necessary. The SCW also deputized four women lawyers to review the judgments of the shari’a courts. The lawyers looked at over 300 cases and their results confirmed the accusations made previously by Jamshir and the PLC: many judges were corrupt or inefficient and lacked proper training. Acting on these findings, the king assembled a second drafting committee, which, unlike the 2003 committee, was composed exclusively of religious scholars. A draft was completed and submitted to the Royal Court in the fall of 2005.

Simultaneously, the Supreme Council for Women launched a campaign to garner popular support for the codified family law. Their approach was to demonstrate that the family law was not just an issue for women, but an issue that concerned the whole family. However, despite the survey showing majority backing for a family law, the SCW’s campaign was met with significant opposition. Days after the launch, the Islamic Council for Scholars (ICS), headed by Sheikh ‘Isa Qasim and representing the kingdom’s Shi’i clerics, rejected the campaign’s idea.

In 2005, the government brought criminal charges against Jamshir for defaming the Islamic family court and she faced a jail sentence of up to 15 years. However, those charges were eventually dropped on June 19, 2005. Later that year, on November 5, 2005, over 100,000 protesters, approximately one seventh of the Kingdom of Bahrain’s population, flooded the streets of the capital, Manama. Most of the protesters were Shi’i, demonstrating their resistance to the government’s campaign to implement a codified family law, announced a month earlier. The measure, which was ready to be presented to Bahrain’s parliament that was newly elected in 2006, would remove judgment of matters having to do with women and the family from the shari’a courts.

Starting in 2006, Jamshir was placed under permanent surveillance by the government. After her criticism of government policies, Bahrain authorities also ordered the local media and press to prevent the publication of any news relating to Jamshir. Jamshir also claims that the authorities gave her a direct threat demanding that she end her public work after which the regime attempted to install a spy camera in her house, bugged her telephone, and sent individuals to bribe and blackmail her.

As of this writing, the codified law has not yet successfully passed.

Research Notes
Sources: 
"Bahraini Women's Rights Activist Ghada Jamshir Attacks Islamic Clerics for Fatwas Authorizing Sexual Abuse of Children." Jihad Watch. Web. 19 Mar. 2011. <http://www.jihadwatch.org/2005/12/bahraini-womens-rights-activist-ghada-jamshir-attacks-islamic-clerics-for-fatwas-authorizing-sexual.html>.

Jones, Sandy R. "The Battle over Family Law in Bahrain." JSTOR. 2007. Web. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/25164777>.

MacLeod, Scott. "Ghada Jamsheer: Activist." TIME Europe Magazine. 17 Apr. 2006. Web. 19 Mar. 2011. <http://www.time.com/time/europe/html/060522/jamsheer.html>.

"Women’s Rights in Bahrain." Chan'ad Bahraini. Web. 20 Mar. 2011. <http://chanad.weblogs.us/?p=516>.

“Family Law in Bahrain.” Bahrain Center for Human Rights. 10 February 2014. http://www.wluml.org/sites/wluml.org/files/INT_CEDAW_NGO_BHR_16373_E.pdf

Toumi, Habib. “Activist advocates family laws for all communities.” Gulf News. Bahrain Center for Human Rights. 25 October 2005. http://www.bahrainrights.org/en/node/223

Jones, Sandy Russell. “The Battle over Family Law in Bahrain.” Middle East Report. Spring 2007. 242: 33-39. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25164777

Spencer, Robert. “Bahraini Women’s Rights Activist Ghada Jamshir Attacks Islamic Clerics for Fatwas Authorizing Sexual Abuse of Children.” Jihad Watch. 29 December 2005. http://www.jihadwatch.org/2005/12/bahraini-womens-rights-activist-ghada-jamshir-attacks-islamic-clerics-for-fatwas-authorizing-sexual/

“Forty nine national, regional, and international organization call on government of Bahrain to stop clamping down on freedom of expression.” 8 November 2007. Bahrain Eve. Blogspot. http://bahrain-eve.blogspot.com/2007/11/forty-nine-national-regional-and.html

“Bahrain: Take Action in support of women demanding introduction of Bahrain’s new Family Code.” Women Living Under Muslim Laws. 4 May 2006. http://www.wluml.org/node/2942

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Aly Passanante 20/03/2011 and Laura Rigell 13/04/2014