Women & Freedom of Speech and Assembly


Women & Freedom of Speech and Assembly


This paper will provide a short historical overview of women’s organising in Bahrain and discuss the situation for women’s freedom of assembly and speech.

In order to concretise the issues that activist women in Bahrain face, the paper will depart from the lived experience of five Bahraini women.

Contrary to the media depiction of politically active women as a new phenomenon, starting during the Arab Spring, women’s political participation in Bahrain dates back to the 1950’s, when they actively participated in demonstrations against the British and supported male-led demands for reform.

The movement was further politicised in the 1960’s and 1970’s due to the influence of Arab nationalism, anti-colonial movements and an increase of access to university education. Women had organised in charitable societies since the 1950’s, but from the 1970’s and onwards, societies with political aspirations were established and women’s participation in politics increased. However, because of the restrictive legislations regarding the establishment and operation of political organisations, it is difficult to establish and operate independent, grassroots women’s organisations. All social organisations have to be registered by the Ministry of Social Development, according to the restrictive Law of Associations, which also stipulates several reasons as to why an association can be dissolved. For example, an organisation can be shut down if it “violates the law, the public order or norms” (Law of Associations Article 50 paragraph 4) Women’s participation in political organisations or women’s rights initiatives are limited, hence the popularity of charitable organisations or other depolitisised initiatives.

One example of a depoliticised initiative is The Supreme Council for Women, established in 2011, by the king and headed by his wife. The stated purpose is to promote women’s empowerment. It has effectively monopolised the discourse on women’s rights, as grassroots organisations are severely limited by the Law of Associations. The Supreme Council remains an exclusive space for women who support the politics of the undemocratic state. Thereby it silences women from the opposition and re-produces, instead of challenging, the authoritative structure of the political system in Bahrain.

An escalation of the systematic abuse of women was recorded after the protests of February 2011. Between 2011 and 2014, 302 Bahraini women were arrested, among them 3 girls. More than 14 women were killed by various means of violence and official oppression, by the live ammunition of the army, or by toxic gases and suffocation. Some women have lost their foetuses due to the inhalation of poisonous gases used by anti-riot forces and dozens were threatened with rape. During house raids, “women are asked to stand up in their pyjamas and they were not allowed to cover their bodies, which caused them embarrassment and humiliation according to their religious beliefs” (https://oservices.bahrain.bh/wps/themes/html/BICI/en/pdfs/C6_C.pdf)

Five cases:

1. Dr Roula Safar, President of the Bahrain Nursing Society, Assistant Professor at the College of Health Science

During the pro-democracy uprising in early 2011 Rula Al-Saffar , a prominent medical practitioner worked in a medical tent treating wounded protesters. Six weeks after the uprising began, Al-Saffar was called in for questioning. When she arrived, she was blindfolded and pushed into a jail cell where she was interrogated and beaten.

Prior to her arrest, Rula Al-Saffar served as President of the Bahrain Nursing Society and as Assistant Professor at the College of Health Science in Manama. During her five-month detention in 2011, guards shocked her with stun guns, beat her, chopped off her hair, and threatened to rape her. She was released on August 21, 2011.

Al-Saffar was convicted by the National Safety Court of First Instance, a military court, to 15 years imprisonment on charges including incitement to overthrow the Bahraini government, spreading false information, and participating in an illegal public gathering. A civil court overturned her conviction in June 2012.

Most recently, she began a campaign to track, tally and free the country’s prisoners of conscience called “I AM FREE”. She delivers instructions for medical treatment over Skype to the protesters and continues to advocate for international recognition of the concept of medical neutrality, the principle of non-interference with medical services in times of conflict.

She said: “As a healthcare professional, it was my duty to aid the injured. But as a witness to the Bahraini security forces’ violent response to the peaceful protests, I also felt a duty to speak out against the abuses.” (http://foreignpolicy.com/2013/04/10/bahrains-continuing-war-on-doctors/)

2. Ayat Alqormazi, Poet and Student
In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, Alqormozi was arrested and imprisoned for having recited a pro-freedom poem on Pearl Square. The poem criticizes the governance of the regime in Bahrain, and demands equal rights. After her recital, Aayat Alqormozi was expelled from the university, abused and imprisoned.
On January 24th 2014, she once again recited a poem addressing injustice at a public rally. Ten days later, Alqormozi was charged with accusations of insulting the King and incitement to hatred against the ruling regime. After being initially beaten across the face, she had been lashed with electric cables, kept in a near freezing cell and forced to clean police lavatories with her hands, she was relased, after being forced to sign false confessions, in June 2011.

3. Farida Ghulam, political activist
Member of the Board of National Democratic Action Society “WAAD”. active within the women’s movement and plays a leading role in the political affairs in Bahrain. She is also the wife of the liberal secular left opposition figure and president of WAAD, Ibrahim Sharif, whose 5 years prison sentence in a military court has been upheld twice on appeal.

Sharif was first sentenced to five years in prison in 2011. While in prison, he was tortured, held in solitary confinement for 56 days, and wasn’t allowed to contact his family or lawyer. He served four years and three months before being released on a royal pardon on 19 June 2015.
A month after his release, he made a speech in July during the annual commemoration of the killing of 16-year-old Hussam alHaddad by security forces in 2012. In it, he criticised the government for using violence to put down demonstrators, who were engaged in peaceful protests.
A Bahraini court sentenced Ibrahim Sharif on 24 February to a year in prison over a speech made in 2015 calling for change in the kingdom

4. Zainab Alkhawaja, human rights activist
On 02 June 2015, Zainab Al-Khawaja was sentenced to nine months in prison after trying to visit her father Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja in Jaw prison in August 2014. That sentence was upheld on 2 February 2016 in absentia. She has now been sentenced to a total of three years and one month in prison, on a variety of charges including two sentences for ripping a picture of Bahrain’s monarch and one year in prison for allegedly “insulting” a police officer.

On Monday 14th of March, she was arrested in a house raid along with her 15 month old baby Abdul-Hadi. According to her family, police broke into her in-law’s house around noon asking for her. They were carrying cameras and videotaping everything. When they could not find Zainab there after having searched the house, they came to Al-Khawaja’s apartment where she was with her husband and two children; and took her and her 15 month old son Abdulhadi. Her husband was informed that she will be taken to to Alhoora police station.

5. Jalila al-Salman
Bahraini teacher and vice president of the Bahrain Teachers’ Association (BTA).

Jalila al-Salman worked as an educator for 25 years, actively engaged in the process of reforming the Bahrain education system, and as a result “faced numerous threats and was passed over for promotion”.

Due to her activities in the Bahraini uprising, she was arrested for 149 days, tortured, and sentenced to 3 years in prison. “They pulled me from my neck, weapons pointed at my head and asked me not to be afraid, because they were police”, al-Salman said. According to her family, al-Salman was tortured while in prison. She reported being verbally and physically abused by security forces who arrested her: “They hit me and called me horrible names. “

Shorly after a speech on human rights violations in Washington, the government of Bahrain sent al-Salman a letter informing her that she had been fired, citing the 2010 Civil Service Law, which states that an employee may be fired “for an offense involving moral turpitude or dishonesty.”

Her sentence was reduced to six months’ imprisonment by an appeals court.


CEDAW which Bahrain ratified in March 2002, states in Part II, Article 7 that:

States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in the political and public life of the country and, in particular, shall ensure to women, on equal terms with men, the right:

(c) To participate in non-governmental organizations and associations concerned with the public and political life of the country.

ICCPR, which Bahrain ratified in September 2006, states that:

Article 19
1. Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference.

2. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.
Article 21

The right of peaceful assembly shall be recognized
Article 22

1. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of association with others, including the right to form and join trade unions for the protection of his interests.

As this paper has displayed, women in Bahrain face a number of obstacles in regards to their right of freedom of expression and assembly. These obstacles can relate to societal norms about gender roles, but also the government’s general attitude towards political associations and dissent. The government is effectively punishing oppositional women and hijacking the women’s rights cause through the governmental body Supreme Council for Women.

Despite the government’s breaches of international law, the dangerous environment Bahraini women operate in and the high risks many have to pay, Bahraini women continue to bravely use the limited spaces to voice their opinions.


1- For the Bahraini Government to reconfirm the rights afforded from international declarations and signed covenants, which enshrine the rights of Bahraini women’s freedom to express, opine and assemble in Bahraini society.

2- For the Bahraini Government to promptly cease the prosecution of Bahraini female activists, and drop all charges relating to the aforementioned Bahraini women and all others unjustly imprisoned.

3. For the Bahraini government to reform and democratise the Supreme Council for Women by including a broad spectrum of women from various socio-economic background, religious sects and political opinions.

4- For the international community to significantly pressure the Bahraini Government to allow women activists to participate in peaceful reform demands, demonstrations and activities.

5- Finally, to tackle the broad issues relating to infringement of human rights in Bahrain, the UN must designate a time-frame and deadline for the Bahraini Government to significantly implement the recommendations set out by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry in 2011, and the recommendations set out by the UN Universal Periodic Review in 2012.