There is a famous Arabic proverb told to almost every woman enduring an unhappy marriage: “U‘sori a‘ala nafsek lamoona”, which literally translates to “squeeze a lemon on yourself”. The logic is that even a bad dish can be edible with a squeeze of lemon on it.
Bahrain, however, took steps to remove its need for squeezing a lemon on bad marriages last year when it approved a law that allows all women to file for ‘Khula,’ a form of divorce in Islam that allows the dissolution of marriage without a husband’s consent.
The ruling was a slap in the face for some conservative clergymen. Conversely, it also got the ball rolling on addressing other legislation affecting women, including the country’s long-criticized and sexist nationality law.
Sadly, Bahrain remains among the world’s 25 countries that deny women the right to confer automatic citizenship to their children on an equal basis as men. This means that the child of a Bahraini father and foreigner mother is granted automatic citizenship to Bahrain, but the child of a Bahraini mother and foreigner father must apply for Bahraini citizenship. Members of parliament always promised that “it was next on the agenda”, but in reality, it is still a far-fetched dream.
How change stirred hope
In July 2017, women in Bahrain were given the right to opt out of marriage following the approval of the Unified Family Law. The law made it possible for both Sunni and Shia Muslims, the two main sects representing the Islamic population of the country, to file for divorce with what is referred to as a magical wand, Khula.
The approval of the law was deemed the event of the year in Bahrain, especially for thousands of women who for years were unable to put an end to their marital suffering. In fact, it was only women from the Shia community who had to squeeze the lemon. In 2009, Khula was made possible for Sunni women when a Sunni Family Law was introduced, but the Shi’ite version of it was vehemently rejected by hardheaded, non-progressive religious leaders.
The absence of a family law for the entire community meant clerical judges in designated Shi’ite courts issued verdicts based on their own understanding and personal judgment of each case. Women always complained that they ruled in favor of men. The issue epitomized an antiquated patriarchal way of life that some Shia religious leaders wish to maintain and enforce upon the women of their sect. The new law, however, sets an outline for change that they are compelled to follow.
Regarded as the most liberal country among Gulf states, Bahrain enjoys a relaxed religious atmosphere, with its people having a mostly open-minded attitude towards women. Ideologies around gender equality are decidedly progressive. It comes as no surprise, then, that Bahrain was ranked the world’s best expat destination by popular networking site InterNations for two consecutive years.
The question is, why would a law clearly imbued with sexism still exist in a country forging paths towards women’s empowerment?
“At the end of the day, it is sexism and a patriarchal understanding of women’s role in the family and society that condones a nationality law that treats women as second-class citizens,” says Global Campaign for Equal Nationality Rights women’s refugee commission campaign manager, Catherine Harrington.
Security over gender equality
A group of parliamentarians had already told this author that the nationality law is preposterous, as women could be tricked into sham marriages by those wanting the benefits granted to spouses of Bahraini women. But there is a larger political issue at stake.
What appears to be a dominant reason is the fear that a law empowering women could be exploited by people with a Shia expansionary agenda that may change the demographic structure of the country, thus worsening Shi’ite Iran’s alleged interference in Bahrain’s internal affairs. The dynamics of sectarian divide, on top of Iran’s perceived threats to increase polarization between Sunnis and Shi’ites, has transformed the issue into a matter of national security. To this day, the issue of a woman’s right to promise her own children citizenship in her homeland remains controversial.
Some may find it mind-boggling that, by law, even children in situations where the father is unknown or paternity cannot be proven are automatically documented as Bahrainis, in spite of the mother’s nationality.
Another way of acquiring citizenship is through filing an application that is intensely scrutinized. In fact, thousands of children have already had their applications approved and were granted citizenship. This itself is evidence that the government perceives women’s right to pass on their nationality to their children as a matter of security over gender equality. It is perhaps the fear that a precarious situation will get worse if children automatically obtain the Bahraini passport without the government knowing exactly whom the parents are.
Harrington does not buy this logic. “Legitimate concerns around immigration and dual nationality can be addressed without discriminating against women. In fact, the 168 countries globally with gender-equal nationality laws do just that. If a government wants to say that they treat citizens equally, their nationality law must reflect this.”
National security issues aside, there are other dangers associated with this sexist tradition. Denying children the benefits of citizenship may contribute to a lost sense of belonging. Knowing they may never be Bahrainis, will these children ever identify with the country, or will they reject it as it rejected them?
“Gender-discriminatory nationality laws result in children being denied access to educational opportunities and scholarships, public healthcare, employment, and inheritance, including family property, and can result in family separation and statelessness, with affected persons having no nationality at all,” Harrington added.
“When adult children of Bahraini women have little opportunity to thrive in their homeland – denied professional opportunities, living a life treated as a foreigner – the child may feel forced to build a professional life and start a family in a foreign land, away from their family.
“Of course,” continues Harrington, “if the child cannot acquire their father’s nationality and is stateless, there is no possibility to go abroad and no opportunity to thrive in their homeland.”
Bahrain is facing a national identity dilemma. Even some Bahraini women, including women’s rights activists, appear to be reluctant about supporting the nationality law amendment, especially that the postulated security threat has been brought to the public’s attention.
Harrington added, “All of the concerns raised – economic, security, dual citizenship, sham marriages – are also issues that apply when a male citizen has a family with a foreign spouse, but this does not stop governments from denying his children, his family citizenship – nor should it.”
While the marriage laws have progressed, a big leap in women’s empowerment means that Bahrain’s discriminatory nationality law must also be rethought.
A modern Bahrain, now vowing to commit to global gender equality goals, is not a place for hardheaded, dogmatic clergymen to play out their own interpretations of Islamic rules. Nor is it a place to use unfounded national security fears as an excuse to deny children the birthright of their mother’s citizenship.