Last Updated: Sun Mar 06, 2011 19:49 pm (KSA) 16:49 pm (GMT)

The women of Bahrain take to the streets in protest

Bahrain women demanding reforms in public protest
Bahrain women demanding reforms in public protest

Outside a blue tent in Manama's Pearl Square, Fatima Abdullah hands her 18-month-old daughter to her husband and rejoins her friends in the "Women Only" section, where they brainstorm ahead of the next anti-regime rally.

"I came here the day after we were shot at and I've been here every day since with my sisters and our neighbors," said the 28-year-old, who works as a secretary in a local school.

"We cannot face their guns," Abdullah, clad in a traditional black abayah and headscarf, told AFP.

"But we have one weapon and that is our voice."

Pushing children in strollers, carrying roses or waving the red-and-white flag of Bahrain, women -- most draped in black from head to toe -- have regularly turned out in force for the anti-regime protests that have filled the normally sleepy streets of Manama for the past three weeks.

Today, they are demanding a more active role in politics and the end of the Sunni Al-Khalifa dynasty which has ruled the majority Shiite country for 230 years.

 I have brought my youngest, Hussein, to sleep here in Pearl Square so that he will have a better future 
Bassima Fareed

"We women of Bahrain are different and we protest in different ways, but we all want one thing: the end of sectarianism and corruption, and active participation in politics," said Mariam al-Ruayhi, a leading women's rights activist.

"Despite the fact that Pearl Square was attacked -- in fact, more so because it was attacked -- there are women sleeping in the square alongside their brothers, husbands, children," Ruayhi told AFP.

Inspired by popular uprisings that brought down the seemingly unshakeable autocrats of Egypt and Tunisia, a wave of popular rallies has gripped Bahrain since February 14, bringing to the surface simmering discontent among the tiny Gulf kingdom's majority Shiite community.

Protesters of both genders and all ages have also set up a tent city in Pearl Square, where they have daily kept vigil to demand that the regime step down and honour the seven people killed in a raid on protesters by security forces last month.

"Our demands are clear and they are the same as Bahrainis, whether we are men or women, Sunnis or Shiites," said Bassima Fareed, a 35-year-old mother of four.

"I have brought my youngest, Hussein, to sleep here in Pearl Square so that he will have a better future, so that all of Bahrain will have a better future in which we are represented in government."

At least half the protesters have been women, and their voices have often drowned out those of the men in peaceful gender-segregated processions targeting government offices.

"Women's demands are the same as men's here: to gain their country, to gain more equality between the sexes and among all citizens," said Bahraini academic and former parliamentary candidate Munira Fakhro.

Fakhro's story reflects the long-running fight of Bahraini opposition supporters, from leftists to conservative Muslims, against what they say are decades of marginalisation and oppression.

Fakhro went into self-imposed exile after she was sacked from her position at Bahrain University for signing a 1995 petition demanding political reforms and greater rights for women.

She returned to her country to run for parliament in 2006, when she lost to a male candidate, but remained active in politics and women's rights.

Women in Bahrain were able to vote for the first time in a 2002 parliamentary election, the first since parliament was dissolved in 1975.

"Right now you cannot speak of a separate women's movement," Fakhro told AFP. "It's not a gender upheaval, it's an upheaval of the entirety of society, of which women have long been an active segment."

"Our demands are not group-based right now -- it's not about women, or labourers," added Ruayhi.

"It's about a nation."

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