Women on the Frontlines in Bahrain: A University Student and an Expat Mother
|Date: February 2011
Wednesday 3:30 am in Bahrain.
The phone rings at the home of a 35 year old expat and mother of two children. Her friend on the line says, “Look outside! The funeral procession for the second Bahraini man who was killed in the clashes with the police is passing by the back entrance of the compound.” The expat runs up to the roof with her husband to check out the scene. She’s so moved that in a split second she decides to throw something over her pajamas, grab her largest Cannon camera and dash out with the friend who called her. They spot protesting Bahraini women at the back of the procession. “The women were very friendly”, and “they immediately wanted to tell me their story”, says the expat mother. My friend and I walked with the procession into a small village along with the other reporters. “It was a very powerful experience.”
“The reporters had spent the night at the Pearl Square and said it was very calm and peaceful without any police presence.” They asked if they might use our internet connection later that night as they were having trouble getting access. There is debate on whether it is being selectively shut off at the big hotels.”
A first year university student, 18 year old Zainab Ahmed, is one of four kids and a first time protestor. She wants to participate in the protest and says: “The riot police are savages. They are uneducated, can’t talk and their language is the gun.”
“Sixty percent of the protestors are women. The reason for this is that a lot of men are in jail or dead and 15 year old boys are just picked off the street and tortured”. But Bahrain hasn’t had a war like Iran, what is the reason for this?
Zainab’s entire family – including her father, sister and aunt – were in the medical tent, caring for the wounded until 3 a.m. on Thursday morning. Zainab was subjected to tear gas by the riot police in the medical tent, which is the first place the police attacked. When Zainab wanted to post online the fact that 2000 protestors had shown up, the Internet was shut off.
A passionate Zainab explains, “It is about poverty, the lack of jobs and housing. It is about the discrimination against locally born Bahrainis (500,000, 70% Shia) and preferences granted to naturalized Bahrainis (900,000 mostly Sunni) who come from Yemen, Jordan, Pakistan and India. They are granted citizenship after only a year of residence even though the constitution requires 15 years of residency prior to being granted citizenship.” (The police for example, are almost entirely immigrant, because the regime does not trust its own people. Imagine the reaction in the US if our immigration policy preferentially gave jobs to border-crossers in unlimited numbers.)
To see Zainab with Nickolas Kristof, click here
The economics in Bahrain – a very rich country — are dismal: a family of fifteen lives in one room with a total income of 250 Bahraini dollars (BD) equivalent to US $100 and monthly debts of 200 BD. The preferential treatment given to naturalized citizens in jobs, housing and university positions gnaws at the Bahraini born residents. Zainab says, “Let me tell you a story about a woman with five kids, whose husband died when the oldest was 10 years old. It is now 25 years later, her house is about to fall down, her 35 year old son has no job and is not married. Where can she turn?”
The protestors’ have a new political vision says Zainab, “We want to elect our prime minister (the PM has been in power for 40 years while the U.S. has elected 5 presidents in the same time span). We want democracy. We want jobs, housing, food and clean water. We demand peace and justice.”
Zainab says the regime’s tactics are intolerable: “They (the regime) attack women and kids on the streets. They accuse the protestors of using swords and bullets but that is not true.” Dirty tricks abound: video footage supposedly of the protestors using weapons was broadcast 14 hours later. Zainab is convinced that the government needed time to insert the implements into the scene of crime, fudging the facts and falsely accusing the protestors.
“A nine year-old girl was killed. She’s a child, not a threat,” says Zainab. When asked about the protestors’ chances of success, Zainab is unflinching: “People won’t stop now. This is not about a Shia/Sunni divide. This is a struggle for all Bahrainis. It is about securing rights for the Bahrainis. It’s about youth and a democratic future for the nation. We are not just following in the footsteps of other countries where protestors launched a revolution. We have our own demands. This is a protest movement. It has no leaders. It is supported by all Bahrainis and the youth.”
Thursday, 9:30 am in Bahrain, the expat mother writes:
“Things have turned very ugly here. A woman I met yesterday called me in tears. It is heartbreaking”, says the expat. She’s heard rumors about the phones and Internet being disconnected so that additional protests cannot be organized. News is reporting a big rally for Saturday. “We will be safe in our compound having stocked up on more provisions today. I am really upset by how things are being handled here. There is no justification for attacking sleeping people in today’s world”, she says.
Friday, 5 pm in Bahrain, Zainab calls:
She says she is attending the prayers on the third day for those who were killed in the protest. She is furious because now the King’s supporters – Indians, Yemenis, and Egyptians – are protesting, causing congestion, honking their horns. Yet, they are untouched and un-harassed by the riot police. “Why the double standard?”, she asks.
Bahrain has turned much uglier than Egypt – because here the government seems not even to share the sense of national identity of its people – and this is where the US bases its fleet in the Mideast.
The opinions in this blog reflect the personal perspective of Shahnaz Taplin Chinoy, Board Chair, Invest in Muslim Women