This article was written in collaboration between the ADHRB Paris team and Gender in Geopolitics Institute.
France is a vocal advocate for women’s rights internationally, and the “feminist diplomacy” adopted by the French government in 2018 affirms that gender equality is a priority for France. The International Gender Equality Strategy was adopted to improve the situation of women around the world and ensure a gender perspective in all aspects of France’s foreign policy. Among other areas, the strategy calls for combating sexual violence, protecting women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights, financing gender equality projects, promoting gender equality in employment, and supporting civil society. The government also prioritizes respect for the fundamental rights of women as set out in the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).
Although many countries in the Arab Gulf have acceded to the CEDAW, they continue to maintain reservations on it. France is becoming an increasingly important actor in the Gulf region and its expanding transnational network comes with an increased responsibility to promote French human rights ideals across borders. Is the French government prioritizing its strategic interests over the protection of women’s rights in this region? What is the distinction between what is tolerable and what is not? This article will analyze women’s rights in Bahrain and the French government’s approach to this topic in the context of the Generation Equality Forum.
Grave Concerns over Women’s Rights in Bahrain
Despite signing the CEDAW in 2002, Bahrain has maintained reservations on the convention and continues to discriminate against women in legislation. Several international actors have voiced concerns about this, most recently the European Parliament in a resolution issued on March 11, 2021. In the resolution, the European Parliament expresses particular concern over Bahrain’s gender discriminatory legislation, which makes it impossible for Bahraini women to transmit nationality to their children and restricts their ability to divorce and inherit.
Although the Bahraini government publicly emphasizes its endorsement of women’s rights, it has ignored international calls to implement gender equality recommendations and continues to discriminate against women. The same day the European Parliament issued the resolution, the Foreign Ministry of Bahrain denounced it, claiming that it was based on “dishonest sources” and included “false allegations”. However, since the uprisings in 2011, the status of women’s rights has regressed in important areas. For example, the government is increasingly targeting women human rights defenders. Women also face discrimination in legislation and underrepresentation in government, with women representing only 10% of candidates in 2018 despite voting in equal numbers to men.
In 2016, the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review made some important recommendations regarding women’s rights as the legal situation was not improving for women. Even though the government announced a national plan for integrating and advancing women in Bahraini society, the plan’s full implementation continues to be delayed. The recommendations such as “promulgate a unified family law that applies to all residents of Bahrain, and that creates uniform provisions for issues like custody and divorce that do not discriminate based on gender” and “institute a uniform minimum marriage age of 18, regardless of gender” are still yet to be implemented.
No law in Bahrain explicitly prohibits discrimination based on gender, gender expression or sexual orientation, in education, government, or legal system. Women therefore have more difficulty than men succeeding in various fields. They are underrepresented in both private and public sector employment, comprising only about 20% of the workforce even though they have higher levels of education than men. Those employed serve largely in low-demand occupations, and many experience social pressure to stay at home. Sharia courts which regulate family matters consistently discriminate against women and can deny them divorce proceedings. Efforts to implement a family law that would grant greater rights to women, such as the right to consent to marriage and marriage contracts, encountered strong opposition from Shia religious leaders before being ratified by the King in 2017.
The Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) has documented that as many as 30% of all women in Bahrain face some sort of domestic abuse. Although rape is punishable by law, the perpetrator may escape punishment by marrying the victim, a highly concerning loophole because it forces survivors of rape to marry their abuser, which puts them at risk of further abuse. Moreover, marital rape is not considered a crime in Bahrain. According to the UN Special Repporteur on Violence Against Women, “honor killings” are the most blatant example of gender-based crimes. Although honor killings are criminalized in Bahrain, the Criminal Code provides for reduced sentences if the killing was supposedly committed in the name of honor, meaning that killers of women are not properly punished.
In Bahrain, only 40.8% of indicators needed to monitor the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) from a gender perspective are available, with gaps in key areas such as Violence Against Women, Unpaid Care and Domestic Work, and the Gender Pay Gap. In addition, many areas such as gender and poverty, women’s access to assets including land, physical and sexual harassment, and gender and the environment currently lack comparable methodologies for comprehensive and periodic monitoring. Addressing these gender data gaps is a prerequisite for understanding the situation of women and girls in Bahrain and for achieving the gender-related commitments toward the SDGs.
The Supreme Council for Women: A Whitewashing Body for the Regime
The government-affiliated Supreme Council for Women (SCW) oversees the implementation of the CEDAW and leads workshops and empowerment programs to inform society about women’s issues. However, the nominations of the leaders of the SCW – the President, the Deputy President, and the Secretary General – are entirely reliant upon royal approval. The President of the Council is Princess Sabeeka bint Ibrahim Al-Khalifa, wife of King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa. The Secretary General was nominated by Princess Sabeeka and endorsed by the King himself. Before her nomination, she had previously worked for the royal family. In addition, the Deputy President is also a member of the Al-Khalifa family.
When King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa came to power in 1999, he seemed ambitious in his advocacy for democratic reform. Nevertheless, the National Assembly enjoys only limited power, while the King, as head of state, wields absolute power. Dissatisfaction gradually grew among the Bahraini people and finally culminated in major pro-democracy protests in 2011. These protests were violently and brutally suppressed by Bahraini authorities. Since then, human rights and individual freedoms have become increasingly restricted. The government has intensified its attacks on critics of the regime and continues to limit freedom of speech and expression through intimidation tactics, harassment, arbitrary detention, and torture.
The Council’s close ties to the government and nepotism in its leadership structure are concerning because the SCW has strong motives to not criticize the government despite its widespread violations of international human rights laws, including those on women’s rights. For example, the report Breaking the Silence reveals the increase in political targeting of women human rights defenders in Bahrain since 2017, a subject on which the Council has remained quiet despite numerous efforts by victims to seek assistance and redress. Two of the women in the report testify that they were subjected to severe torture and physical and sexual abuse. All of the women report that they were threatened with rape and death during the interrogation. Even worse, although some of the women filed complaints regarding their ill treatment, Bahraini oversight bodies have refused to investigate the allegations and let perpetrators, who are often Bahraini officials, walk free.
SCW, France, and the Generation Equality Forum: A Problematic Alliance
Despite Bahrain’s reservations on the CEDAW and its continued discrimination against women, the French government rarely voices these issues when communicating with the Bahraini government, regardless of the ambitious plan laid out in the International Gender Equality Strategy. The strategy, for example, states that nobody should be subjected to sexual discrimination, coercion or violence. Despite the testimonies of women subjected to practices the French government wants to combat, the SCW has been invited to participate in the Generation Equality Forum (GEF) in Paris in June 2021 in recognition of what the SCW called “Bahrain’s distinguished international experience” on gender balance and equal opportunity.
The participation of the SCW in the Generation Equality Forum is inappropriate because of the forum’s core focus on civil society. The Bahraini government has systematically dismantled civil society to the point of nonexistence. Anyone speaking up against the government risks arbitrary detention, harassment, forced disappearance, and even torture.
Furthermore, on International Women’s Day, March 8, 2021, the French Embassy in Bahrain invited the SCW to participate in an event with a focus on women as drivers of change in the Gulf. At the event, the Deputy Secretary-General – a member of the al-Khalifa family – highlighted the progress made due to the commitment of Bahraini authorities and the SCW to women’s rights. Ironically, at the same event, the French Ambassador Jérôme Cauchard affirmed France’s commitment to gender equality through its International Gender Equality Strategy.
Given that women human rights defenders are harassed, persecuted and arbitrarily detained, the development of women’s rights in Bahrain is not progressing, but rather regressing. The SCW promotes an image of Bahrain which is not only misleading, but also conceals the actual situation. Furthermore, crediting any progress on women’s rights to the government, which is the perpetrator of crimes against women rights defenders, amounts to whitewashing those violations.
French Diplomacy: Advocating for Women’s Rights through Discourse but not Action
The 2020 report of the High Council for Equality between Women and Men (HCE) on feminist diplomacy was submitted on November 18, 2020 to Jean-Yves Le Drian, French Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs. It focused on some areas of its feminist diplomacy that has to improve such as more transparency in development aid aimed at gender equality, parity in decision-making positions in diplomacy, and a feminist perspective in every ministry involved in French external action (including trade, culture, and defense). French feminist diplomacy is a useful tool for diplomatic discourse but not yet a consistent guideline throughout its national ministries.
The report criticized France for selling arms to countries known for their failure to respect the fundamental rights of women, questioning the hierarchy of issues within French foreign policy. Real feminist diplomacy would place women’s rights, gender equality, and sexual and reproductive health and rights permanently at the heart of diplomatic exchanges, or even making them a condition for these exchanges. The HCE, while understanding the necessary consideration of the different interests of the nation, maintains that feminist diplomacy can and should further permeate diplomatic relations and apply to all aspects of French foreign policy.
France and Bahrain have been increasing their trade exchanges since 2015 and maintain bilateral relations through culture and education. Bahrain also represents an important strategic partner for France’s naval forces as the French Embassy in Bahrain welcomed the arrival of the Groupe aeronaval (GAN) formed around the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle on February 21 as part of the CLEMENCEAU 21 mission against terrorism in the region. France’s military has had an important maritime presence through regular naval deployments in Bahrain to carry out surveillance missions and fight against organized crime. Despite this close strategic cooperation, the French government might have yet to take meaningful action on women’s rights in Bahrain.
The Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs indicates that only a third of embassies engaged in a political dialogue on issues of gender equality in 2018-2019 and that less than 15% of embassies have a formal consultation framework on this subject with their host country. Given Bahrain’s women’s rights context, the relevance of Bahrain’s participation in the GEF is quite controversial. In an attempt to apply the HCE report recommendations, French government should enter into a true political dialogue with Bahrain before letting it participate in the GEF as Bahrain has previously shown it is unwilling to change its critical women’s rights situation. Previous conversations between the SCW and the French Ambassador earlier this year remained superficial as the SCW presented Bahrain’s national empowerment strategy, which only seems only to cover professional opportunities for women instead of addressing serious human rights violations like Bahrain’s handling of sexual violence.
It is apparent that the French government should be more vocal about women’s rights abuses in Bahrain. In many instances, it has accepted without question the conclusions of the SCW and the Bahraini government despite evidence to the contrary. To better support women human rights defenders, the French government should declare publicly and privately that the Bahraini authorities’ treatment of women violates international law and will not be tolerated. Imprisoned activists would benefit from French diplomacy’s engagement as it could provide political and moral support as well as raise awareness of their treatment. Given the French government’s international gender strategy and its commitment to human rights, it should not tolerate such flagrant violations, even if they are committed by a close economic and military partnership. Lastly, as the co-president of the Generation Equality Forum and one of the top advocates of feminist diplomacy, the French government should take a stand by calling out Bahraini leaders’ lack of political will to protect and empower Bahraini women. It should urge the SCW to take concrete action for women’s interests and promote real change in the country.