Education in Bahrain: Discrimination and No Place for Freedom of Expression

The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to education. They agree that education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and the sense of its dignity, and shall strengthen the respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. They further agree that education shall enable all persons to participate effectively in a free society, promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations and all racial, ethnic or religious groups.[i]

Numerous legal international instruments recognize the right to education without discrimination along with the right to academic freedom. The right to education and academic freedom is inextricably linked to freedom of opinion and expression. Violating the latter means necessarily the infringement of the former. While Bahrain has been experiencing significant violations of the right to freedom of expression, the education sector has deteriorated. The government’s intolerance policy toward dissent has impacted students and teachers alike at all educational levels. Since 2011, hundreds of educators have been incarcerated, intimidated into silence, or lost their jobs. Also, hundreds of students have been deprived of education either due to imprisonment or being expelled from their educational institutions for participating in peaceful demonstrations. After the last uprising, discriminatory practices based on political views and religious affiliation have escalated in the education sector, among others. The discrimination in employment and promotion, the discretionary policy of scholarship distribution, and mass dismissals are expressive of the exclusion campaign carried out by the government against its critics.

Prosecution of Teachers and Scholars

The Bahrain Teachers’ Association (BTA) played an active role in the 2011 uprising. BTA called for peaceful sit-ins at schools’ gates and later a three-day strike in solidarity with the peaceful protesters and in condemnation of excessive use of force by the Bahraini security forces against them. The government responded by imprisoning BTA leaders, dismissing and prosecuting hundreds of teachers, and banning BTA in April 2011. The Ministry of Education started immediately to replace the striking teachers with “volunteers,” the majority of whom were unqualified, a step described by Jalila al-Salman, a teacher and the former vice-president of BTA who was imprisoned and ill-treated in 2011, as a “meticulous destruction of the education system in Bahrain.” The teachers were also compelled to train the “volunteers.” Thus, the Bahraini government stepped up its exclusion policy by replacing Bahraini employees in the education sector with others deemed more suitable. In 2016, it was reported that 1573 Bahraini Shia teachers were out of work, while the Ministry of Education employed 3110 “volunteers.” Moreover, Shia educators have been deprived of high-ranking positions in the Ministry and excluded from the decision-making process.

The Attacks on educators’ freedom of expression in Bahrain have not begun after the 2011 uprising; they only intensified. The mechanical engineer scholar and activist Dr. Abdul Jalil Al-Singace was arrested on August 13, 2010, and detained for six months upon his return from a trip to the UK, where he discussed the human rights situation in Bahrain in the British House of Lords. Dr. al-Singace was arrested again in March 2011, and he is now serving a life sentence in relation to his activism. The citizenship of Dr. Abdulhadi Khalaf, a senior lecturer at the sociology department at Lund University in Sweden, was revoked on November 6, 2012, in connection to his criticism of the Bahraini authorities. Dr. Masaud Mirza Jahromi, Chair of the Telecommunication Engineering Department at Ahlia University in Manama, was another scholar whose citizenship was revoked on January 31, 2015, as a punishment for practicing his right to peaceful protest. In September 2014, Dr. Khalil al-Halwachi, a scholar of engineering and political activist, was arrested and later sentenced to ten years in prison. Jalila al-Salman, mentioned earlier, was banned from leaving the country, and her passport was confiscated in Bahrain International Airport in June 2016, as she was heading to Oslo to attend the Svensson Award ceremony. The Bahraini government even committed the heinous act of executing a teacher, Abbas al-Samea, on January 15, 2017, for the alleged killing of a police officer. The UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions, Agnes Callamard, condemned his execution, with Ali al-Singace and Sami Mushaima, and considered it extrajudicial killing, as the trial lacked due process, and he was tortured to extract confessions.

Academic freedom is also under attack. For example, on January 29, 2013, Dr. Amy Austin Holmes, an Assistant Professor of Sociology from the American University of Cairo, was refused entry into Bahrain for a four-day research trip. The US embassy in Bahrain suggested that her work on the Arab Spring was the reason behind denying her entry into the country. On January 20, 2020, Historian Hussein al-Abbas was arrested in relation to a blog on his research about the history of a Bahraini mosque. The Bahraini authorities accused him of “spreading false information” that contradicts the “official” information. Bahraini scholars cannot publish their research if it challenges the government’s narratives. The US State Department 2019 Report on Human Rights Practices in Bahrain concluded that many scholars “engaged in self-censorship and avoided discussions of contentious political issues.” If scholars are not allowed to discuss these societal issues, then who is? In 2011, the University of Bahrain dismissed about 117 of its academic staff for expressing their opinions and participating in the uprising, also nullified the scholarships of many students pursuing higher education abroad for the same reason.

Discrimination, and Attacks on Student Expression

Children have not been spared from the government’s crackdown. BCHR has documented hundreds of arrests of children as young as 10 and 11 years old throughout the decade since the 2011 uprising. These numbers reached 191, 124, 56, and 41 in 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019, respectively. In addition to ill-treatment and torture, these children were deprived of education after being incarcerated for varying periods. Most of the charges were related to “illegal assembly.” The student Ali al-Singace was executed in 2017, as mentioned earlier, although at the time of his arrest he was under 18 years old. At the beginning of the academic year 2016-2017, there were 400 students under the age of 18 deprived of education due to imprisonment, according to Mahdi Abu Dheeb, the former president of BTA. Abu Dheeb was tortured and imprisoned for five years in connection to calling for a strike in 2011 after being tried in a military court.

The aforementioned numbers do not include students in higher education, many of whom have been expelled from their educational institutions for participation in the 2011 protests. The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry’s investigation concluded that the University of Bahrain and Bahrain Polytechnic initially expelled 427 students out of 400-500 who participated in the protest of March 2011. Many expulsion decisions were later revoked; however, some students were “prevented from ever again attending an institution of higher education in Bahrain.”[ii] Today, a great number of students in Bahrain are prevented from completing their studies after being incarcerated; their sentences vary in length.

The Bahraini government extended its biased practices to include scholarship distribution. Many activists, civil society organizations, and politicians have been calling for transparency in governmental scholarship distribution by publishing the names of the winners and their academic averages. The mechanism for granting the scholarship has steered controversy, where a personal interview accounts for 40% of the overall evaluation. Although personal interviews are adopted by the best educational systems in the world, the purpose of these interviews is in question in Bahrain. “Students reported authorities questioned them on their political beliefs and those of their families during interviews.”[iii] Thus, some top students whose academic average is 95% or higher are deprived of these scholarships not only for their political opinions but also for those of their families. It was reported that 21% of top students with academic averages ranging from 95% – 99% were deprived of scholarships in 2011, whereas this number rose to 34% in 2015. These numbers reflect “massive sectarian discrimination,” as most of these students are Shia Muslims. In 2016, the Ministry of Education asked the students for a certificate of good conduct from the Ministry of Interior in order to receive their scholarships. The certificate of good conduct was utilized to eliminate those who have been arrested and imprisoned for political reasons, most of whom are Shia students, from receiving scholarships. Students who have been tried for engaging in any anti-government activities, cannot obtain this certificate. Therefore, they are automatically excluded from receiving scholarships, and, in some cases, they are unable to acquire a job thereafter.  It was also reported that the Ministry of Education has not recognized some students’ degrees obtained abroad; “these refusals disproportionately affected Shia students.”

In order to eliminate and prevent discrimination (…), the States Parties thereto undertake: (a) To abrogate any statutory provisions and any administrative instructions and to discontinue any administrative practices which involve discrimination in education; (b) To ensure, by legislation where necessary, that there is no discrimination in the admission of pupils to educational institutions; (c) Not to allow any differences of treatment by the public authorities between nationals, except on the basis of merit or need, in the matter of school fees and the grant of scholarships or other forms of assistance to pupils and necessary permits and facilities for the pursuit of studies in foreign countries.[iv]

It is indisputable that formal education contributes substantially to the students’ personal development and formation of society’s collective awareness. Equal citizenship, nondiscrimination, and the right to free speech are values that can be instilled through formal education. Hence, international law stipulates the purpose of education and places respect for human rights at the heart of the educational process. Nonetheless, the Bahraini government seems determined to instrumentalize education to criminalize dissent and vilify dissidents. The Bahraini government was denounced by Education International for adopting “biased pedagogical material discrediting those engaged in human rights activism.” The Bahraini curriculum required students to give their opinions on “the acts of sabotage and criminal activities against the kingdom perpetrated in 2011.” By incorporating such materials into the formal curriculum, the government is trying to achieve three objectives: reinforcing its narratives, ostracizing its opponents, and indoctrinating next generations, none of which comply with global standards of education that encourage critical thinking and freedom of expression. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), in its contribution to the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) on Bahrain in 2017, recommended the Bahraini government to ratify the UNESCO Convention against Discrimination in Education and stated that “Bahrain should be encouraged to further include human rights principles in the academic curricula.”[v]

By persecuting educators for thinking critically, dismissing qualified teachers, and depriving students of education for their political opinions, in addition to distributing scholarships based on loyalty, not merit, and politicizing the educational curriculum, the Bahraini government is distorting the educational sector and compromising the future of an entire generation.

[i] Article 13 of The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, ratified by Bahrain on September 27, 2007.

[ii] The Report of Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry: Items 1491 – 1501.

[iii] The US State Department 2019 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices in Bahrain, under section “Academic Freedom and Cultural Events.”

[iv] Article 3 of The Convention against Discrimination in Education 1960, which Bahrain has not ratified.

[v] Accessible at: