Reimagining Citizenship: Equality, Discrimination, and National Affiliation in Bahrain 

Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR) held a webinar on the state of equality and discrimination in Bahrain. The webinar aimed at raising awareness about the concepts of equality, discrimination, and citizenship in the context of the human rights situation in Bahrain. It also sought to generate ideas and spark new perspectives to help address these issues. Anthony Hu, from BCHR, moderated the webinar. 

Asma Darwish, from BCHR, opened the webinar by pointing out that nationality, which is the legal bond between a person and a state, does not necessarily bring equal and full participation in the political community and all the rights attached to it.  In liberal democracies, nationality often entails a constitutionally guaranteed promise of equality of rights and duties. Within this understanding of nationality, there is nothing that suggests that the nature of this legal bond varies among citizens. After introducing her understanding of nationality, Asma stressed the importance of this topic for women particularly. Bahrain’s geographical location, which gives it significant access to ocean travel, has led to a more ethnically and religiously diverse population and a more liberal interpretation of Islam and traditions compared to its neighboring countries. This openness has brought positive changes for women. Nonetheless, women’s rights in Bahrain are lacking in many ways. Because Bahraini law is a combination of royal decrees, civil laws, and sharia, it supports women in some areas and holds them back in others. Asma highlighted Bahraini laws that are discriminatory against women, such as a woman’s testimony equaling half of that of a man in Sharia courts and men receiving more inheritance than women. There is no law to protect women from gender-based violence, and a rapist can avoid punishment by marrying his victim. In addition, spousal rape has not yet been criminalized. Asma also referred to the inconsistency of Bahrain nationality law, which deprives Bahraini women of passing on their citizenship to their children, with the constitution, which prohibits discrimination based on sex among other discriminatory grounds. Asma argued that Bahrain’s complex combination of secular and Islamic laws stops many gender discrimination reforms from reaching their full potential.  Finally, she indicated that the social norms that are pressuring women back to their assumed roles and the current absence of political opposition in Bahrain’s political life make meaningful reforms in this area unlikely. Asma wrapped up her intervention by stressing that citizenship is a right, not a privilege.  

Devin Kenney, from Amnesty International, started his remarks by setting out the concept of citizenship. Citizenship means that the government exists based on the consent of its citizens. The government exists to protect and enhance the rights of its citizens, and all those citizens are equal partners in shaping the decisions of the country. Bahrain’s government is based on a different idea: everything is a gift or a privilege granted by the King. So, what exists for Bahrain currently is not citizenship at all but only nationality. Nationality means that a person has a legal identity to be attached to a particular country but not more.  The concept of nationality does not speak to participation in political life or the proper relationship between the state and the individual like the concept of citizenship does. Devin stressed that this is a problem of political culture, meaning that changing laws is not enough. A general revision of the relationship between the state and its citizens would need to happen for the full concept of citizenship to take root in Bahrain. He maintained that citizenship in Bahrain is discriminatory by law along two axes: gender and ethnicity or race. According to the Bahraini constitution, Bahrain is not the nation or the country of those born there or those who are immediately preceding generations of those born there. It is a country of a racial category (Arabs) and limited to a certain religious category of Arabs. The ethnic-racial definition of the nation is reflected in the nationality law, which sets forth different criteria for Arabs and non-Arabs to acquire Bahraini nationality: non-Bahraini Arabs are placed in a privileged position that non-Bahraini non-Arabs.  The law gives the King the right to grant anyone nationality, and there are no reliable statistics about naturalization in Bahrain. As for the second axis of discrimination in terms of citizenship, Bahraini nationality transmission is gender-dependent. The law is discriminatory by placing one category of citizen over another. Devin concluded by emphasizing that there is a long way to go before the law is compliant with human rights. 

Drewery Dyke, from Salam for Democracy and Human Rights, talked about how the context of freedom of expression makes the discussion of equal citizenship not possible in Bahrain, not by the public nor by parliamentarians who are either chosen or heavily vetted. Drewery pointed out that what should come before this discussion does not exist. In Bahrain, the current parliament is not the place where this discussion and the questions of discrimination can be raised. The issue of discrimination in terms of citizenship is not even on the agenda. Drewery highlighted the fact that Bahraini women are secondary citizens as they cannot confer their citizenship to their children. He also discussed how many Bahrainis were deprived of their citizenship in an arbitrary process: 31 in 2012, 21 in 2014, 208 in 2015, and up to 298 in 2017. There is also a small indigenous stateless community in the country. As the tenth anniversary of the issuance of the BICI report is approaching, Drewery stressed the importance of discussing what has changed since 23 November 2011. Although the BICI report does not address equality and citizenship, it does not ignore them either. There are references to systematic discrimination in roles in public life, where a sectarian community has not been represented in national life and government. Drewery maintained that we should push forward with this discussion: what is citizenship? Who can be a citizen and who can engage and take part in national life? Having this discussion openly is key to address it. the government should restore citizenship to those arbitrarily deprived of their citizenship and end statelessness in the country.  The arbitrary deprivation of citizenship is an insult to human dignity.

Shawan Jabarin, from the International Federation for Human Rights, opened his intervention with a question for oppressive governments:  what would you gain from discriminating against X and Y of your nationals? Does this bring stability and security? Shawan argued that, practically, if there is oppression, there is change, as people will be eager to change the inequality. When states do not protect the rights of their nationals and secure their safety, people will try to secure these rights in their own ways. From here, Shawan expressed his optimism for change in Bahrain for two reasons. First, the presence of an active civil society that is fighting peacefully for equality and that does not surrender. This will lead to change one day, as the current situation is unsustainable. Second, Bahrain has joined and engaged with different human rights mechanisms. However, the question here is, are these steps cosmetic? Shawan indicated that discriminatory policies are evident in Bahrain, where discrimination exists both in law and practice, and so far, there is no political will to change. The political class is afraid that they will lose their privileges. He argued that they will lose them if they continue with these short-sighted policies. Shawan stressed that Bahraini people are paying a high price after 2011 and that he is not concerned for the long run as change will come, but why do Bahraini people have to suffer and pay a high price to reach that moment? He expressed no doubt that Bahrainis will get there. The question is how to shorten the time of pain and how to reduce the price?  The future cannot be built on force, teargas, prisons, and oppression. Shawan added that technology has changed everything, mainly, our feeling of freedom. The globe is changing, and change is everywhere, while most of the regimes in Arab countries are living in the 40s and 50s. The methods, narratives, tactics used are outdated. This situation is unsustainable. He concluded with the notion that freedom of expression is not only a value; it is in our DNA and that governments have to understand that. 

To watch the webinar in full, click here