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Bahrain's women work to win more parliamentary seats

Campaigners are mobilising to support female candidates and voters in next year's elections after just one woman won a seat last time.

MANAMA // Just eight women ran in Bahrain's first general election in 2002, with the number increasing to 18 four years later. Despite a handful of close races in 2006, only one woman managed to secure a seat in the country's fledgling parliament, after she ran unopposed. But if May al Otaibi and others have anything to do with it, female candidates will have a good chance during Bahrain's next general election slated for November 2010.

Dr al Otaibi, an expert in strategic communications, and institutions such as Bahrain's Supreme Council for Women, are starting early to support female participation in the next elections. "In 2006, we had a good number of women participating," Dr al Otaibi said. "But now we are starting early to empower them to think about it properly." The aim is not necessarily to get "lots of females" on the ballot, but rather to support qualified, accomplished female leaders, she said.

Over the past month, the first in a series of seminars was held by the Supreme Council, including those led by Dr al Otaibi, to support possible female candidates and mobilise female voters. During one meeting she stressed the need to organise campaigns well in advance of the election, with discussions also focusing on the development of viable political platforms."This is an introduction to political empowerment and awareness," Dr al Otaibi said. "It is just a seed for the coming campaign and to introduce women to what we are going to be doing."

According to Lulwa al Awadhi, the secretary-general of the Supreme Council, it was vital to start early in order to ensure that women are ready in November next year. "We are also preparing them through workshops; we have to prepare things very early," she said. "We have to try because it is our obligation to help and to start to prepare." One of the main issues, said Mrs al Awadhi, is how to get more women to vote for women, a sentiment echoed by Firas Gharaibeh, the United Nations Development Programme's (UNDP) deputy resident representative to Bahrain.

"[The issue] is that there are not enough men and women voting for women candidates because of social structures and religious attitudes," he said. "Secondly, the candidates maybe are not catching the eye of the voters, and not presenting themselves properly." To try to rectify these issues, the Supreme Council plans to host a series of seminars for political groups, women's associations and other civil society organisations. They are also studying ways of providing possible candidates with material and logistical support, as well as training to give women the tools they need to compete on the national stage.

"We hope that we will be able to [effect] some changes, maybe in the next election," Mrs al Awadhi said. "I hope that more than one woman gets a seat, so we're doing our best." UNDP is involved in efforts to enhance female participation in the elections, working closely with the Supreme Council. A joint study by the two organisations following the 2006 election outlined a set of recommendations to give women a better chance in 2010, including the need for improved access to funding and qualified support teams for the candidates.

The study also found that while 74 per cent of those polled accepted the idea of women running for public office, 62 per cent said they would not vote for a female candidate in 2010. "We have had two elections and we need more time to change the attitudes and perceptions," Mr Gharaibeh said. "More efforts should be made to bring women into politics." But, while efforts to support qualified candidates are ongoing, questions have also been raised about whether female voter apathy will undermine the initiative.

"I won't vote in the elections," said a woman who would only be identified as Fatima, 28. "I don't see that they will do any good and the MPs don't do anything for us. I want a candidate who can help us." Suad Mahdi, a 29-year-old IT consultant, said she would vote in the next election only if she is convinced her vote will go towards bringing about real change. "The person I voted for in the last election won, but he doesn't have a lot of power," she said. "But, I think I should vote because you have to support the process." Nevertheless, Ms Mahdi is not convinced a female candidate will win in 2010.

In 2006, Latifa al Qouhoud became one of 40 elected members of parliament after she stood unopposed in her constituency. Muneera Fakhro, an activist and academic, was the woman who came closest to winning a contested race on election day, narrowly missing out in her district. "The issue is not male-female gender crisis, it's democracy," she said. "Once the females were given the vote, they gained power. But, the whole process is it real democracy or is it a facade? Of course, it's a facade."

Dr Fakhro contends there are flaws within the current electoral system, including what she considers as a high number of electoral districts, which allows the main factions to maintain power. "We are still in the debate, but personally I will not join until we have reforms in the electoral process," she said. Dr Fakhro's party - the liberal Waad group - boycotted the country's first foray into democracy in 2002, but decided to take part four years later. Her party, she said, has "abolished gender and sectarian barriers". In fact, she contends that more men than women voted for her in the last election, but the question still remains as to whether she will run again.

"I'll be with Waad, so when they decide something I think I'll follow suit, but I will not be joining the elections unless [there are reforms]," she said. While none of the Islamic parties nominated female candidates in 2006, Dr Fakhro believes that the Al Wefaq National Islamic Society, the largest opposition party, may field women in 2010. If so, among them could be 38-year-old Ahlam al Kuzzay, the head of the women's section of the society.

Mrs al Kuzzay, who attended one of the Supreme Council's recent seminars, said she would run if tapped by her party. "Our women can do what the men can do," she said. "In the future if they said that the need me for my area, then I would say yes." @Email:zconstantine@thenational.ae

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