Protest at segregation in Bahrain

December 10, 2004

Bahrain, the most liberal of the Gulf States, is to segregate the sexes on its university campus despite opposition from the Education Minister and students.

The new law was opposed by Majid Al Nuami, the Education Minister, but passed by a majority in the Bahraini Chamber of Deputies.

Male and female students will be taught separately and provided with segregated libraries and cafeterias.

About 67 per cent of students at Bahrain are women. Introducing gender separation will involve not just the expense of constructing new lecture halls and classrooms, but the recruitment of new staff, from professors to cleaners.

Supporters of the new ruling, which had previously been rejected three times by Bahrain's Chamber of Deputies, argue that women are deterred from applying to the university for fear they may come into contact with men.

"I am here to protect women," Deputy Jassim Al Saeedi said during the parliamentary debate on the issue. "I am a women's rights activist, this is my gift to them."

The Sunni-dominated Parliament has steadily grown in confidence since elections in 2002. In theory at least, it shares equal legislative power with the Shura Consultative Council, a broadly secular body, appointed directly by King Hamad.

So far, the council has managed to resist some of Parliament's more radical proposals such as banning alcohol. But secular Bahrainis fear that increasing Islamist pressure on the council may force it to concede on more Islamist demands.

Critics of segregation argue that it will involve needless expense for the loss-making university. Some estimates put the total cost at about £8 million.

"This is ridiculous," a student protester known only as Mohammed said.

"When we boys and girls enter the labour market there will be no segregation of sexes, so why have it now?"

Many believe that the legislation is the latest development in a gradual trend towards the Islamisation of Bahrain, and that it will only be a matter of time before segregation extends from university campuses to society.

Even before segregation became law, women students at Bahrain were not allowed to enter or leave the campus in the company of a man unless he was a close male relative.

They were also expected to cover their heads while attending classes. Those who did not were stopped by security personnel on campus and asked to explain why they did not dress appropriately.

Journalist Amira al-Husaini, who works on one of Bahrain's leading daily papers, recently complained about the impact this had on female students.

"Three of my friends chose to leave the university and pursue education elsewhere," she said. "That's how fed up they were with this harassment."

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