On August 28, a group of Bahraini women posted selfies on Twitter wearing t-shirts featuring an image by the Bahraini artist Sara Qaed, which depicts women in traditional wear extending their arms to the sky, reaching up for a hand under which the word “citizenship” appears. Using the Arabic hashtag “Citizenship is My Right and My Children’s,” the women – alongside a large number of activists, civil society leaders, and feminists – protested gender discrimination codified in Bahraini citizenship laws. 

Unlike Bahraini men, when a Bahraini woman marries a non-citizen, her children are not entitled to Bahraini citizenship; as a result, they must live in the country as dependents for the first 18 years of their lives, after which they must obtain a residency permit or face deportation. The campaign highlighted the fears expressed by many mothers who are vulnerable to losing their children because they do not have the means or connections to secure permanent residency for them. One mother spoke of the struggles and humiliations that her fatherless noncitizen children endure: despite their academic excellence, for example, the children are unable to go to university, find employment, or even open a bank account because they do not have the legal documentation required to access basic services and amenities in the country. Within less than 24 hours, the campaign became the most trending hashtag in Bahrain, and many women activists from neighboring Gulf countries joined in solidarity to highlight similar discrimination and exclusions that their fellow countrywomen are subjected to in relation to citizenship laws. 

Context for the “Citizenship is My Right and My Children’s” Campaign

Despite Bahrain’s reputation in the Arab Gulf region as a pioneer in transforming the status of women and allowing them to participate in politics and public life, Bahraini women continue to face institutional discrimination in matters of citizenship, marriage, and family relations. At the heart of these matters, ultimately, is the gendered lens through which Bahraini citizenship is constructed and formalized in both the state and society. Everywhere, womanhood is symbolically constructed as the embodiment of the nation, but in states like Bahrain where the process of state building was consolidated through a unified religious nationalism, women are also constructed as the embodiment of the nation’s piety and ethnic purity. As such, while it is enough for a Bahraini man to hold citizenship for him to become a full citizen, citizenship for Bahraini women is conditional. 
 
Burdened to carry out the biological and ideological reproduction of the state as mothers and primary caretakers, Bahraini women are not afforded full autonomy in deciding who to marry, or how to lead a life that authentically expresses their beliefs and desires. The state regulates their bodies through discriminatory laws and practices while society surveils and casts judgments on the extent to which Bahraini women’s life choices “represent” or “betray” the concepts of true citizenship and belonging. Indeed, in the digital landscape of Bahraini public discourse, the rhetoric of betrayal is commonly weaponized against women who demand equal rights. Issues like discriminatory citizenship laws are reduced to matters of “national security” that must not be discussed by the gullible public who are easily susceptible to Western influence. 
 
In response to accusations of foreign influence, Bahraini feminists and activists launched a number of online campaigns concerning cases of discrimination specific to Bahrain – one notable example being Article 353, which exempts those who commit rape from persecution if they choose to marry their victim. Shia activists also protested divorce laws in Ja’fari courts, which they deemed outrageously biased in favor of husbands. More recently, Bahraini women campaigned for stricter laws against harassment following a viral video of women being harassed at a waterpark by a large group of men.

The Shifting Landscape of Women’s Activism in Bahrain 

While the hashtag certainly created a reinvigorated awareness of citizenship discrimination in Bahrain, the campaign for citizenship equality dates back to 2007 and has been led by pioneer women activists from various local civil society organizations (CSOs) who organized under the umbrella of the Bahraini Women Union (BWU). Since 2006, the BWU has lobbied to abolish the citizenship law of 1963, which stipulates that the father must be Bahraini in order for the children to be Bahraini. The union has also campaigned to eliminate the government’s reservations regarding Paragraph 2 of Article 9 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which addresses the issue around women’s right to pass their citizenship on to their children and husbands. 
 
Despite the consistent and admirable efforts of the BWU, little to no progress has been achieved thus far, largely for two reasons: on one hand, that the matter is of an inherently political nature, and on the other hand, that there are significant structural challenges facing Bahraini CSOs which appear to be set in place to hinder their advancement. These challenges include the legal framework governing the activities of CSOs which prohibits political work; the scarcity of public spaces open to women who wish to organize and mobilize; and the limited youth participation in civil society. The latter was in part due to youth disillusionment about the effectiveness of civic participation in Bahrain, and in part due to the paternalistic attitude of the older generation of women civil leaders towards younger people as well as the outdated, out-of-touch nature of the issues they often discussed. 
 
Since 2020, however, there have been significant efforts to reconcile the generational divide between older activists operating through on-the-ground CSOs and younger activists who use social media as their preferred medium to advocate for gender equality and social justice. The BWU has recently established its youth committee and opened the door for young and digitally literate feminists to join and take initiative to raise awareness about long standing legal discrimination against women. It has also encouraged advocacy for causes that are more in tune with contemporary feminist discourse currently dominating the Bahraini digital landscape. The fruit of this reconciliation is a coordinated effort between the two branches of the BWU to lobby government institutions and launch the trending citizenship discrimination campaign as a way to advocate for women’s right to equal and full citizenship.
 
It is certainly promising that the causes the older generation of women activists have longed advocated for have now found their place in digital spaces of Bahraini public discourse through the efforts of many young and politically conscious feminists. This shifting landscape has expanded the realm of possibility for women who continue to find hope and fight for equality against and beyond the many institutional constraints placed upon social movements in Bahrain. That said, the extent to which the state would allow digital advocacy for gender equality in coming years will ultimately depend on the political consequences of this new and unprecedented state of public discourse in Bahrain that learns from and informs, regional and global feminist discourses around social justice and politics.
 
Dabya Al-Rafaei is a Bahraini scholar interested in critical feminist theory and its applications in the Arab Gulf. Follow her on Twitter @Dabyaaa_