Library of Congress

Law Library of Congress

The Library of Congress > Law Library > News & Events > Global Legal Monitor

Bahrain: Women’s Rights Activists Launch Campaign to Amend Citizenship Law

(Oct. 31, 2017) The Bahrain Human Rights Watch Society (BHRWS), in conjunction with other Bahrain women’s rights groups and various Members of Parliament (MPs) and the business community, has launched a campaign to extend equal citizenship rights to women by amending a provision of the country’s citizenship law.  (Huge Support for Gender Equality in Bahrain’s Citizenship Law, ZAWYA (Oct. 6, 2017).)

Under the current law, children of Bahraini women living in the country are denied citizenship if their fathers are not Bahraini nationals, while children of Bahraini men automatically become citizens, even if their fathers are not living in Bahrain and their mothers are not Bahraini.  (Id.; Habib Toumi, New Hope for Children Born to Foreign Fathers in Bahrain, GULF NEWS (Aug. 11, 2017).)  The provision of the Bahraini Citizenship Act being challenged by the activists, article 4(A), states “[a] person shall be deemed a Bahraini national . . . [i]f he is born in Bahrain or abroad and his father, at the time of birth, was a Bahraini national.” (Marsum bi-Qanun Raqm (12) li-Sanat 1989 bi-Ta‘dil Qanun al-Jinsiyyat al-Bahrayniyyah li-‘Am 1963, Gulf Cooperation Council Legal Information Network website; Decree Law No (12) [of 1989] Amending Bahraini Citizenship Act of 1963, UNHCR Refworld website (scroll down PDF document to page 11 to view).)

The activists want the phrase “his father” changed to “either of the child’s parents.” (New Hope for Children Born to Foreign Fathers in Bahrain, supra.)  Previous attempts to amend the law in 2005, 2007, 2014, and April 2017 failed to achieve parliamentary approval.  (Huge Support for Gender Equality in Bahrain’s Citizenship Law, supra; Bahrain Center for Human Rights, The Legal Status of Women in Bahrain (2017), at 11, Bahrain Center for Human Rights website; New Hope for Children Born to Foreign Fathers in Bahrain, supra.)

Lack of Conformity of the Current Law to Bahrain’s Constitution and CEDAW

Bahrain’s Constitution provides that “[p]eople are equal in human dignity, and citizens are equal before the law in public rights and duties. There shall be no discrimination among them on the basis of sex, origin, language, religion or creed.”  (Dastur Mamlakat al-Bahrayn [Constitution of the Kingdom of Bahrain] (Feb. 14, 2002), art. 18, World Intellectual Property Organization website.)

Bahrain also acceded to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) on June 18, 2002. (CEDAW, Dec. 18, 1979, 1249 U.N.T.S. 13; CEDAW: Treaty Status (as of Oct. 25, 2017), United Nations Treaty Collection.) However, Bahrain maintains reservations to five separate provisions of CEDAW, stating it will implement the provisions only to the extent that they do not “[breach] the provisions of the Islamic Shariah.”  (CEDAW: Treaty Status, supra.)  One of these provisions (art. 9(2)) concerns equal rights with regard to nationality and includes a provision for women to pass on their citizenship to their children.  (The Legal Status of Women in Bahrain, supra, at 11.)  Regarding Bahrain’s reservations to article 2 of the Convention, which concerns, among other things, the adoption of “all appropriate measures, including legislation, to modify or abolish existing laws, regulations, customs and practices which constitute discrimination against women,” the CEDAW Committee has written that this article “is central to the objects and purpose of the Convention.”  (CEDAW, supra; Reservations to CEDAW, UN WOMEN (last visited Oct. 23, 2017).)

Humanitarian Granting of Nationality Has Not Resolved Legal Vacuum

According to the BHRWS, King Hamad Bin Eisa Al Khalifa granted Bahraini nationality to 3,525 children born to Bahraini mothers and foreign fathers between 2006 and 2014.  (Campaign Launched for Equal Citizenship Rights, GDN ONLINE (Oct. 5, 2017).) Moreover, in 2009, foreign wives of Bahraini nationals and children born to Bahraini mothers and foreign fathers received access to the same health and education services as Bahraini citizens and were exempted from fees related to residence permits. (New Hope for Children Born to Foreign Fathers in Bahrain, supra.)

However, women’s rights advocates believe that such humanitarian gestures do not go far enough in resolving what Shoura-Council (upper house of Parliament) member Sawsan Taqawi has described as the “legal vacuum” causing great suffering and legal and family problems for children of Bahraini mothers married to foreigners.  (Ruhab Ahmad, A Glimmer of Hope for Thousands of Bahrain’s Children, NEW ARAB (Sept. 18, 2014) (in Arabic).) Regarding what he calls the “outdated” citizenship rules, BHRWS Secretary General Faisal Fulad stated:

Bahraini citizens are entitled to greater benefits, such as government houses, housing loans, social assistance, voting rights and education priority rights. Denying citizenship to those whose mothers are Bahraini (but whose fathers are not) deprives them of these benefits and they are like foreigners in their own country, which is unfair.  (Campaign Launched for Equal Citizenship Rights, supra.)

The difficulties faced by such mothers and their children, who number in the thousands, extend beyond eligibility for government benefits into the legal and social realms. As an example, in one case, the son of a Bahraini mother and Turkish father who had lived in Bahrain all his life and had never been to Turkey faced compulsory military service in Turkey, and his mother reported that because of their citizenship status, her family was looked down upon in society and had even been subjected to extortion attempts. (A Glimmer of Hope for Thousands of Bahrain’s Children, supra.)

Moreover, a report by the Bahrain Center for Human Rights concludes that “[t]he slow implementation of CEDAW, and the failure to implement a law allowing women to pass on their Bahraini citizenship approved by the Bahraini cabinet in 2014 demonstrates the extreme reluctance of the Bahraini authorities to permit women to transmit their Bahraini citizenship to their children.” (The Legal Status of Women in Bahrain, supra, at 11.)

In response to such criticism, the parliamentary Foreign Affairs, Defence and National Security Committee of the Shoura claims the need to maintain “strict control” over the granting of citizenship and that “[e]quality is already achieved by giving children born to Bahraini mothers access to the same health, education and housing services provided to citizens. … Legislation in other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries – such as Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Saudi Arabia – follows the same legislative approach as Bahrain.” (New Hope for Children Born to Foreign Fathers in Bahrain, supra.)

Prospects for Amendment of the Law

The Bahraini Parliament was due to convene on October 8 following its summer recess, and the amendment was reportedly on the agenda for the coming term. (Campaign Launched for Equal Citizenship Rights, supra.)  However, fears that MPs could reject a change in the law were heightened in July when Foreign Affairs, Defence and National Security Committee member Jamal Buhassan stated he believed it would not get approved out of the need to “protect Bahraini women” and discourage them from marrying and having children with foreigners so as to “preserve the country’s demographics.” (Huge Support for Gender Equality in Bahrain’s Citizenship Law, supra.)