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As a new visitor to the Kingdom of Bahrain, it was difficult to judge which was the more surprising sight: the iconic London taxi, albeit in white livery, or the woman driver in the hijab at its wheel. Hadija, it turns out, is one of only 15 female taxi drivers in Bahrain. Her husband supports her unusual choice of career and she endures the professional driver's usual quandaries, such as passengers being unsure as to their correct destination.

As unexpected a sight as she may be in Bahrain, it is thrown into even greater contrast by the kingdom's proximity to Saudi Arabia — a mere 25 kilometres away — the profoundly socially conservative homeland of the Prophet Muhammad, where women are still not allowed to drive, let alone vote like their Bahraini neighbours.

In 1990, a convoy of 50 Saudi women who had learned to drive abroad drove through the centre of Riyadh in protest at the country's ban on women motorists. The Muttawa, Saudi Arabia's religious police, held an emergency meeting, presided over by Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Baz, whose previous rulings included the statement that the earth is flat and that the sun revolves around it, finally settled on a ruling that while technically the women had not broken the law of the Koran, which was written some years before the motor car was invented, they had offended the spirit of pious Islamic practice. 

Hadija laughs as she describes how Saudi women, once over the bridge connecting Saudi Arabia to Bahrain, elbow their husbands out of the driving seat to take command of the wheel.

So how good do women have it in Bahrain? The constitutional monarchy of Bahrain launched political, social and economic reforms after the succession of King Hamad in 1999. The National Action Charter of 2001 was endorsed, as Bahrainis are proud to tell you, by 98.4 per cent in a national referendum and included giving men and women equal rights in public and political affairs. A bicameral system was set up with one elected and one appointed chamber.

Women were granted the right to vote and stand in national elections for the first time in the 2002 election. Both that election and the following one in 2006 had hefty turnouts of 58 per cent and 70 per cent respectively. The turnout among women was higher than among men. Democracy in Bahrain is only eight years old and the results of this year's elections in November will be interesting.

The king's wife, Shaikha Sabika bint Ibrahim al-Khalifa, chairs the Supreme Council for Women, founded to empower women politically and economically and to elevate their social and legal status. It also trains female candidates to take part in a general election. 

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M Bahzad
May 22nd, 2011
1:05 AM
I wonder what will Katherine say after the mess that took place since Feb-14.  Religious parties had fueled the situation in Bahrain to take us back to 1979.  An unrest that  tried to revers the development wheel planted the sectarian seeds.  Bahraini women from all sects and religions used to hang out together in coffee shops, shop together, and basically share life together.  Lifetime friends became enemies.  They had a will harmonized lifestyle blend. The politico-religious wave divided the women based on their sects.  The sectarian movement of 14-Feb was able to hit the island in it's core strength.   However, as it is expected, Bahraini women jumped to the scene.  A group of female activist called "Women for Bahrain" stood in front of the sectarian wave bravely. This will diversified group had boots on the ground in addition to their cyber activities aiming to unite Bahrainis again.  I believe that the group has orchestrated socio-political in a responsible manner and they will exist in the political life even after cause disappear.  Bahrain is full with high caliber women and won't need odd voices like Mona Eltahawy or Maryam Alkhawaja

Steve Royston
August 24th, 2010
10:08 AM
Katherine's article is well written and reflects the reality I see as a resident of Bahrain, except in one important respect that was probably not of Katherine's making. The photo of the the two veiled women, and the caption stating that 85% of Bahraini women are veiled is both incorrect and misleading. In her article Katherine referred to women wearing the hijab, which is a garment which covers the hair, not the niqab, the name given in these parts to the veil which covers the face. The photo and caption puts a significantly different spin on the whole article. You can do better than this.

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