Bahrain: Defend members of the Committee of Women’s Memorandum

Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML) strongly urges you to take action in support of the members of the Committee of Women’s Memorandum (Bahrain), other Bahraini intellectuals, and defenders of human and women’s rights.
Eleven shari’a judges have filed a case accusing them of contempt of court and slander following a newspaper article in which they voiced concerns regarding women’s rights under uncodified family laws in Bahrain. The legal action is a reversal of the political and constitutional reforms currently taking place in Bahrain, and is an attempt to prevent the establishment of political, social and civil rights for Bahraini women.

The case will be heard on 23 September 2003. It is therefore vital that you respond immediately to this urgent call for action.
Committee of Women’s Memorandum (CWM)

This is a group of Bahraini women bringing together those who have been affected by shari’a court decisions. The Committee was formed in 2001 with the aim of bringing about positive changes in the shari’a jurisdiction in Bahrain. The Committee has submitted a proposal for legal reform to the Bahraini authorities. Among its demands, the Committee urged the authorities to codify family law in Bahrain.

The Committee initiated a constructive debate on the shari’a court in Bahrain and raised the need for positive changes in these courts. It did so by organizing vigils, following court cases and decisions, writing about court decisions in the newspapers, providing support to women who appealed to the shari’a court. A number of shari’a judges felt threatened by the Committee’s activities and by the public support they gained. The judges acted to silence the Committee’s voices by defaming its members, claiming that they were ‘licentious and dissolute women acting against Islam’. As a result, members of the Committee approached the civil court against one of the shari’a judges, demanding a public apology and compensation for slander.

Meanwhile, Ms. Badreya Rabe’a, the CWM member who had filed the case against the judge, had an appeal in court regarding a custody case filed by her former husband. According to CWM, after the civil court case was filed against the judge, Badreya’s case was transferred from the Court of First Instance to the shari’a High Court to be heard by the very same judge against whom she had filed the civil court case. Badreya subsequently argued that the High Court could not rule in custody cases according to the shari’a law procedure, which states that these issues must be dealt with in the Court of First Instance. She further argued that the High Court judge could not hear her case since she had filed a civil case against him in the civil court. However, the shari’a High Court issued a decision in favour of Badreya’s husband, depriving her of right to custody of her children as guaranteed under Muslim laws and as normally applied in the shari’a court, and instead giving custody to her ex-husband’s mother.

Following the court decision, Badreya decided to start a hunger strike in front of the Ministry of Justice. CWM members supported Badreya in her case and voiced their concern about the court’s decision in an article published in Akh’bar alkh’aleej newspaper (Gulf News). CWM members and their supporters questioned whether the High Court had jurisdiction to rule in her case, and questioned the validity of the evidence used in the court to deprive her of the custody of her children. They argued that the decision is a violation of her ‘shar’ie rights’, as according to the Maliki School of thought in Muslim jurisprudence, even when a woman is deprived of her children’s custody, custody should not be given to the husband’s mother but to the wife’s mother. They further raised their concerns about the absence of a codified family law in Bahrain and emphasized the need for such a law.

Following this, the eleven shari’a judges filed a case against the people who expressed their opinion in the newspaper article accusing them of contempt of court and slander.

The CMW and their fellow defendants have gained great public support in Bahrain. The Journalist Association, the Lawyers’ Association, Human Rights groups and ordinary Bahraini people have expressed their support and solidarity. They all view the court case as a violation of freedom of expression and the freedom of the press, as a reversal of the current reforms taking place in Bahrain and as a way of threatening women who are struggling for their rights and an attempt to silence their voices.