Abbot Inkwell, Commentary

Gender-based Control in Bahraini Culture

By Huda Abudulrasool ’22

Illustrated by Kiran Ramratnam ’22

What I will discuss below is not, of course, representative of every Bahraini girl’s experience. 

I come from a conservative and religious community, the Baharna, residing in the northern villages of Bahrain. My community makes up around 25% of the national population. My peers, our families and I all attend the same religious gatherings, celebrate the same holidays, and share a common heritage. We go to neighboring schools where most students and teachers are from the same 15 or so villages. Social ties exist between nearly everyone; if you don’t know someone, you probably know someone else who does. However, girls’ experiences vary widely from village to village and from home to home. Every set of parents chooses which traditions to uphold and which to forgo depending on societal pressure and personal beliefs. My discussion of the experiences of Bahrani girls below reflects the broad social conventions and stigmas around gender in my community and in the Persian Gulf region.

When I was five, I declared to my cousins that I was a boy. Not because I was uncomfortable with my assigned gender, but because I wanted to be treated like one. I preferred superheroes and cars over Barbies and dollhouses, and I wanted to be a part of “the boys.” I yearned for the freedom of being a boy. Starting from this young age, I have been  aware of the gender structures existing in my culture. Stigma and control over the exact same things varies wildly depending on gender. Girls are considered more responsible and mature at a younger age, yet more restrictions are placed upon them. Conservatism alone cannot explain the double standards. This all points to one key idea: society and culture are simply much more comfortable and willing to control girls.

In the process of writing this article, I asked my friends about their own experiences. Every one of them shared my experience of wishing to have been born a boy. My friend Zahraa furiously hated boys from ages 9 to 14 because of the freedoms they were given. The time period is no coincidence. Age 9 usually marks the end of childhood equality and the start of gender distinction. Boys and girls are segregated. Girls start hearing “because you’re a girl” much more often in response to things they are forbidden to do. Boys are free to come home in the middle of the night after going out while girls—their sisters—usually have much stricter curfews if they’re even allowed to go out freely. My friend Mariam gained going out privileges at 18; her brother got them in the 5th grade. I must seek permission from my father when I want to hang out with my friends; my brother never gets in trouble when he doesn’t. Even in the rare instances when parents admit the illogical nature of this justification, they bow to the pressure of upholding societal norms. “What will people say?” has become a classic phrase used to dismiss all reason.

Mixed-sex environments are traditionally frowned upon for religious and traditional reasons. In environments where this rule is broken, a man’s presence is much more tolerated despite being viewed as having stronger sexual desires. Women in my community are told to leave space for men, to not make men or society uncomfortable by their presence. They should dress modestly, not attract attention nor be in the eye of the public. They should keep their voices low and avoid mostly male environments. This, coupled with the fact that public schools are sex-segregated while private schools are usually not, results in many stories similar to my friend Jasmine’s. Her parents pulled her out of private school, but they let her brother stay because he was a boy. She was supposed to be stronger and handle the transition to public school but now has fewer opportunities as a result. His education is simply better. Similarly, Zahraa’s father forbade her from pursuing her dream major because it is male-dominated. Jasmine’s parents discouraged her from majoring in computer science, and Mariam’s friends and relatives told her she shouldn’t go into electronics engineering for the same reason. Those fields are “not suitable for women.” A woman in a STEM field would immediately be thought incompetent by her male co-workers. Not to mention, it would be “inappropriate.”

High-pressure, male-dominated fields also leave less time for marriage and babies, a particular favorite for judgments and gossip. Of course, it is more than just gossip. It is a tool to control women and what they choose to do, to belittle their dreams, and pressure them into upholding the status quo. The moment a girl diverges from expectations or the timeline society has set, she and her family face backlash. Her choices and actions are used to measure her family’s piety and honor. “How could her family let her do that? Aren’t they religious?” But when a boy does the same, it’s seen as him simply lashing out on his own. This is a great motivation for parents to be stricter with girls and to uphold the traditions which are already more stringent for them. 

All these norms are rooted in tradition, religion, and social convention. Sexist beliefs are systematically taught, enforced, and inherited from one generation to the next. Women themselves enforce them: mothers are as likely as fathers to restrict their daughters, if not more so. Speaking out and challenging these notions requires a lot of courage—which there is no shortage of in Bahraini women. Numerous activists have spoken out and made their voices heard. Many women have followed their lead, fearlessly sharing their experiences with sexual assault, gender-based violence and control, and demanding the law (both social and legal) be changed. Threads they made on Twitter have gone viral with fierce support and attacks. Favorite rebuttals include: “these are private matters and you shouldn’t publicly discuss them” and shaming victims for sharing their stories. Sheikhs (religious leaders) have taken to preaching about the dangers of  “unconstrained equality” and the “hidden agenda” of feminism (wanting women to renounce Islam, rebel, and sleep around) to the masses. Almost every sheikh gave a sermon about gender roles and feminism in Muharram 2020 (a 10-day religious event for Shia Muslims with sermons every night). A stark uptake from years prior, it reflects the increasing relevance—and threat—of the topic.

Despite the wistful wishes of sheikhs and traditionalists, the march of progress continues. The norms around women’s modesty, education, and freedom have dramatically shifted in the last decade. Increasing numbers of young people are embracing feminism and rejecting outdated traditions that control women. There is every reason to think this trend will continue, and I long for a future where girls are as free as boys, tradition be damned. 

Names have been changed for privacy purposes.