North Africa, West Asia

Bahrain's uprising and its movement for radical change

Women and youth were at the forefront of Bahrain's uprising in February 2011, and are at the heart of the ensuing movement for radical change.

Abdulnabi Alekry
26 July 2016

'Peace' in Arabic and English, by Bahrain's Pearl Roundabout. Flickr/Al Jazeera English. Some rights reserved. Bahrain's uprising on 14 February 2011 introduced radical changes among both the political classes and the public at large. From the beginning and increasingly over time, high levels of participation from both Bahraini youth and women were noticeable on many different planes.

The role of Bahrain’s youth

The youth of Bahrain are routinely regarded by political institutions as well as social organisations as ingénues: they are seen as needing custodians, and  not trusted to make important decisions or undertake sensitive tasks. Despite rhetoric about the future promise of Bahrain’s youth, little action has been taken to engage or prepare them for these responsibilities.

However, those who amassed in Pearl Roundabout in 2011 as well as other demonstrations were predominantly Bahrain’s youth. Older community members, such as leaders of political and community-based organisations, were invited to speak at the various venues, however, the youth organised these activities and consituted the majority. 

The youth of Bahrain paid the highest price in real terms: dying as martyrs, being wounded, detained, prosecuted, sentenced, and losing their jobs.

The youth who took centre stage demonstrated a deft grasp of concepts and practices often taken forgranted by members of older generations. Consolidating the work of the February 14 movement for change, Bahraini youth worked innovatively to manifest the foundational ideas of the uprising through a great many channels of expression. They were frequently entrusted with vital tasks and positions of responsibility within numerous organistions of resistance. Moreover, during demonstrations, the youth of Bahrain paid the highest price in real terms: dying as martyrs, being wounded, detained, prosecuted, sentenced, and losing their jobs.

The role of women

Women have traditionally been marginalised in Bahraini society. This holds true even within the ranks of oppositional progressive organisations whether Islamist or secular. Women have often been relied upon as a power and voting base, but rarely respected enough as decision makers and figureheads within hierarchies.

Women’s participation in protests and demonstrations in Pearl Roundabout surpassed all expectations. There are estimates that 35 percent of participants were women, despite the traditional context whereby women are not encouraged to mix with men. More important was their unprecedented participation; women mounted the stage and addressed mixed publics as orators, lecturers, poets, chanters, organisers, and decision makers. 

For the first time in the history of Bahrain’s uprisings, women became martyrs, prisoners and detainees. Female activists and protesters were exposed to brutal treatment by security forces, torture in custody, harsh conditions in prison and kangaroo trials. Many were sexually abused. Some men, too, were threatened with rape, while others were threatened with the rape of their female family members, in order to extract confessions. These ordeals were even documented in some cases by TV crews, and footage entailing confessions was screened on Bahraini TV. Certain scenes were also used as part of the propaganda designed to demonise protesters in the uprising.

Many brave women took the risk of entering public space in a tradiotinal male dominated society. Their new value for political sacrifice over-ruled the taboo of tarnishing female honour. Female martyrs, having been wounded, detained and sentenced were celebrated equally, contrary to previous norms. The young poet, Ayat Alqormzi, who was detained, tortured, tried and imprisoned, is the icon of the Bahraini uprising.

Despite living in a state of dread during the imposed State of Emergency, women dared to protest and bear the brunt of this repression. 

Marking a sudden shift, the leading Islamic opposition group, Alwefaq, put many women forward during its conference in March 2012. Five women, out of fifteen total positions, were elected to its highest level of command, the Alshura Council. The conference also decided to put women on its electoral list, should it decide to engage in elections, which also marked a decisive change from the previous electoral list of 2010, on which there were no women candidates. The leading secular opposition group, Waad, elected Dr. Monera Fakhro, a woman, to preside over its central committee for the first time. 


Many expectations turned out to have been misplaced during the uprising , including the following: 

1. That the uprising must have required organisation, when in fact the uprising was sparked spontaneously.

2. That the uprising had to be led by well-known political leaders, when in the end it was led by anonymous members of Bahrain’s youth.

3. That the uprising required a detailed program to take off, when in fact the uprising was flared simply by a slogan – and its detailed program followed.

4. That the uprising would require agreement among political forces, when in reality it started without consultation among opposition groups (though as time went on, leading members of some youth organisations engaged in dialogue with opposition forces).

5. That women and youth would take a backseat in the movement, but – when it came to it – they were at the forefront of the uprising and wider movement.

6. That written statements and documents would constitute the major means of expression, when, during the uprising, different means of expression and communication were instrumental, and ranged from electronic modes of communication (Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp,) to acting, painting, cartoon, poetry and so forth. In an effort to overcome state monopoly of the media, which includes press, TV and radio, the uprising made use of alternative media. Today's opposition groups use satellite station Al-Lulla (The Pearl), its name reminiscent of The Pearl Roundabout, as well as the electronic journal Mirat al-Bahrain (The Bahrain Mirror).

8. In response to the government’s infiltration of major social organisations, from medics to lawyers, journalists, and writers, and its scrutiny of independent civil society organisations, dissidents established non-licensed organisations without stated intentions, and used electronic means, such as the PEN Association, the Medics Committee, the Bahraini Journalists Association and Bahrain Human Center for Rights. These are very active inside and outside the country, and enjoy the recognition and support of international partners and actors.

9. As in any traditional 'rentier state', Bahrain’s population is very dependent on the state in order to survive. But in the face of mass levied penalties upon the country’s Shia majority, including economic strangulation, Bahraini society in the end resorted to practises of self-dependence and solidarity. Many small projects emerged as a result that can no longer be ignored; and – contrary to the expectations of those in authority, they would succeed in controlling society and weakening the opposition, forcing it to surrender – both society itself, and the forces of resistance, have emerged from their respective ordeals stronger than ever, more united, and determined not to return to life before 14 February 2011.

A stronger society

These events defied the odds.

In the after-evalutaion of the Arab Spring, much emphasis has been placed on the political contestants themselves (Islamists, secularists, conservatives, radicals, and so on), but the dramatic changes that have taken root have been changes in mental concepts.

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