On October 11, 2014, five opposition groups under the banner of National Democratic Opposition Parties (NDOP) announced they would boycott the November parliamentary elections in Bahrain. The boycotting groups include the Shiite Al-Wefaq, the largest oppositional political organization in Bahrain and the secular Al-Wa’ad. NDOP cited what it believes to be an unfair electoral system, in particular the malapportioned districts, as the motivation for the boycott, as well as the increasingly repressive domestic political context in which the elections will take place.
With major political societies staying away from the polls, an important question is not only what this may mean for the turnout of female candidates, but also how it will impact the quality of female representation in the Council of Representatives (the Bahraini Assembly’s lower house). Although the status of women has improved since Sheikh Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa’s ascension in 1999, women continue to face significant barriers in social, economic and, of course, political spheres. The diffusion of gender quotas elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa has created institutional incentives for political parties to promote female candidates. Although none of the Gulf countries has yet to adopt quotas, female candidates have experienced limited success in Kuwait and Bahrain, with some even directly elected to national legislatures. In 2006, Lateefa Al Gauod became the first female member elected to the Bahraini parliament as well as the first woman elected to a legislative assembly within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). She was also the only woman elected in 2010 to the Bahraini Council of Representatives; however, she prevailed in an uncontested district.
Until recently, the secular Al-Wa’ad was the only political organization to actively field a female candidate; during the 2006 and 2010 parliamentary elections, it supported the prominent secular activist Mounira Fakhro. This has since changed with the newly minted Al-Watan political organization fielding Lulwa Al-Mutlaq. The National Unity Assembly (NUA) — a consortium of Sunni Islamist political organizations — is also supporting Jehan Mohamed Hadi and Sima al-Lengawi, and the new political organization Al-Watan al Hurr is backing its creator, Layla Al-Rajab, in the 2014 elections. In the opposition, Al-Wefaq has been somewhat reticent to promote women as candidates for fear of losing valuable votes — it fears fielding multiple candidates in the same district would split the votes and inadvertently allow for rival candidates to win a district due to Bahrain’s majority runoff electoral system. Furthermore, some of Al-Wefaq’s most promising female politicians come from “political dynasties” and would be running in the same districts as their incumbent MP husbands.
Despite gains in education and the formal employment sector, potential female candidates continue to face significant obstacles. The inegalitarian attitudes toward female politicians in Bahrain make it difficult for women candidates to compete against men simply because of their gender. In this context, the reticence of political organizations to field female candidates makes strategic sense, especially given an electoral system already skewed against the opposition. Consequently, the NDOP boycott will likely have limited ramifications for women’s representation in the Council of Representatives since prior representation was largely due to women obtaining MP seats in by-elections after the resignation of all 18 Al-Wefaq MPs in 2011. One of the women elected, Sawsan Al-Taqawi — the first Shiite MP unaffiliated with Al-Wefaq — achieved her win only after all other candidates pulled out of the race in her governorate.
In fact, women across the political spectrum are not so much boycotting the elections as potentially being pressured to pull out as candidates to offer space to their sure-fire male counterparts. Rumors of female candidates pulling out of the November elections have been rife in the local media. Recently, the Gulf Daily News (GDN) reported that Fouzia Zainal was planning to pull out of the elections in the southern governorate, where her primary competitors are members of the Salafist Al-Asalah party. Zainal has been backed by the Sunni Islamist Al-Menbar political association in previous elections. Zainal commented to the GDN that she “learned there are rumors being spread on social media and through people about my decision not to contest, which is untrue. They are part of the dirty games that men are playing against me simply because I am a woman.” In addition, one of two NUA female candidates, Seema Al-Linghawi, has also allegedly been pressured by Al-Menbar to withdraw from running in her district in the northern governorate in favor of Mohammad Al-Ammadi, according to the GDN. However, it has not similarly pressured the other female NUA candidate, Jehan Mohammed, who is running in the southern governorate.
Whether out of strategic calculations or due to attitude towards women, the outcome is the same: female candidates often do not follow the party route to political office in Bahrain. Such political outcomes are in stark contrast to the trends exhibited in the rest of the Arab world as well as in other countries, where women’s success in running for political office has been largely due to political parties that promote them through party lists. This makes Bahrain an intriguing case to monitor trends in women’s political participation and representation with distinct implications for the process in countries that do not, nor intend to, host gender quotas.
 In Bahrain, political parties are referred to as political societies.
 Female independents running for office in the November 2014 elections: Ibtisam Higres (incumbent); Sumayah Abdulrahman Ali al-Jowder (incumbent); Dr. Wafa Omran Ajoor; Basimah al-Saleh; Fatimah Ibrahim al-Akram; Dr. Masoumah Hassan Abdulrahim; Zainab Abdulamir; Noora Abdullah Matouq; Rima Hassan Halal; Fatimah al-Asfour; Huda Mansour Radhi; Hannan Abdulaziz; Rua al-Haiki; Maryam al-Mahrous; Jamila al-Sammak; Faydh al-Sharqawi; Fawzia Zainal; Nawal Ahmed Saqer al-Dossary and Noora Bushehri
Gail Buttorff, Ph.D., is a contributing expert for the Baker Institute Women and Human Rights in the Middle East Program and an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Kansas. She currently teaches courses on Middle East and North African politics, Islam and politics, and quantitative research methods. Her research interests focus broadly on elections and opposition politics in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).
Bozena Welborne, Ph.D., is a contributing expert for the Baker Institute Women and Human Rights in the Middle East Program and an assistant professor at the University of Nevada, Reno. She currently teaches courses on Middle East politics, international political economy, comparative politics, global development and qualitative methods. Her current research focuses on the impact of Arab diaspora networks and foreign financial incentives on institutional reform, norms diffusion, and social change in the Middle East and North Africa.