Women in Protest: Bahraini and Omani Women in the Arab Spring

By Jessie Moritz
Submitted to Session P4063 (Gendered Spaces in the Arabian Peninsula, 2015 Annual Meeting
Pol Science
Arabian Peninsula;
LCD Projector without Audio;
Since 2011, Arab Gulf states have portrayed any instances of domestic unrest as male-dominated, externally driven, and violent, yet female citizens have been vocal participants in both opposition protests and loyalist rallies: Tawakkol Karman is a prominent example. This research questions why women have chosen to publicly oppose or support the state through a comparative study of Bahrain and Oman. It explores the individual decisions of women who joined demonstrations and their experiences in the public sphere, drawing from a series of over 90 semi-structured interviews conducted in 2013 and 2014 with Bahraini and Omani citizens, including human rights activists, protesters, civil society, and members of government.

With some exceptions, women have been largely absent from regional opposition demonstrations in Oman. Only in Muscat, where demands included better maternity leave and citizenship for children of Omani women, did women widely participate. Women who participated publicly in opposition faced both societal and state repression, including slander against their virtue, and the paper discusses how this has impacted the women involved. Most Omani women, however, eschewed opposition, instead opting to march in loyalist counter-demonstrations. Their support, the paper argues, is driven by the Omani regime’s state-sponsored feminism, even as the state marginalises female dissenters.

In Bahrain, women are a prominent feature of both opposition and loyalist rallies, and have long been active members of civil society. The regime, however, has capitalised on fears that the Bahraini opposition is Islamist and conservative, portraying it as determined to enforce a strict Shia interpretation of women’s rights. Simultaneously, private images of prominent activists have been circulated online, including women activists with their heads uncovered, and explicit footage of a human rights lawyer and his activist wife. Based on in-depth interviews with these individuals and with government officials, the paper argues the repressive state response to women’s participation in reform movements is driven by an intention to alienate Sunni and secular Bahraini women from opposition, yet has also hardened the resolve of existing activists.

Ultimately, the research finds that Omani and Bahraini women have participated actively in the public sphere during the Arab Spring, both through protest and demonstrations of loyalty to the state, challenging the states’ depiction of these incidents as predominantly male, violent, and externally driven.