By William Fisher
Since the beginning of the Arab Spring – starting with the unrest in Tunisia in early January – questions have been raised about the role of women in the uprisings across North Africa and the Middle East.
Photography of demonstrations in Egypt’s Tahrir Square reveals the presence of women of all ages. The same appears to be true in other parts of Egypt, and in Tunisia, Syria, and Bahrain.
The Bahrain Center for Human Rights has catalogued the role of women in the demonstrations in that country and the often brutal actions taken by security forces to force them from the streets.
The Center says, “Bahraini women are paying dearly for expressing their views.”
The organization says that dozens of Bahraini women “are being detained in prison facing torture and humiliation for participating in peaceful protests. The government is killing, detaining, physically and verbally abusing and dismissing women from work and education.”
In a statement, the Center says it “strongly condemns the ongoing crackdown against the peaceful protesters in Bahrain, specially the repression and detention of a great number of Bahraini women such as political and social activists, doctors, teachers, housewives as well as school and university students. These women are facing torture as well as physical and verbal abuses that leads to death in some cases; in addition to the dismissal from work and education.”
The Center says it believes these actions are “a vengeance against Bahraini women for the key role they played since the beginning of the protests; a way to force them giving up that role and retreat any activity they had in the protesting movement since last February. It is also a way to add pressure on the opposition to retreat their legitimate demands.”
Since the early days of the Bahraini revolution on February 14th, 2011, Bahraini women participated as an active and influential entity in the protests, the Center says, adding, “They advanced in great numbers on the front lines of the peaceful protests and expressed their opinion by demanding their political and human rights, giving speeches and reciting poetry. Their presence in the Pearl Square -The symbol of Bahrain’s revolution- was significant in taking up management roles, rescuing those injured by the excessive force used by Bahraini security forces; as well as documenting the brutalities committed against protesters and speaking to various media outlets.”
The crackdown reached its peak with the arrest of unprecedented numbers of women in the history of Bahrain (over 100 women during less than two months), as well as the direct shooting of a woman by a sniper in Bahrain’s army, the Center declares.
“Since the beginning of the protests last February, government forces faced peaceful protesters, including women, with excessive violence.” The Center says the forces shot tear gas and rubber bullets directly towards the women leading to fainting, wounds and injuries. “Even in their homes and living areas, women are not safe from being targeted by the security forces.”
The Center compiled a catalogue of actions committed by government security forces. For example:
A woman in her sixties was admitted to the Military Hospital after being shot by riot police causing fracture of the skull and tumescence in the eye. Reports indicate that she was standing in front of her house door, when she was unexpectedly shot by riot police, who were trying to disperse a protest organized by the residents during the afternoon.
A woman was hit by a shotgun pellet in her eye and forehead. She said she was in her house on the top floor when the security forces and protesters clashed in the street, and the riot police tried dispersing the protesters and shot her.
Female doctors and nurses who treated the wounded and injured were also subjected to physical attacks. On March 14, 2011, “thugs” backed by civilian militias under the command of Bahraini security forces physically attacked the nurses in the University of Bahrain and abused them verbally.
Two female doctors were threatened to death with a knife ; one of them was Dr. Alaa Al-Safaar. On March 15, 2011, Dr. Haneen Al-Bosta was a victim of physical attack while she was treating injured protesters who were attacked by security forces in Sitra. An officer in the security forces slapped her on the face, kicked her and forced her to crawl in the street, as a punishment for treating the injured.
At least one woman was intentionally killed. On, the day the Pearl Square was forcefully cleared of protesters by the army and security forces, Bahiya Abdul Rasool Al-Aradi, 51, lost her life when a bullet hit the front of her head. Instead of investigating her death, the government tried forcing her family to sign the death certificate, which stated “car accident” as cause of death. Her family refused to sign.
Since the announcement of Martial law -state of emergency- on March 15th, national security forces have launched aggressive raids arresting women who were suspected of having participated in the protests or strikes,expressed their support, or helped protesters by offering them medical treatment.
The attacks were specially targeted against teachers, university students, doctors, paramedics and even housewives. Their homes and workplaces were raided during the early hours of dawn. Moreover, some intermediate and secondary girls’ schools were raided leading to arrests a number of pupils under the age of 18. Other women were arrested at check points, where protest pictures or forwarded messages related to the protests were found on their mobile phones.
The Center reports that at least 100 women have been arrested in less than two months since March 15th and 30 of them are still in custody. It is believed that the total number of arrests is much higher than this number given the pace at which the daily detentions take place under a media blackout and fear or embarrassment of most families to report the arrest of their daughters. It is also believed that a large number of women are being detained on a daily basis to be interrogated for hours or days before being released.
The ages of the female detainees who remain in prison are between 16 to 51 years old. These arrests often happen after midnight, in the absence of female police. Security forces break the house doors and locks and threaten family members so they hand over their daughter if the troops don't find her.
This is what happened to the family of Ayat Qurmuzi, 20, a student and poet, whose parents were threatened to witness the killing of all their children there and then if they refused to disclose the whereabouts of Ayat. To add to the emotional pressure on the family of the detainee, the authorities denied later the arrest of Ayat after taking her from her home.
In some cases, teachers were arrested from their classrooms in front of their pupils while teaching. Some of the arrested teachers, who were interrogated and then released, confirmed that they were subjected to severe beatings by male interrogators in the detention centers. Some of them said they were blindfolded from the moment of their arrest and throughout the interrogation and had to face the wall while being beaten.
A student who was arrested and released two days later said “she was severely beaten and was made to choose between insulting religious symbols and being raped”.
Also, according to information received by the center, most of the detainees were beaten during their interrogation. They were slapped on the face and beaten on the back and neck leaving marks that were visible even after their release.
The Center says it observed at least one case of a woman and mother of an infant, who was repeatedly detained in Hamad Town police station for refusing to have sex with security personnel in the detention center.
The center was also informed that the poet Ayat Qurmuzi has been subjected to severe torture in order to force her to confess, in front of cameras, of things she has not committed. This is a habitude Bahraini regime has observed since the events of the nineties and was repeated in 2008 when confessions of tortured detainees were filmed and officially aired on national television.
Many women physicians and nurses have been arrested in the hospitals where they work to prevent them from treating patients injured in the demonstrations and later testifying about the nature of their wounds.