This article argues that an important debate about improving the family law in Bahrain was derailed over issues of identity politics that had little to do with the law's content. Efforts made by the government in 2004–9 to codify Bahrain's family law stalled in the face of strong opposition from much of the country's Shia community, including many women, who were ostensibly to be the beneficiaries of a codified law. The article analyses the ways in which the family law was exploited as a symbolic issue in a wider struggle for political authority and representation in Bahrain. In particular, it seeks to explain why many Shia women themselves opposed the law, in solidarity with a perceived community of Bahraini Shia, an identity that appeared to trump the appeal of a perceived community of Bahraini women. The nuances of the debate are not well understood; much of the arguments were over who should have the right to define and approve the law. Importantly, Bahrain's clerics argued that the portions of the law applying to Shia should be legitimised by Shia religious leaders in Iran and Iraq, a sensitive issue that touched a nerve in government circles, given longstanding government suspicions that Shia loyalties to religious leaders in Iran and Iraq would also compromise Shia political loyalties to the state of Bahrain. For both parties — government and clerics — the content of the law, and the rights of women, became a secondary concern compared with this debate over power and authority. They employed various strategies to “frame” the debate and to mobilise support behind them, which are described in detail in the paper. Overall, the furore over the family law, and the use of identity politics in the power struggle between the Sunni-dominated government and the Shia clerics, has contributed to further political polarisation between sectarian groups in Bahrain, while leaving genuine problems over women's rights unresolved.
Jane Kinninmont (2011): Framing the Family Law: A Case Study of Bahrain's
Identity Politics, Journal of Arabian Studies, 1:1, 53-68