A woman wearing a T-shirt that reads ‘journalism is not a crime’ watches naval training exercises off the coast of Manama, Bahrain's capital, in 2016. (Mohammed al-Shaikh/AFP/Getty Images)

Bahrain Journalist Association Elects First-ever Woman President, But Gender Inequality Remains Rampant

Females working in media face tough conditions including widespread sexual harassment

The Bahrain Journalist Association (BJA) elected as its first-ever female president. Ahdeya Ahmed, deputy editor-in-chief of the English-language Daily Tribune, beat out challenger Yousuf Albinkhalil, editor-in-chief of the Al Watan paper, by only four ballots.

The vote was taken amid growing criticism of the Bahraini government’s perceived curtailing of press freedoms. Since the Arab Spring uprisings erupted in 2011, authorities in the kingdom have been accused of implementing restrictive policies—including clamping down on press freedom—to consolidate power.

The 2018 Global Gender Gap Index, which measures discrepancies between men and women in various sectors, ranked Bahrain 132nd overall in terms of gender equality. More specifically, the country placed 128th globally with respect to female participation in the workforce and 110th regarding representation by women in high-ranking government or private sector positions.

Though nearly half of the journalists working in traditional media in Bahrain are women, they are often denied the same opportunities as their male counterparts due in part to the mores of the conservative Sunni Muslim nation. For example, women are generally not permitted to work at night unless they receive written permission from their husbands, a requirement that impedes their ability to cover stories.

“Women journalists around the world must contend with a lack of access to male-dominated spaces,” Aya Majzoub, a Bahrain researcher at Human Rights Watch, told The Media Line. “They are also not taken seriously, whether by men in power or individual sources themselves.”

While Majzoub believes that the election of Ahmed is “a positive step” forward, it nevertheless is “insufficient and doesn’t make up for the fact that female journalists are often targeted and harassed.”

Indeed, the biggest issue women reporters must contend with is sexual harassment.

“I was sexually assaulted by male colleagues, sources and government figures, which made my life difficult,” a Bahraini journalist told The Media Line on condition of anonymity. Moreover, she explained, “officials in the Information Ministry would loudly disparage me when I reported on something they didn’t like.”

According to Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain, the kingdom lacks a credible association that protects journalists as the BJA has links to the government. Another issue is that local media outlets are not fully autonomous. In 2017, the last independent newspaper in the country, Al Wasat, was shut down, and existing outlets might hesitate to publish controversial content lest they be denied an operating license which must be renewed each year.

“In light of these restrictions, I was forced to write propaganda stories in the local media,” explained the anonymous Bahraini female journalist. “In general, we have no rights and are treated like construction workers. There is no freedom of expression, no good salaries and no health insurance or benefits.”

Sophie Anmuth, who works on the Middle East Desk at Reporters without Borders, told The Media Line that these circumstances are pervasive throughout the Middle East. “Many regional countries suffer from state repression of press freedom. Rape or threats of rape are often leveled against both male and female journalists,” she said.
 
(Tara Kavaler is an intern in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Studies)

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