Gender Discrimination in Citizenship Rights
MANAMA, Sep 17 (IPS) - There is inequality in citizenship laws for women and men in the Gulf Arab states.
Here in Bahrain, women who marry foreigners cannot obtain citizenship for their husbands or children. But men can apply for citizenship for their foreign wives after five years of marriage, while their children are nationals from birth.
In fact, citizenship laws are roughly similar in all the Gulf states, except in Saudi Arabia, where a small change was made in the law in 2007. Sons of citizen mothers and foreign fathers qualify for citizenship when they turn 18. The daughters, however, can become nationals only if they marry Saudis.
The discrimination in citizenship laws means there are "stateless" children in the Gulf. Bahrain has roughly 2,000. Kuwait 8,000, and the United Arab Emirates 14,000, according to its Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour. As non-nationals, they cannot claim any of the generous social welfare measures legislated by Gulf governments for their citizens.
Recently, Bahrain extended the waiver on all government fees - for health services, visas, public schools etc. - for nationals to both stateless children and to children whose mothers are nationals and they are citizens of their father's country.
Activist Dr Wajiha Al Bahrana thinks little of the compromise concession. "Giving privileges to children of Bahraini mothers isn’t enough," she says. "They need to be treated like citizens for the country to meet its international obligations (read CEDAW)."
Bahrain is a signatory of the 1979 U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, more commonly referred to as CEDAW.
In 2002 the Gulf kingdom ratified the convention with "reservations". This was chiefly the nationality clause, Article 9, which holds state signatories responsible for granting women equal rights with men to acquire, change or retain their nationality as well as the right of women to pass their nationality on to their children and husbands.
What we want is the "urgent amendment of Article 4 of (Bahrain’s) 1963 citizenship law," says Al Bahrana.
Bahraini businesswoman, Suhaila Habib Awaji, who is married to a German national, is fighting for Bahraini passports for her three children. "It is my right to pass on my nationality to my children," she told IPS. "I feel humiliated whenever I (go to) renew their visas. My country treats my babies as outsiders," she laments.
Civil society groups in neighbouring Kuwait have been fighting for citizenship equality since 1993, says activist Wafa Al Jassim.
"The problem in Kuwait is bigger with thousands of stateless individuals (Bidon), who have been living here for decades without being recognised as citizens," she explains. Activists in Kuwait have roped in lawmakers, regional and international human rights organisations to lobby for equal rights to citizenship for women and men.
Al Jassim spoke of cases of "happily married couples" parting ways so their children could claim citizenship. Kuwaiti law grants citizenship to children of national women who are widowed or divorced. The Kuwaiti activist had participated in a regional conference in Manama last year to discuss the discrimination in regional nationality laws.
The discrimination is layered, according to Kuwaiti columnist Hassan Ali Karam, writing in Al Wattan newspaper in July. Kuwaiti women married to non-Gulf Arabs face less prejudice than those who marry other foreigners. The children in the former category find it easier to get jobs and admission in educational institutions. Kuwaiti women from the latter section are made to feel that they are "second class citizens", Karam points out.
In the UAE, children of national mothers and foreign fathers have a few privileges like the legal right to residence, employment and government services like free health and education. Not in Bahrain, however. Here, mothers struggle to secure resident permits for their family members, and dread their children reaching the age of 18 when they have to leave Bahrain unless they are students or employed.
Majeed Mohammad is an Iranian national married to a Bahraini. They have seven children. "I had to pay a total of 840 BD (2,100 dollars) to renew their two-year resident permits," he told IPS.
An exasperated Mohammad has suggested to his wife that the family moves to Iran. But his wife has refused, he says. "I cannot force her to leave her country; it feels like mine too. I have been living in Bahrain for 20 years, but my children deserve to live in a place that makes them feel at home," he adds.
Lawyer Hassan Ali Ismaeel describes the anti-woman nationality law as unconstitutional. Article 18 states: "People are equal in human dignity, and citizens are equal before the law in public rights and duties. There shall be no discrimination among them on the basis of sex, origin, language, religion or creed."
Citizenship inequality has been particularly cruel in the case of Sabah Isa Ibrahim. She was abandoned by her Saudi husband when she was pregnant with her second child. The children are now in their thirties, and neither has a nationality document.
"I failed to track my husband down to be able to get Saudi passports for my children. The result has been disastrous," she says. Her elder son turned to crime, while her younger son who has a hearing problem "cannot claim any of the benefits Bahrain gives its citizens with special needs," she says. Across the Gulf, women want equal rights to citizenship.