Ghada Jamsheer, the head of the Women’s Petition Committee (WPC) in Bahrain, faces three trials for slander this month as a result of her involvement in family law cases and her criticisms of Bahrain’s sharia judges. There are two sharia systems in Bahrain, one for Sunni Muslims and one for Shia Muslims, and both courts hear family law cases such as divorce, custody and inheritance and make decisions according to interpretations of Islamic law. There are no codified family laws.
Human Rights Watch reports in its statement that the WPC has documented many cases in which judges ruled capriciously, as when women are denied custody of their children because they either work or attend school. In 2003, the WPC collected 1700 signatures in favor of codifying family law, and while the Bahraini government has promised to codify law granting divorced women custody of their children, no action has been taken.
The cases against Jamsheer come from the former husband of a woman championed by the WPC and from several judges, claiming she committed libel by referring to the sharia judges as “corrupt, biased and unqualified,” and calling one particular judge “rude and unfair,” reports Agence France Presse. Her first case begins tomorrow, with others later this month. If convicted, she faces up to 15 years in prison, but Jamsheer tells the Gulf Daily News “I’m prepared to go to jail if I have to in order to fight for the rights of women.”
Human Rights Watch has demanded that Bahrain drop these charges, and eliminate its criminal penalties for slander that does not involve a call to violence. LaShawn R. Jefferson, Women’s Rights Director at Human Rights Watch, states that “Ghada Jamsheer is being punished for exposing the injustice that women face in the courtroom. These laws are a blatant attempt to silence her and undermine the reform efforts she spearheads.” The Arab Programme for Human Rights Activists has also demanded the retraction of the charges against Jamsheer.