Middle East

08.19.134:45 AM ET

Lifting the Veil With Souad Mekhennet: Bahrain’s Iron Lady

Souad Mekhennet talks to Sameera Rajab about the protest movement roiling Bahrain’s politics and Arab Spring fatigue.

Sameera Rajab is everything in person that you wouldn’t expect from an official government spokesperson in a Gulf country: she’s a woman, a mother of three girls, a Shiite, and the first cousin of Nabeel Rajab, one of the main opposition leaders against the system that she represents.

"He is my cousin from my mother’s and father’s side; that is very close," she says.

The last few days have been among the most challenging for Rajab. This week, in a PR nightmare for the Bahraini government, an American citizen who had worked officially as an early childhood teacher in Bahrain was caught working illegally as a journalist for outlets that belong to Hezbollah, which is considered a terrorist organization by the state. Security authorities said they had also found a Hezbollah flag hanging in the woman’s apartment. She was asked to leave the country.

Then, on Wednesday, different organizations both inside and outside of Bahrain had planned a wave of protests, following the example of the "tamarud" movement in Egypt. “I have spent from early morning until late night in the office, answering phone calls nonstop,” Rajab said with a tired voice.

The day passed without major incidents, small gatherings here and there. This was a major relief to concerned parties in and out of the country. “We were worried that we would see a lot of violence from the protesters’ side and an escalation in Bahrain,” a U.S. security official said, speaking under the condition of anonymity.

Rajab had an explanation for the small numbers of protesters. “I think the people are tired. They see that the “Arab Spring” has only brought chaos in the Middle East,” she said. “The only way for all the parties is through dialogue.”

Rajab speaks with a strong voice, making sure that each word is pronounced carefully, as if she wants to make sure the listener understands her. She wears her shoulder-length brown hair uncovered, doesn’t like to wear makeup or high heels, and likes to drive herself, as many women do in Bahrain.

She is not much of a diplomat—more a woman of clear words, which is why her supporters call her a “genius” or “strong character,” while critics call her “crazy” and “stubborn.”

Once a journalist, Rajab was appointed by the king to become a member of the Shura Council, the consultative body of the National Assembly until she was appointed as the government spokesperson and minister of State for Information Affairs last year.

Her new task is to reform the media in Bahrain. "I know what it is to be a journalist. I know what the challenges are but also what the ground rule of fairness and ethics should be," she said during a meeting in her office.

A former colleague of hers, who asked not to be named, said Rajab is not afraid to pick fights in order to convey her opinion. “Sameera is like an iron lady. She has no issues to fight for her beliefs and principles and will not change them for anybody.”

Rajab was born in 1954; her father died while she was a teen. After finishing schooling in Bahrain, she studied economics in Beirut for three and a half years. “These were wonderful years,” she said smiling. It was then when she met her husband, who is a Sunni and a member of Bahrain’s al Khalifa ruling family. Usually members of al Khalifa marry their cousins. “It was not easy for him, but it was love between us and still is love,” she said.

Then she stopped for a moment as if she had told a secret. “Usually I don’t like to talk much about myself. I like my privacy,” she said looking at her hands as if she was ashamed.

About the same time, Rajab started to be interested in leftist national movements, which is also why some critics call her “the Baathist.” She did not participate in active politics back then, she said, but became a follower of the nationalist movement.

From 2000 on she has worked as a columnist in the Bahraini newspaper Akhbar al Khaleej, where she once raised the question of whether former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was of Jewish descent. Iran protested and the paper was banned for one day “after we had published the article,” she said smiling, “so we still were able to have our freedom of speech and press.”

How about the freedom of speech in Bahrain today? Wasn’t her cousin Nabeel Rajab in jail because of that?

“No, no, nobody is in jail because of freedom of speech, also not my cousin,” she said. “He is not a human rights activist, he is a political activist with the agenda to create an Islamic state in Bahrain.”

International human rights organizations had protested against the sentence, saying that Nabeel, who was the founder of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, had been jailed for using his right of freedom of speech. Nabeel had been sentenced to three years in jail last August for tweeting comments that authorities said were insulting to the mainly Sunni population of a certain village and could have therefore created tensions.

“He is my cousin, but we are very different,” Rajab said.

She never felt discriminated in any way in Bahrain, she said. “I am a woman, Arabic, Shiite, and from the biggest and oldest Shiite families in Bahrain.”

Even though she is Shiite, her biggest critics are members of the protest movements. “She is for us not a real Shiite. She is working for this regime and also has attacked some of our clerics in her speeches,” said a 24-year-old protester in the village of Jidhafs, who said his name was Ali. His friend, who said his name was Hamza, added, “Anybody working for this regime, Shiite or not, is against us.”

Rajab is aware that she is a target. She has been attacked verbally many times, and once a Molotov cocktail was thrown at her house. “Don’t you think this shows a lot about this movement here in Bahrain, who claim that there aren’t enough Shiites in key positions but actually what they want is only people who think like them,” she said sipping at her cup of green tea.

She is a strong critic of the main opposition party, al-Wefaq, and its partners, accusing them of discrimination against Sunnis and Shiites. “They say that there has to be quotas of Shiites in certain positions. Imagine you would be asked to put quotas of Catholics, Jews, or Protestants in the U.S. or in Europe? In what country do you have that?” Rajab asked, clearly upset.

Al-Wefaq National Islamic Society is the largest group within the different, mainly Shiite-led, protest movements in Bahrain.

“What we want is a fair share of power, a better distribution of wealth and a change of voting system,” said Abdeljalil Khalil of al-Wefaq. With 18 seats, they had been the largest society in the Bahraini government before they pulled out in February 2011 after a government crackdown against protesters. Many activists were arrested.

“I am not saying that everything that has happened in Bahrain is right. Mistakes were made,” Rajab said, “but we are willing to work on them, unlike other countries who have even worse track records in human right violations than us, even in the West.”

She doesn’t hide how upset she is with the Western media and human rights organizations who would not “do their job” and look at the facts about al-Wefaq. “They were the ones who voted against the right of Shiite women to get a divorce, even when she lives in an abusive marriage. Do you call this democracy or human rights?” she asked.

When asked whether the society had changed its ideas regarding family law, Khalil said al-Wefaq would have to discuss and rethink certain themes again. “But first we need to have results from the dialogue,” he said. Al-Wefaq and other political groups that took part in the protests have been in a dialogue with other political institutions and the government for months.

Khalil said that it would be important to show some results. “The patience of many people, especially the youth is running out.”

Wouldn’t it be helpful to have somebody like Rajab as a mediator?

Khalil rolls his eyes, “Sameera? Oh my God, no. She is a troublemaker and doesn't like any group with a religious background and is a difficult character.”

Rajab admits that she believes religion should not play a role in politics and is every person’s private business. She said under al-Wefaq, a woman like her would never be considered for a government post. “It is not about being Shiite, it is about being Shiite they way they define it.”

To contact the author about her columns, please email [email protected]. For previous installments of "Lifting the Veil," click here.