Education Under Attack In Bahrain

Our guest author today is Jalila Al-Salman, a Bahraini teacher and vice president of the Bahrain Teachers' Association (BTA). A leader in the Bahraini uprisings of Arab Spring, she was arrested, held in prison under abusive conditions, tortured and sentenced to three years in prison. Released late in 2012, Ms. Al-Salman continues to advocate for a peaceful, democratic transition in Bahrain.

Since the outbreak of protests in Bahrain in February 2011, people there have faced varied and numerous forms of oppression by the Government of Bahrain. Peaceful protesters have been arrested and beaten, detainees have been tortured, public and private sector employees have been wrongfully terminated from their positions for participating in protests, and over 100 people have been killed.

Shortly after the uprising began, the Bahrain Teachers’ Association (BTA), of which I am the vice president, participated in a three-day strike from February 20 to 23. Up until then, we had been escalating our calls for improvements to the education system, so it seemed like an appropriate time to make our voices heard. In addition to calls for political reform, educators expressed frustration with the Bahrain government’s policy of hiring foreign educators from Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan and Saudi Arabia - a practice that limits opportunities for domestic educators to teach in Bahrain’s schools. Following the strike, an estimated 9,000 teachers marched to the Pearl Roundabout, a traffic circle in the heart of Manama that served as the epicenter of the 2011 protests. It was the largest protest by educators in Bahrain’s history.

The Ministry of Education took little time to respond to the peaceful demonstration. During the strike, the government hired “volunteer” teachers to serve as substitutes. When teachers returned to their schools on February 24, they were barred from entering their classrooms, and were instead forced to train the volunteer teachers who would replace them.

Students were also affected by the increasing tensions within Bahrain. In March 2011, the BTA issued a statement expressing its concern that school principals were agitating students against teachers who had participated in the strike, resulting in an insecure environment for students and teachers alike. Discrimination and violence soon began to be perpetrated against students at several schools. In some cases, principals permitted students who were loyal to the royal family to attend pro-government rallies, while students who asked to attend opposition rallies were either not permitted, or were allowed to attend but were subsequently banned from returning to school. At Saar Secondary Girls School, parents entered school grounds to physically assault student-protesters.

Clashes also occurred at the Hamad Town Secondary Girls School and Yathrib Elementary & Intermediate Girls School. As the mother of three children myself, I could not understand how such abuses could be permitted in schools, where children are supposed to be safe, nor could I comprehend why nothing was done to either prevent or stop them from happening.

Within a month of the February strike, teachers and members of the BTA were arrested for participating in the strike. During their detention, many teachers were abused and, in some cases, tortured. Many of the teachers who joined the strike had their salaries reduced, while others went unpaid for months. Some were even suspended or fired from their positions. I and my colleague, Mahdi Issa Mahdi Abu Deeb, president of the BTA, lost our jobs and were sentenced to prison. For peacefully exercising our rights to free expression and assembly, we were charged with “inciting hatred of the regime” and “attempting to overthrow the government by force."

At the time of my arrest, I had been working as an assistant principal with over 25 years of experience in the field of education, and also served as vice president of the BTA. Since the uprising began, I have experienced firsthand the brutal treatment that many other protesters have been and continue to be subjected to in Bahrain. I have been arrested multiple times; tortured; sexually harassed; forced to stand for long periods of time; kept in solitary confinement; denied basic services such as food, water, and a restroom; and denied access to my family and lawyer. Professionally, I faced demotion, loss of salary, suspension, and, ultimately, dismissal from my position.

What happened to me was horrific, but I have come out of this experience a stronger, more forceful advocate. Having already faced the consequences of my advocacy, I am not afraid to defend my colleagues who continue to suffer harassment and abuse. Although I am strong, I am one person. I and my colleagues need and depend upon the support of educators from around the world who are willing to work with us to pressure the Government of Bahrain to end its abusive practices.

Our friends and allies in the United States should ask their own government to press Bahrain to make reforms that will ensure that such horrendous abuses are never again perpetrated. It is only through our collective efforts—our union, if you will—that we can have the greatest impact.

- Jalila Al-Salman