Thursday, December 02, 2004

Student movement in Bahrain

I wrote the following piece a couple of years ago when the political situation in Bahrain was changing. Back then there were attempts by some students to get themselves organised and form some sort of coalition or union. They did not succeed due to both internal and external factors, however speaking to the older generation about their student years, I got interested in researching the history of the Bahraini student movement, basically due to the apathy I face with the student movement today. I would conclude that its not that active students are any less in number than they were before, actually the opposite is true, the student population both inside and outside Bahrain is bigger than any time before with tens of thousands, whereas up until they eighties they were in the hundreds. Looking at student activity is important in civil society as the university often acts as a microcosm of wider setting, universities being the “playground of politics”.

I couldn’t find any documentation whatsoever on what is to follow. It is based purely on people’s historical accounts. Any mistakes are purely my own, but any corrections are highly appreciated. The study doesn’t go too deep rather it is just a simple chronology. I may consider the post-mithaq student situation sometime in the future but for now I will leave you with what I wrote in 2001.

Quick Historical Overview of the Bahraini Student Movement up until the Nineties

Student organized groups were never formally registered, nor were their activities openly conducted before 2000 in Bahrain. The government of Bahrain did not in any way support any kind of extra-curricular voluntary student activity, in fact the opposite was true, the government’s policy centred on preventing mass gatherings in general including any student gatherings. This encouraged covert student activity which limited their activities to holding closed and private meetings for the expression of their views and working undercover.

The links between Bahrain and the UK are strong and deep-rooted. There is a long tradition of Bahraini students studying in the UK with funding provided by the Government of Bahrain or private companies. English is recognised as essential for Bahrain’s economic development. In addition, many Bahraini students whose education is privately funded often chose UK institutions for their higher education.

As early as the 1950s there is evidence of student activity in the UK, the main example being that of Hussein Baharna, a student at Cambridge who helped lobby MPs to put question to the House of Commons about the situation in Bahrain, concerned with the uprising of 1954-1956.

Generally in the 1960s, global student movements were very dynamic and highly politicised in the wake of the Vietnam War. In 1968 a handful of Bahraini students took part in anti-Vietnam demonstrations in London. Nationalist and leftist tendencies generally dominated the student movement. Following the 1967 war, islamic tendency increased due to the recriminatory attitudes to the pre-1967 political and ideological situation in the Middle East.

During the 1970s, Bahraini student numbers in the UK reached at least 100, (and around 8 were active in pan-Islamic groups). The four main sponsors of students were BAPCO, Cable and Wireless, ALBA and the Ministry of Education, with only a handful being self-sponsored.

At that time, the National Union of Bahraini Students (NUBS) was established and held its first annual conference in the mid 70s. This organisation was marked by its liberal and leftist views, with strong anti-government and pro-Palestine sentiment, issuing statements on many occasions. It had links with groups in Cairo and Baghdad. By the end of the 1970s, NUBS gradually became ineffective as Islamic sentiment grew. It failed in its attempt to transfer the centre of the union to Bahrain and remained an external force. Its past members do not consider the demise of NUBS to be a failure on their behalf rather it was due to the declining number of students that studied abroad. Others argue, that the collapse of NUBS was due to the domination of political tendencies on the union’s agenda and its inability to adapt to the ideological shift at the time. But probably the main cause of the failure to domesticate the activities in Bahrain, was the ruthless and repressive measures taken by the Government in the late seventies and early eighties which led to the weakening of the union. Most of the union’s members in Kuwait, Cairo, Syria and London were arrested, their passports confiscated and many were banned from leaving the country. Those actions were taken as a consequence of the repercussions of the Islamic revolution in Iran and the continuous involvement of the union in the political affairs.

On the other hand, students in the UK at the time, with Islamic tendency were active in pan-Islamic organisations such as the Muslim Youth Association (MYA). A clear polarisation in the student movement emerged in this period with left-wing and right-wing tendencies. However, a stark example of student collaboration in this period was on 15 August 1971 in which Cable and Wireless students in Cornwall boycotted their college in celebration of the independence of Bahrain.

After 1975, (dissolution of Parliament and the introduction of State Security Law) the government of Bahrain took unprecedented steps in attempting to curtail student movements by introducing special one year passports for students, subject to annual renewal upon the return of the student in the summer. This policy continued until the late 80s.

In the 1980s, the massive crackdown on Bahraini students inside and outside of Bahrain, witnessed a sharp decline in all forms of student activity because of fear of persecution if suspected of being associated let alone involved in the participation in or organisation of any form of student activity. All active students that may have been targeted by the government were especially vulnerable with the one-year passports. Many students abroad did not return home. There was a rise in underground political activity and overt activity was non existent.

In the UK, religiously orientated Bahraini students organised themselves with other Gulf students and worked within the Gulf Student Union and other Islamic organisations in the 80s. Regular meetings, seminars, conferences were organised throughout the UK. This was done discreetly with the least possible exposure amidst fears of persecution and retribution upon return to Bahrain.

The pattern of activity gradually changed following the Gulf War of 1991 in an atmosphere of relative openness. When unrest in Bahrain erupted in 1994, life became more difficult for everyone in Bahrain generally, but even more so for those studying in the UK, who would be unfairly accused of being associated with politically active opposition groups in the there. During this period, the number of Bahraini students sent to the UK on scholarship were cut drastically.

In that year, the total number of Bahraini students was 600 (to the nearest hundred) of which 400 were male and 200 were female. Out of the 600, 100 were postgraduates, 100 were undergraduates and 400 were in further education. (Source: Education Statistics for the UK, DfEE, 1996).

This was the situation up until 2000. The new millennium and the relative openness granted after the mithaq however has not rejuvenated the student movement, and institutionalising student activity has not materialised in the form of a new student union. This is subject of another topic insha’allah.

Posted by BB @ 12/02/2004 09:57:00 PM

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حقيقة أنا متابع لكثير مما تكتبين، طريقة سردك رائعة

أتمنى لو تحاولين استنطاق المجتمع من ناحية تاريخية من أجل فهم آخر للمجتمع

Posted by Blogger Ali Abdulemam @ 12/03/2004 07:25:00 PM #

Bahrania, I hold my hands up and acknowledge that this post is:

a) predictable
b) unnecessary
c) unwelcome

but I am unable to resist pointing out: judging by the numbers that demonstrated at UoB last week student politics is alive and well - and its out there protesting against your party and its segregationist ideology.

Posted by Blogger Scorpio @ 12/03/2004 11:22:00 PM #

I think that you wrote awesome post which is well written and with great knowledge
Thanks for sharing
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