Bahraini society remains deeply patriarchal. The husband and father heads the nuclear family and watches over the morality of his wife and children and unmarried females in the extended family. In a divorce, the nation’s religious courts generally grant mothers custody of their daughters under age nine and their sons under age seven, at which point custody generally reverts to the father. The father retains guardianship until his children reach the age of twenty-one. Even a non-custodial father retains the right to make all legal decisions regarding his children. Women have the right to request divorce in the religious courts, but the courts can deny the request.
Shiite women may (under Shiite law) inherit property, but Sunni women, governed, in personal status matters, by Sunni Maliki law, do not. But values do change. Rapid urbanization, public education, and exposure to more liberal attitudes through modern media and travel have led Bahraini women to spend more and more time outside the house. Until recently, the country had even been a pacesetter among the Arab Gulf states in women’s education and employment. While the other Gulf Cooperation Council countries and emirates are catching up with Bahrain or – as in the case of Dubai – have apparently surpassed it in educational and vocational possibilities for women, the country still has a relatively high ratio of women in the workforce. Their presence in the private sector amounts to a mere 13 percent, but they constitute 42 percent of the public workforce. This figure is even more impressive, given that many Bahraini women stop working when they marry, leaving only a few years between graduation and marriage to be active in the job market. But even this pattern is changing: Bahraini women increasingly re-enter the workforce after having given birth.
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