THE lack of a Family Law which protects the rights of women and children is holding back Bahrain's development as a modern nation, says the United Nations General Assembly's Bahraini president Shaikha Haya bin Rashid Al Khalifa. It is a black mark which pulls the country backward, said Shaikha Haya, who is also an internationally-renowned lawyer.
"Bahrain has a well developed legal system and has modern laws on arbitration, civil, labour and many related issues," she told the GDN, in an exclusive interview.
"But when it comes to Family Law, we just base our judgement on the opinions of some judges and religious people belonging to both sects of Islam.
"This is an issue on which Bahrain's women have been fighting for more than 20 years.
"As a modern country which respects human rights, Bahrain should not delay in implementing this important law, which has already been approved by neighbouring countries like Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and the UAE."
Shaikha Haya hands over the presidency to Macedonia's Sejan Karim on September 17, following her year in office.
She bows out with a track record of success that has enhanced Bahrain's global reputation.
During her term, Shaikha Haya has been able to spearhead sweeping moves to bring nations together and build more trust among member states.
She has also been able to make the UN more responsive to world problems and to contribute towards creating better understanding between world religions.
"I am grateful to His Majesty King Hamad, Prime Minister Shaikh Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa and Crown Prince and BDF Commander-in-Chief Shaikh Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa for placing the confidence in me to represent my country at the UN," said Shaikha Haya.
"I was able to carry with me the picture of tolerance practised by Bahrain and depict the role played by our Kingdom in making the world a safer place, campaigning against war, injustice, poverty and disease.
"Tolerance is one of the key principles of human rights.
"We have to build on the reputation attained by Bahrain, to consolidate the country's position in the international community."
Against such a background, the delay in passing the proposed Family Law remains as a black mark for Bahrain, said Shaikha Haya.
"The law gives a clear picture on the legal position of everyone in the family, including the marriage agreement, divorce and children's rights," she noted.
"Without such a law, the power remains in the hands of men. There have been cases of men taking money from women in return for granting them a divorce.
"I am surprised that even some Bahraini women came out against such a law, which would protect their rights. "I urge both the government and the parliament to consider it as a humanitarian, not a political issue."
Bahrain has taken a commendable initiative in the area of women's empowerment and should make an all out effort to ensure their protection, at a time when the plight of women in general in the Arab world is deteriorating, said Shaikha Haya.
"The last Arab Development Report issued by the United Nations showed that more than 50 per cent of women in the Arab world are illiterate," she revealed.
"Because of some old traditions and wrong interpretations of religious texts, they have been forced to be confined within the four walls of their homes.
"To overcome this, more efforts should come from women themselves, who should be supported by governments, non-governmental organisations and the society at large."
Shaikha Haya said she was personally condemned by certain women's groups, in campaigns over the Internet.
"They asked me to wear a hijab and stay at home," she revealed.
"They did not like my statement to some international Press that the Bahrain government is progressive and liberal and has appointed women as Cabinet ministers.
"I told the international media that the fact that our women had contested elections but failed may be due to the voters' belief in some religious interpretations that women should stay at home."
Shaikha Haya said some women deplored her through the Internet for chairing a "Jewish Organisation" - meaning the UN.
Such people, said Shaikha Haya, should realise that Islam gives equal rights and opportunities for men and women.
"Islam has shown light to the humanity to understand the world better," she noted.
"Islam teaches everyone to respect others. Tolerance is the hallmark of this religion.
"It is against Islam to kill each other in the name of religion."
Shaikha Haya said she was extremely sad to see a distorted picture of Islam prevailing in the West.
"If your passport says that you are a Muslim, the attitude of officials there change immediately," she noted.
"It is sad to see all Muslims being suspected as terrorists. It is a hard task for Muslims to carry the message in those countries that Islam is a religion which preaches peace and brotherhood."
It was to clear this misconception, said Shaikha Haya, that she invited the Islamic Development Bank (IDB) to the General Assembly and asked it to set up a fund for the alleviation of poverty.
"My effort to portray a different and positive picture of Islam paid off when the IDB set up a $10 billion (BD3.78bn) fund to help the poor," she revealed.
"Despite objections from certain countries, the IDB was granted observer status in the UN."
Shaikha Haya said she was happy that she was able to gain the confidence of people of all religions, including Christians and Jews.
"It was great honour to receive the 2007 Path to Peace Award from the Catholic Church's Path to Peace Foundation, in New York," she noted.
Each year since 1993, the foundation has honoured an individual whose life and work have dramatically affected the world community for the better.
Past winners include two former UN secretary-generals, Dr Boutros Boutros Ghali (1993) and Kofi Annan (2000), as well as former Philippines president Corazon Aquino (1995).
"There was no special significance for a Muslim receiving such an award from a Catholic organisation," said Shaikha Haya.
"The award was in recognition of my efforts on behalf of peace and development.
"It clearly gives the message that we are human beings first. We haven't chosen our religion, but we are born with our religion."
Shaikha Haya said she was happy with the outcome of the three thematic debates she initiated at the 61st session.
The debates were on development, gender equality and dialogue among civilisations.
The aim of the first meeting was to give impetus to the implementation of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), agreed by world leaders at the UN's Millennium Summit in 2000.
They cover eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, achieving universal primary education, promoting gender equality, reducing child mortality, improving maternal health, combating HIV/Aids, malaria and other diseases, ensuring environmental sustainability and fostering a global partnership for development.
Today, more than 1.2 billion people live on less than one dollar a day, said Shaikha Haya.
"One person dies of poverty every five seconds," she added.
"Every day 8,000 people die of HIV/Aids and 12,000 people are infected by this killer disease.
"The meeting brought together donor and recipient countries as well as civil societies, non-governmental organisations and the private sector, to forge new approaches." The second high-level meeting was on the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women.
The meeting was a huge success, with more than 80 speakers in the debate, including 20 female ministers, said Shaikha Haya.
The meeting concluded that the gender equality was a goal in its own right and essential for communities and States to enjoy political stability and sustainable development. "The meeting said that obstacles to gender equality and the empowerment of women remain in the forms of patriarchal structures and norms, discriminatory laws and practices, lack of access to education, health care, economic and other resources and insufficient financial resources," she noted.
The third meeting was entitled Civilisations and the Challenge for Peace: Obstacles and opportunities.
The main objective of the event was to explore the reasons behind the growing level of mistrust between people of different religions and cultures and to examine how and why cultural and religious differences increasingly fuel, and are used to justify, conflicts, said Shaikha Haya. Many speakers welcomed the debate as a timely and important event, she added.
"The meeting stressed that respect and tolerance are important, but not sufficient prerequisites for dialogue; what is needed in addition is recognition of the other and a willingness to change through dialogue," said Shaikha Haya.
"It is crucial to educate the youth, in their formative years, on the need for tolerance and respect for others.
"The need for general awareness by the broader public is equally important in the efforts to pursuit dialogue between religions."
There is an acknowledged role for the UN to play in facilitating dialogue between religions and in raising awareness, said Shaikha Haya.
Leaders of five major religions, Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism and Judaism, took part in the discussions, she revealed.
Following the success of the three thematic debates, the members asked to have a fourth one on climate change, which also ended on a successful note, said Shaikha Haya.
"The objective of the debate was to prepare ourselves to live in a secure world," she added.
Shaikha Haya said she was also happy that the 61st session worked out a global strategy to counter terrorism.
It was the first time that countries around the world hade agreed to a common strategic approach to fight terrorism, she added.
When asked what comes next after such a big job, Shaikha Haya said that she would decide this it at the appropriate time.
"Whatever my country demands, I will do. I can also help in any issue concerning the welfare of the humanity in general," she added.
She was only the third woman to occupy the post of UN General Assembly president since 1945, following Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit of India, who presided over the eighth session in 1953 and Angie Elisabeth Brooks, of Liberia, who presided over the 24th session in 1969.