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June 21, 2013

Image Rights in Bahrain

By Chloe Kems

Anonymous amateur photographers document the Bahraini revolution in all its forms. Photos have become a potent—and efficient—tool for frontline activists, who are able to quickly publish their shots online thanks to new technology. Despite public appearances, many of these young photographers are women and their shots are instrumental in documenting Bahrain’s revolution.

Anonymous female photographer reviews her shots during clashes on Budaiya Highway, May 24, 2013

The Al Wefaq political opposition organizes daytime rallies that draw huge crowds, sometimes in the tens of thousands. This is the primary venue for participants in Bahrain’s resilient protest movement, which remains largely peaceful. The more radical February 14 Youth Coalition holds smaller nighttime rallies, where the young male protestors often clash with riot police. Female photographers are mainstays at the daytime rallies, and although women are discouraged from attending violent nighttime clashes, some have managed to document them.

As is common in Muslim countries, Al Wefaq protests are separated by gender: on one side of the highway, a black sea of abayas flows alongside men on the other. The women’s section teems with amateur female photographers, who are as numerous and bold as their male counterparts. (The only difference is that some of the male photographers climb up onto scaffolding for aerial shots.)

Hawra*, in her mid-twenties, takes photos at every major Wefaq rally. “You can see,” she says, gesturing to the mass of people walking down the highway, “we are not here with weapons or molotovs. If it was not peaceful, we would not bring our babies, our mothers, our elderly women.” The nighttime demonstrations are “too dangerous,” another camera-wielding girl in her teens explains. The two women say that the gender-limitations on nighttime clashes make then all the more determined to document mass marches during the day.

For some female photographers, it’s not the danger that keeps them away from the 14 Feb protests. “I want to go in,” Hameeda* says as she motions towards the clouds of teargas pouring through the palm trees on Budaiya Highway, “but I cannot. The boys do not need me.”

One male 14 Feb member said, “Most of us don’t want ladies there. We have very strong feelings in our religion, our culture, about women being hurt. When they [riot police] shoot the teargas … it’s so thick you can’t see anyone else. Everyone is going to run. Alone. What if woman is there and I can’t see her to save her? No one is okay with this.”

Sheikh Ali Salman, General Secretary of Al Wefaq, has also discussed men’s responsibility to “protect” women, and women’s responsibility to stay away from violence. At a rally in January 2012 he said: “I am with the participation of women, but I want to emphasize, my sisters and daughters, that your participation should be done with the utmost precaution to prevent getting hurt, and avoid direct confrontation with the riot police. And the men in every gathering have to work on protecting their sisters.”

At both Al Wefaq and 14 Feb protests, women are told to steer clear of teargas and Molotov-ridden clashes, and they usually do—but not always. During a large sit-in last month organized by Al Wefaq, violent clashes broke out less than 50 yards from where tens of thousands were peacefully gathered. Some women in abayas took their chance, coughed their way through the tear gas, and photographed what was happening.

Women are also managing to photograph nighttime clashes—sometimes from their bedroom windows—and posting them online. Anyone with Blackberry can send photos to the Blackberry pin operated by their local village 14 Feb. The account operators in each village then select a number of submissions to publish on their Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts. The central 14 Feb organization gathers photos from each of these village accounts to republish to its more than 60,000 Twitter followers.

“The world sees my pictures now,” says Hameeda, age 19, whose photos have been chosen and circulated by 14 Feb. Hameeda explains that she produces shots that boys do not: aerial-type photos that show a different perspective. Male photographers running with the protestors often take close-ups of Molotov-wielding boys; young women produce photos from their homes showing the broader scope of the protests.

Hameeda proudly displays aerial shots she took from her bedroom window. The first is a Twitter classic: a tan, beaten down villagestreet, blotted out with clouds of teargas, pictured from above. She flips to a new photo, another already-famous shot of helmeted riot police storming the smallstreet carrying tear gas guns.

Because of her activism, the government threatened her in 2011 and she missed a year of school. But she says “there is no fear anymore.” Marching back to her mother’s car after an Al Wefaq protest, Hameeda holds up one of her photos: “I take pictures so the world will know what happens in Bahrain…butmore so [King] Al Khalifa will know what happens in Bahrain.”

Wafa*, a photographer in her early 20s, attends every major opposition march and uploads her photos daily to her accounts on both Twitter and Instagram. She says the government targeted her Twitter account in 2012, accusing her of “instigating hatred against the regime.” But she kept at it: “I created a new account, and Tweet under a fake name. I continue because I have to.”

Last month the Bahrain government sentenced six people to a year in jail for similar “crimes,” charging them with “misusing the right of free expression,” according to a government statement. On World Press Freedom Day last month, Minister of State for Information Affairs Sameera Rajab denied that there are any journalists imprisoned in Bahrain, and that “the alleged cases concern mere individual cases of amateur photographers who have flouted the law.”

*not her real name