Women and girls may have become the latest pawns in the chess game between Iran and Bahrain.
Shi'ite opposition activists in the tiny Gulf country issued a statement Monday saying, “More than 40 Bahraini women were savagely arrested... in a commercial center where they were beaten.”
According to the Al-Wefaq organization, the women, arrested Friday, were protesting against parliamentary by-elections, which were scheduled by the government for Saturday. “Seven minors, aged 12 to 15, were among [those beaten],” said the statement, adding they were “beaten and humiliated.” The organization called for the release of the women, who remain in custody, saying they had expressed their “right to freedom of expression.” The group accused the government of subjecting the women to “savage and inhumane” treatment.
The elections were held to replace 18 Shi'ite MPS who had quit the legislative body in protest over the violence against demonstrators during the “Arab Spring” protests in February. A second round of voting is set for next Saturday, government authorities announced Sunday.
As in Tunisia and elsewhere around the region, sporadic protests have continued in the tiny Gulf kingdom, where the Sunni dynasty that rules the Shi'ite majority is still facing pockets of rebellion after an extended seven-month Arab Spring. Tens of thousands protested a week ago in renewed demonstrations, with violence reported in several areas around the country.
In the capital of Manama, iconic Pearl Square is being guarded as tightly as a military base, according to Associated Press reporter Brian Murphy. “Protesters are now raising the battle cry of reclaiming [the square]... security forces meanwhile, are pushing back harder.”
At least 45 women and girls were arrested last week on suspicion of stirring up anti-government dissent in one of Bahrain's main shopping malls, the reporter noted. “By late afternoon, the protesters usually begin to gather,” wrote Murphy.
The country's leadership is convinced that Shi'ite Iran is behind the unrest, and has tapped Sunni neighbor Saudi Arabia for assistance, politically and militarily back in March. Since the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet also is based in Bahrain, America also has no interest in allowing the country to disintegrate into the chaos of an unchecked Arab Spring.
Meanwhile, Washington continues to quietly express its support for the government, and Saudi flags fly next to those of Bahrain at police checkpoints.