Last Updated 7 August 2020

Bahrain has a population of 1.3 million, of which only half are citizens. Citizens belong mostly to Islam (99%), the remaining 1% are Christians, Hindus, Baha’is and Jews. There are no statistics regarding Shia and Sunni representation, however, it can be assumed that Shiites represent a majority. The other half of the population constitutes a majority of migrant workers from South Asia and the Philippines (Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Baha’is and Sikhs). Bahrain has experienced prolonged unrests since 2011, when predominantly Shiite protestors demanded political reform and the end of Sunni minority hegemony.

Rating: Grave Violations
This country is found to be declining as a long-term political crisis drags on and the government hardens into an authoritarian regime.

Grave Violations
Severe Discrimination
Systemic Discrimination

Constitution and government

According to Bahrain’s Constitution,1 Islam is the religion of the state and Shari’ah is a principal source for legislation. The Constitution does not explicitly protect freedom of religion or belief, but it does make some provision for the freedom of conscience, the inviolability of places of worship, and the freedom to perform religious rites and hold religious parades and meetings, in accordance with the customs observed in the country. The Constitution stipulates that there shall be no discrimination in the rights and duties of citizens on grounds of religion. However, the constitution also states that Islam is the official religion and that the principles of Islamic law are a main source for legislation.

Every Muslim religious group must obtain a licence from the government and non-Muslim groups must register. There are currently 19 non-Muslim religious groups registered. Although Shiite communities are free to carry out religious observances, such as the annual Ashura processions, Shiite clerics and community leaders often face harassment, interrogation, prosecution, and imprisonment. An estimated 45 Shiite religious sites were demolished or vandalized in 2011 in apparent reprisal for the role of Shiite opposition groups in that year’s protests.

The civil and criminal legal systems consist of a complex mix of courts based on diverse legal sources, including both Shiite (Jaafari) and Sunni (Maliki) schools of Islamic jurisprudence, tribal law, and other civil codes. Sharia governs personal status, and a person’s rights can vary according to Shiite or Sunni interpretation, as determined by the individual’s faith or by the courts.

The constitution prohibits discrimination in the rights and duties of citizens on the basis of religion or belief; however, there are no further laws to prevent discrimination, nor procedures to file a grievance.

Education and children’s rights

Islamic studies are a part of the curriculum in government schools and mandatory for all public school students. Non-Muslim students are allowed to opt out. The public school curriculum includes only Sunni (Maliki) religious education and no Shia (Jaafari) traditions.

Family, community and society

Gender Equality

Bahraini law discriminates against women in the right to divorce and transmission of Bahraini nationality to their children on an equal basis to men. Article 4 of Bahrain’s Nationality Law2 denies equal transmission of nationality, so that a Bahraini woman married to a foreign national cannot pass her nationality to her children. After a divorce, fathers are favored in matters of child custody. A husband is legally recognized as the guardian of his wife. Women are not able to obtain a divorce unless a clause allowing her has been included in the marriage contract, while men can initiate a divorce. For women the only option to obtain a divorce is the Islamic principle of “khula” divorce i.e. if she forfeits all future financial support from her ex-husband and her dowry.

Article 353 of the penal code3 exempts perpetrators of rape from prosecution and punishment if they marry their victims, as spousal rape is not criminalized. The penal code contains no laws against domestic violence and it is seldom reported to the police. The testimony of female witnesses counts for half of a male witness. Sexual harassment is outlawed in the penal code, although it is framed in terms of protecting “honour” rather than women’s rights. Victims of sexual harassment lack societal support and many women do not report it, fearing shame and negative impact on their careers. Adultery and sexual relations outside marriage are criminalized for both men and women.

LGBTI Rights

Technically, consensual sex between same sex couples is legal. However, the government has in recent years adopted restrictive measures towards what it identifies as “moral” issues. By including homosexual sexual acts and behaviour under the category of “immoral” behaviour, the government has attempted to indirectly ban homosexuality. The punishments for some of these crimes can include five months of hard labour and, although it is seldom sentenced, imprisonment of up to ten years.

Death Penalty

Bahrain has the death penalty and actively executes people. Three men were executed in July 2019, two of them for terrorism-related offenses, despite concerns raised by UN experts about flawed trials and the apparent use of coerced confessions.4

Freedom of expression, advocacy of humanist values


Bahrain does not explicitly outlaw apostasy. However, by declaring Islam as the state religion and Islamic law as the source of legislation, the constitution implies that Muslims are forbidden to change their religion. Societal pressure reinforces the Islamic principle, which forbids the conversion from Islam.


Articles 309 and 310 of the penal code criminalize “any method of expression” against a religious community, or ridiculing religious beliefs:

“Article 309. Aa punishment for a period not exceeding one year or a fine not exceeding BD 100 shall be inflicted upon any person who commits an offence by any method of expression against one of the recognized religious communities or ridicules the rituals thereof.

Article 310.The punishment provided for in the preceding Article shall be inflicted upon any person who commits in public an insult against a symbol or a person that is glorified or considered sacred to members of a particular sect; (or) upon any person who imitates in public a religious ritual or ceremony with the intention of ridiculing it.”

The press and publications law prohibits anti-Islamic media, and mandates a prison term of no less than six months for “exposing the state’s official religion for offense and criticism.”

Politically motivated accusations of blasphemy tend to lead to sham trials, lengthy prison sentences, and the risk of torture and abuse in detention.5

Broader government oppression

In 2011, Bahraini citizens protested in public spaces for political reform as part of the “Arab Spring” in Bahrain. The government violently repressed the protests with the assistance of Saudi Arabia, killing scores of protestors and demolishing dozens of Shi’a mosques.

In the years since, the Bahraini authorities have continued to arrest hundreds of Shiite activists and pro-democracy demonstrators. Many have been tortured and tried by military courts or are stripped of their citizenship and left effectively stateless. Sheikh Isa Qasim, Bahrain’s leading Shi’a cleric, had his citizenship revoked by administrative order in June 2016.

The sectarian dimension of the political uprising resulted in substantial intra-Muslim conflict, including government attacks on Shiite religious buildings and the violent oppression of Shiite protestors. The government crackdown also extended to journalists and bloggers who reported on the reform movement and the brutal government response. The government also arrested medical personnel who treated injured protesters. Thousands of people were fired from their jobs for supporting the protests. In 2014, human rights defender Nabeel Rajab was sentenced to five years in prison for tweeting about Saudi military campaign in Yemen, which Bahrain’s government supports, and accusing Bahrain’s prison authorities of torture.

The government owns all television and radio broadcasters and blocks access to websites deemed critical of government policy.

In 2017, the last independent newspaper in the country, Al Wasat was suspended. The same year, the government also dissolved the last opposition political formation, the secular-left National Democratic Action Society (Wa’ad), accusing members of “incitement of acts of terrorism and promoting violent and forceful overthrow of the political regime.”

The penal code includes a variety of punishments for offenses such as insulting the king or state institutions and spreading false news. Many Bahrainis have been convicted and jailed for political speech, including on social media.

Highlighted cases

In March 2015 the Lebanese feminist poet and journalist Joumana Haddad was banned from taking part in a cultural event in Bahrain, due to accusations that she would promote atheism and target Islamic values.

In 2016, a Bahraini court sentenced Ibrahim Sharif, a founding member of the secular National Democratic Action Society (Waed) party, to one year in prison on the charge of “inciting hatred” for making a pro-democracy speech. After his release, in March 2019 Sharif was sentenced to 6 months in prison for tweeting criticism of Sudan’s president.6

In November 2016, a Bahraini court sentenced journalist and blogger Faisal Hayyat under Article 309 of the penal code to 3 months in prison for a tweet deemed to have insulted a “religious symbol and group.”7

In June 2019, Shiite cleric Ahmed Abdulaziz Al Madhiwas accused of ‘insulting the companions of the Prophet Muhammed’ during a sermon and was prosecuted under Article 310 of the penal code. Al Madhi is one of dozens of Shiite religious figures to be harassed and jailed by Bahraini authorities for similar charges.8



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