The Bahrain Teachers’ Association (BTA) was established in October 2001 after a long journey of teachers’ struggles to obtain their representative body. It was founded after the King Hamad presented a package of reforms, including allowing associations representing professionals in the public sector to exist, even though unions are still banned.
As the wave of Arab Spring hit Bahrain; people renewed their demands for basic rights, as they had done decade after decade for 60 years. In 2011, Bahrain had the biggest revolution in its history to regain rights. The 14th of February was the date when freedom seekers started gathering and marching for their fundamental rights.
Among them, were teachers as well as students as the period was mid-year academic vacation (two weeks between the two semesters) and schools were empty. Despite the vacation closures, there was an impressive mobilisation.
When the gatherings began, teachers joined as individuals not as an organization, but when things got tense, they asked their representatives to speak for them, especially after the army entered Pearl Square. Troops stormed the square at 3:00, killing a few protesters, injuring others and arresting many more.
BTA invited its members to join a 2-hour sit-in in front of the school gates to protest the arbitrary and excessive use of force against Bahraini peaceful protestors gathered in Pearl Square.
Earlier, the BTA president called upon the Minister of Education to postpone returning to school until things settled down, without any success. As the situation was getting worse, BTA maintained the sit-in and a fax, which remained unanswered, was sent to inform the Minister of Education. The sit-in showed for the first time the influence of BTA. The power of the teacher movement took the Ministry of Education by surprise. On 20 February 2011, the BTA President announced a 3-day strike to protest the threats made by authorities towards teachers and students. Thousands of teachers and students rallied at Pearl Square and meetings and classes were organised in tents.
In retaliation, the Minister of Education began the meticulous destruction of the education system in Bahrain. From the first day of the strike, the Ministry started moving in those who he calls the « volunteers » (although, they are paid employees). The Minister also labels them the “education saviours”. Anyone was accepted to be a volunteer teacher, no matter the qualifications or competences. The most famous case was a very old woman who was accepted even though she did not know how to read or write. “I’ll tell the pupils stories I know”, she said when interviewed on national T.V. Another famous case was the acceptance of a school principal who was accused and dismissed by court for “sexual harassment” of a student. The majority were often too young to teach and had no high school certificates. Some were university students, others were housewives who brought their babies with them to class. In my school, a girl who was not able to finish her G6 studies was appointed to teach G4 English! The number is very high, 6000 volunteers so far. The Minister of Education announced that they are ready to replace striking teachers at any time. The Administration seems unconcerned about what that would mean for the quality of education. The deterioration of education is reflected in student achievement and levels.
On the 24th of February 2011, the strike ended, and all the teachers went back to school. Schools were not the same as before. They were full of people with no link to teaching. Qualified teachers were forced to train these so-called volunteers to replace them in case of future strikes, which most teachers refused to do. Harassment began. Discipline committees were formed illegally, questioning teachers for their participation in the 3-day strike. Sanctions were severe. More than 120 were fired, dozens were subject to 3-month suspensions and thousands faced 10-day suspensions with salary cuts. Some were sent to police stations, following complaints signed by the minister. Dozens discovered that they were acquitted in court in the media, without formal notice. BTA board members were chased and arrested. BTA president was thrown from the second floor, beaten and kicked. As the teacher association Vice President, I was arrested at dawn after 50 security officers broke into my house pulled me from bed and pointed a gun to my head. « don’t be afraid, we are police, was the last quiet sentence I heard. Media started its propaganda, describing BTA and its leaders with the worst possible adjectives. Several programs were on T.V. to brainwash people about BTA’s role. « We were plagued by what’s called the Teachers’ Association », said the undersecretary of MOE on T.V.
The BTA was delegalised and has not been reinstated as a professional organisation since, despite interventions of the International Labour Organisation.
Education International recently denounced the use of biased pedagogical materials discrediting those engaged in human rights activism. Curriculum used in all Bahrain schools asks students aged 15-18 to express their feelings regarding “the acts of sabotage and criminal activities against the kingdom perpetrated in 2011”. This overt attempt to politicise public education, carries huge risks of future victimisation and reprisals against students and teachers depending on the nature of answers given to these questions. This is likely to further stigmatise, isolate and exclude those teachers who continue to be denied the right to return to work as teachers.
In 2011, with their first strike, teachers faced the worst days in their history. The President and Vice-President of BTA were tortured, dragged to military court and sent to prison for, respectively, 10 and 3 years. An appeal court’s decision reduced the sentences to 5 years and 6 months. Both were dismissed and are still fighting in favour of teachers’ rights and to restore BTA. Hundreds of students are in jail along with many teachers. One teacher and one student were executed on 15th of January 2017 even though there was a certificate stating that the teacher was in school when the event he was accused of being involved in took place.
10 December 2018 marks the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The Declaration remains a relevant inspiration for educators and trade unionists worldwide, as it guarantees the right to form unions, freedom of expression and the right of all to quality education. Human rights requires an informed and continued demand by people for their protection. For this special occasion, Education International is releasing a series of blogs bringing voices and thoughts of unionists reflecting on struggles and accomplishments in this domain. The blogs reflect the continued commitment of education unionists, in every part of the world, in every community, to promote, defend and advance human rights and freedoms for the benefit of all.
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.