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Crimcast is a virtual resource devoted to critical conversations about criminology and criminal justice issues. Our blogposts, twitter feeds, podcasts and other content provide an overview of trends, research, commentary and events of interest to criminal justice practitioners, academics and the general public. CrimCast is sponsored by The Center for Crime and Popular Culture, St. Francis College, Brooklyn, NY.

Exploring Criminal Justice and Colonialism in Bahrain

Nickie Phillips

Bahraini policewomen on the eve of the country's independence from Britain (1971; Photo: Bahrain Weekly)

In Bahrain, the criminal justice system we see today is a direct result of the colonial encounter -- a situation not acknowledged enough in current scholarship, and in desperate need of a critical voyage to the imperial archives.

Staci Strobl, Co-founder Crimcast

Eight years ago, when I was conducting an ethnography of Bahraini policewomen, I attempted to refer to secondary sources as to the criminal justice history of the small country, particularly regarding the development of policewomen.  Unfortunately, I found only sanitized, un-critical sources that picked up at a colonial moment as if nothing strange or disruptive had ever happened before that, for naturally a European-style criminal justice system, complete with bureaucratic forms to handle a "gender problem," was completely sensible in this distant land.

The field of comparative criminal justice remains under-developed relative to other criminal justice endeavors.  The last decade has seen a proliferation of encyclopedic volumes designed to fill in the descriptive gap, but detailed analytical pieces, particularly from non-western countries which are sufficiently historically contextualized, remain scant.  Bahrain is no exception.

To augment my ethnographic data, I made my way to the Historical Documents Center in Riffa', Bahrain and poured through colonial documents in order to uncover the policing past. 

Sheikh Isa bin Salman Al-Khalifah, ruler of Bahrain from 1961-99

In the end, I was left with the historian's task (though I am not a trained historian) of interpreting some ambiguous and contradictory claims in primary sources by various important actors of the day from the

Al-Khalifah royal family to the political consultant from the 1920s-50s, Sir Charles Belgrave. Policewomen were a British legacy of gender liberalism at the time of de-colonization, I argued, but were palpable to local Bahrainis as a means of serving conservative populations who appreciate traditional sex segregation.

Along the way, I vowed to one day be the more general criminal justice historian I needed for my then-specific, ethnographic mission.  It has taken several years to get around to the task, but this year I will be spending enough time in England to follow up on the many interesting threads first encountered in the Bahrain historical center, having time to review the vernacular file of the India Office records of the British Library (Bahrain was administered under the India Office during the early 20th century).

Charles-Belgrave2

We take as natural that police should have uniforms, that punishment should involve concrete cages called prisons, that judges should sit at benches in standing courts.  But in non-European contexts this was often not the indigenous way of maintaining social order and punishing deviance.  Max Weber callously maligned the palm tree justice of the Arab world, but in fact, in the Arabian Gulf it was an effective method for maintaining the peace in the wake of fluid tribal alliances and shifting economic endeavors.  The qadi under the tree, eclipsed by Belgrave's push to "rationalize" Bahraini justice, had political and religious legitimacy that could never be replaced by the modern colonial machine-- a machine that remains contested today in the Arab spring.

The seeds of today's opposition in Bahrain stem from colonial days.  Patterns of police employment of Sunni individuals over Shi'a were cemented in the late colonial period as punishment for Shi'a involvement in the National Union Committee and earlier revolutionary attempts, buffeted by head of the British colonial police in Bahrain and later State Security (1966-97), Ian Henderson (linked to police torture of Shi'a activists).  The political cache of hiring outside consultants-- Belgrave and Henderson then and John Yates and John Timoney more recently-- stem from the early 20th century rival Gulf monarchies' boasts of powerful foreign friends.  Playing up an overblown Iranian threat is a at least hundred-year old trope that the West swallows over and over again.

Ian Henderson, British police consultant to Bahrain linked to torture (photo: The Telegraph)

The Al-Khalifah royal family and advisors like Belgrave made very concrete political decisions throughout the 20th century that unraveled the fabric of traditional means of maintaining order and achieving justice.  It was disruptive to social and political relations as they had been operating for centuries previous, not a natural or teleological development as many mainstream scholars have assumed.

My archival research at the British Library and at University of Exeter will hopefully help to uncover what existed before the colonial experience and how it was eclipsed.  I hope to better document from whence Bahrain criminal justice came-- at least in the way that it may have been understood and misunderstood by British political agents.

It is here, though, that one often uncovers indigenous voices that have been lost in the paperwork-- testimonies of elder tribespeople, oral laws written down at a certain colonial period of time, etc.  But can an understanding of the old ways, themselves fluid and changing over time, be recovered?

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak is certainly right to haunt us with the notion that all this historical

Bahrain court sketch from the trial of 21 opposition movement leaders in June of 2011 (www.twentyfoursevennews.com)movement leaders in June of 2011 (www.twentyfoursevennews.com)

back-tracking just leads us to the brick wall of a "tearing of time" in which the colonial encounter in all its "docketing" of the cultural and political threads ends up obscuring that which existed before it.  Or, in the word of Homi Bhabha, we cannot begin to make sense of an “imperial aporia” that described indigenous lacunae through a very thick and cloudy lens of colonial paternalism.

All of this seems like a very tall order for four months of research abroad, but perhaps all such endeavors start off exalted and then whittle themselves down to bite-size pieces.  In any case, it will be a bit of geek-joy to sit in the British library with old, colonial letters, and ponder a time gone by.

Series on archival research in criminal justice

This is the fifth in a 5-part series appearing throughout 2013 focusing on the often game-changing discoveries that come out of archival work in the realm of police, courts, and corrections.  The other four parts can be found here: