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Last Updated: Tuesday, 19 April, 2005, 16:53 GMT 17:53 UK
Bahraini woman chairs parliament
By Magdi Abdelhadi
BBC World Service Arab affairs analyst

Bahraini women - ONE USE ONLY
There are signs of gradual change in Arab women's rights
For the first time in the Arab world, a woman has chaired a parliamentary session in the Gulf state of Bahrain.

Alees Samaan, who is Christian, also became the first non-Muslim to act as speaker in predominantly Muslim Bahrain, if only for a few hours.

Details of the story are published on the front page of Bahraini newspapers, which describe the event as historic.

The leading pan-Arab newspaper, al-Hayat, also reported the session on its front page.

The Bahraini press speak of warm applause as Ms Samaan walked up to the speaker's chair.

At the end of the session, colleagues were said to have rushed to the podium to have their pictures taken with her.

Accidental speaker

But despite the apparent rejoicing by her male colleagues, this was equality by default rather than design.

The speaker of the consultative council was absent and so were his two male deputies.

And according to the council's by-laws, the role of speaker had to go to the most senior member of the council, who happened to be Alees Samaan.

There are only six women in Bahrain's two-chamber parliament.

Ms Samaan is one of four who were appointed by King Hamad Bin Issa nearly five years ago, as part of his drive to widen political participation.

Three years ago, not a single woman was elected in local elections, when female candidates were allowed for the first time in the country's history to vote and stand as candidates.

But what is really remarkable about the story is the significance attributed by the press to the episode.

Incidents of this kind in the Arab world are increasingly being seen as signs of a gradual change towards more open and democratic societies in the entire region.

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