The Unlikely Emissary
Nonoo says she has never experienced religious prejudice in Bahrain. “I had a normal Jewish upbringing,” she says, celebrating Jewish holidays, fasting on Yom Kippur and lighting Shabbat candles. “I was born into Judaism,” Nonoo explains with a shrug. “It’s no different from growing up like a Jew in America. It’s my religion.”
At age 14, Nonoo, like many other Bahraini Jews, was packed off to England to attend Jewish school. Together with her younger brother Abraham, she went to Carmel College, Europe’s only Jewish boarding school, known to many as the “Jewish Eton,” now closed. “She was very serious always,” says Rabbi Jeremy Rosen, who was the principal at the time. “She was well-liked and she integrated very well.” Nonoo recalls the experience less fondly. “I did not enjoy it. It made me less religious.” The Judaism she experienced there was foreign to the one she grew up with: “I never knew anything about the Holocaust until I was 14. I never identified with Israel,” she says.
Nonoo stayed in England after leaving school, earning a B.A. in accounting from the City of London University in 1985 and an MBA from the International University of Europe in Watford in 1987. After graduating, she quickly advanced in the financial world, serving as financial director of both Gourmet and Jetflair International. She married a British citizen, Salman Idafar, in the late 1980s, and although she visited Bahrain often, she saw her future in England. But when her father died in a car crash in 1993, she, as the eldest, was called home to oversee Gulf Computer Services, one of the family businesses. With her husband, she settled into life in Bahrain raising her two sons, Menashe and Ezra, now teenagers.
Upon her return, Nonoo became a champion of women’s issues. The first questions Nonoo often gets asked in the U.S. are if women in Bahrain can walk the streets unaccompanied (yes) or drive (and yes). Many are surprised to see her without a headscarf. “Some women totally cover up; some do not—it’s their choice,” says Nonoo. “My cultural counselor, for example, has six girls in her family. Two dress Western, two wear the hijab and two only show their eyes.”
Despite these positives, systemic inequalities still exist for Bahraini women. In 2004, Nonoo founded the Bahrain Human Rights Watch Society, an organization dedicated to the empowerment of women in Bahrain. She believes that the personal status of women—the issues surrounding marriage and divorce that fall under the sharia code—is one of the most pressing issues in the Muslim world today. The Bahrain Human Rights Watch Society is a watchdog group that focuses on passing unified personal-status legislation to protect women in divorce and child custody cases. The Bahrain campaign, however, is facing resistance from Islamic clerics. “It’s very frustrating,” Nonoo says, describing efforts to enact a personal status law as “currently at a standstill.”
Unlike Saudi Arabia, Bahrain has opened its political system to women. In 2002 it became the first Persian Gulf nation to extend voting rights to them with the support of the king’s wife, Sheikha Sabika, who established the Supreme Council on Women to promote women’s rights and their full participation in Bahraini society. Even so, there is stiff opposition: In a poll on the issue, 60 percent of Bahraini women opposed their own suffrage, and in 2002, eight women ran for parliament and none were elected. In 2006, 18 women ran, but only one, Latifa Al-Qaoud, was elected, in an uncontested race; in 2010, Al-Qaoud held on to her seat and remains the only woman elected to Bahrain’s parliament.
Overall, appointments made by the king have done more to put women in power than has the popular vote. There are currently 11 women in the Shura Council up from six in 2002. Nonoo, who was drawn into politics through her interest in human rights, was appointed in 2006 by King Hamad to the Shura Council, where she served on the Committee for Finance and Economic Affairs. Her selection as ambassador to the United States came as a complete shock. “The foreign minister said he had good news. I said, ‘you’re joking.’ I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.” According to Wikileaks documents, the American Embassy in Bahrain was pleased to hear of the appointment; Ambassador J. Adam Ereli sent a cable to Washington, describing Nonoo as “bright, genuine, and refreshingly direct,” adding that she was “a good friend of the United States” and “a strong supporter of human rights and political liberalization.” Soon the international press started buzzing about the Arab state’s future Jewish woman ambassador. “The headlines were ‘Jewish Female,’” says Nonoo. “They forgot I was Bahraini.”
“It is a very patriarchal society, so to name a woman—to name a Jewish woman—is remarkable,” says Mary Coons, international editor of Bahrain Telegraph, calling it “a smart political move on the king’s part.” (Nonoo is the second of three female Bahraini ambassadors—the first was appointed to France in 2000 and the third to China in 2010.) But skeptics said that the appointment of Nonoo, who had no diplomatic experience, was a savvy play to hammer home the message of Bahrain’s comparative tolerance and openness to the West. She gamely admits she was new to diplomacy. “I didn’t know what an ambassador did,” she says. “I have been on a learning curve since I have been here.”