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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

For the past two and a half months, the government of Bahrain has supervised a brutal crackdown. It's been punishing opposition figures who led massive anti- government protests in February and March. Doctors, journalists, human rights workers, even elected officials have been detained and beaten.

NPR's Kelly McEvers recently spent time in Bahrain and sent this report on why women are now being targeted.

KELLY MCEVERS: The crackdown started in mid-March. Hundreds of thousands of Bahrainis had occupied the Pearl Roundabout, a public square marked by a white monument that looked like elongated fingers stretching a precious jewel toward the sky. The government says the protesters were engaged in a violent plot to overthrow the state. Protesters were dispersed and the monument was flattened.

Authorities detained hundreds, then thousands of men who were known to oppose the government. Then, they went after the women.

Unidentified Female #1: They took me from my work and from the beginning, they slapped me on my face, on my head, shoulder.

MCEVERS: This woman was recently detained, beaten, then let go. When we met, she was limping from pain. She agreed to be recorded only if she could whisper in English so authorities won't recognize her voice. The woman says she was taken by bus to a police station, blindfolded, and made to stand for five hours in a room. She was accused of working to bring down the Bahraini regime.

SIEGEL: They tried to force me to confess that I told people at my work to be against the regime.

MCEVERS: Authorities showed the woman a picture of someone protesting at Pearl Roundabout. At the time, Bahrain's crown prince said it was legal to protest. Now, authorities say it's a crime.

Female #1: They tried to force me to confess that a picture in a protest that it is my picture. And it was really not my picture.

MCEVERS: They taunted the woman about one of her relatives, who's been jailed without charge for many weeks.

Female #1: They said very bad things about them and they told me that, do you think he will come out of the jail? He will be - die in the jail.

MCEVERS: But perhaps the worst part of the ordeal was that the woman was detained at all. In an Arab culture, particularly in the Gulf, detaining a woman is the ultimate humiliation, going back to the days when the way one tribe defeated another was to capture and rape its women.

SIEGEL: They told me if I didn't confess, they will let men come and continue with me. They told me that.

MCEVERS: The threat was clear? They meant the men will do very bad things to you?

SIEGEL: Yes. I had to forgive.

MCEVERS: They were saying they will let these men come and rape you?

Female #1: No, they didn't say - but to beat, but strong and hardly beat.

MCEVERS: So that the men would beat you even harder because they're men.

Female #1: Yes, yes.

MCEVERS: Did you ever feel like you were in danger of something worse, of some kind of sexual attack?

Female #1: Maybe, yes. Maybe.

MCEVERS: So far, no Bahraini woman has reported being raped while in detention. Middle-aged men have reported being threatened with rape, and young men have reported being raped.

There is much, much more to this woman's story, details that simply can't be divulged at this time. One of her relatives is still in jail, and she's terrified for her children. Analysts in the region say this is the first time in the wave of protests sweeping the Arab world that large groups of women have been targeted for going against the government.

Bahraini human rights groups say hundreds of women have been detained in recent weeks. Most were released, dozens are still being held. One female journalist reportedly was beaten so badly she can't walk. Authorities have vowed to investigate. In my whole life, the whispering woman told me, I have never been treated like this.

No one has ever raised a finger to me, not a single unkind word. If they apologize for this, she says, maybe Bahrain can go forward again. But if they don't, we will live with this shame forever. And that shame might eventually turn into revenge.

Kelly McEvers, NPR News.

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