Civic space in Bahrain is currently considered closed, according to the CIVICUS Monitor. In 2018, Bahrain was highlighted among the countries that needed urgent attention from the United Nations Human Rights Council as a result of "documented cases of arbitrary arrests, detentions, torture, and ill-treatment of human rights defenders."
On June 22, 2011, human rights defender Abdul-Hadi Abdulla Hubail Al-Khawaja was violently arrested and sentenced to life in prison. Since his arrest and detention, Al-Khawaja has reportedly been ill-treated and severely tortured physically, psychologically, and sexually. He has suffered many fractures to his jaw and has undergone multiple surgeries; he experiences chronic pain and requires additional intervention as he has not healed properly.
His daughter, Maryam Al-Khawaja, says he is also at risk of losing sight in his right eye because he has been denied treatment for trauma to the head and potentially glaucoma.
Marking the 11-year anniversary of her father's imprisonment, Maryam shares with Global Citizen how his work impacted human rights activists in Bahrain and the Gulf region, while also motivating her to pursue activism of her own. She also speaks on the work that remains in the fight for freedom in her home country of Bahrain.
My name is Maryam Al-Khawaja. I was born in Syria and we moved to Denmark when I was about a year and a half old. My siblings, parents, and I were stateless refugees and we were able to get asylum in Denmark. My family is originally from Bahrain, and my parents are both activists. They were both under the risk of imprisonment and torture and therefore they fled, along with a large number of other Bahrainis.
We ended up being about 21 Bahraini families in Denmark at the time and even had our own little social club where we would gather every Saturday. I think the idea was that my parents wanted to make sure that we understood where we were from and why we were in Denmark — and who we are, what our background and our culture was, while also living in Denmark and being a part of Denmark.
My parents did everything to give us the best childhood they could, which wasn't easy. We lived in a country that was extremely racist, that didn't really want us there. Despite that, my parents tried to instill in us the values and principles that they thought were important, such as fighting for justice, standing against oppression, and that if you see something wrong happening, if you don't stop to do anything about it, then it says a lot about you as a person.
One of the things they taught us was to ask ourselves, “What's something good that I did today?”
My father — Abdul-Hadi Abdulla Hubail al-Khawaja — also loved to ask us questions and then not give us the answer to have us think about things. One of the questions that I remember him asking us was, “The people are like a huge giant and the government is like this tiny, tiny man. So why is it that this tiny man can hold this huge giant in shackles and get the giant to do what it wants?” They were open-ended questions to make us think.
Marking the 11-year anniversary of her father's imprisonment, Maryam Al-Khawaja shares with Global Citizen how his work impacted human rights activists in Bahrain and the Gulf region, while also motivating her to pursue activism of her own.
I was 14 when we moved to Bahrain, and over the next 10 years until the revolution (known as the Arab Spring), we watched my father be willing to put everything at risk to speak out. He started the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights and the Gulf Centre for Human Rights, and more than once, he was actually offered a deal by the government to try and get him to stop speaking out — and he refused them. It was a lot of money, but he rejected it and he said that it was very important that there always be someone that's keeping track of things, and calling out what's wrong in the country.
Over those years, we lived in a state of fear of whether my father would come home at night or not. We watched my father get beaten up by police, and get arrested multiple times. We watched him go on a hunger strike in prison. My sisters, my mom, and I would participate in protests to support him and to try and get him out.
My father has been a thorn in the side of the governments for a very, very long time. And I would say not just the Bahraini regime, but also the Gulf regimes, which made him a problem. That’s why it's also made it so difficult for us to really get him out of prison, because it's not just the Bahraini government that doesn't want him out of prison, it's the Gulf regimes generally.
My father spent his years, those 10 years before the revolution, travelling to places like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and other places to meet with people and to talk to them about why it was incredibly important to have civil society space, to be human rights defenders, and to start movements.
Since I've started the work that I've been doing over the past 11 or 12 years, I've met a number of people who told me that they became activists because of my father, that he inspired them, that they met with him and they decided to start their activism after that. And so, he really had an influence in really pushing for activism and human rights defenders in the region, which is why the [government officials] were so angry with him.
When the revolution started in Bahrain in 2011, my father was already someone that they were very angry with. He participated in the protests, where he stood on the stage and always used human rights language.
Even when people were being arrested and tortured, even when he was arrested multiple times and he was beaten, he always said: “We don't use violence, they use violence. And if we were ever to have a representative government, we wouldn't imprison them unjustly. We wouldn't torture them because we're better than that. We would do better. We would give them fair trials, we would give them due process. We would make sure that they are not subjected to the ills and the violations that they subjected us to.”
He was always very, very clear on this. So I think because of the role that he played regionally, because of the language that he used, that made him very dangerous, because he also spoke about economic rights, corruption, poverty, unemployment, the amount of land that was stolen by the government, and members of the ruling family.
However, the crackdown in Bahrain didn't start in 2011 — it actually started in 2010 and we saw things get much worse during that time. I actually had to flee the country myself and spent about seven months in London. When what is called the Arab Spring arrived, I decided to return home because I wanted to participate.
A reflection of Seth Binder, Director of Advocacy at Project on Middle East Democracy, pushing Bahraini human rights activist Maryam Al-Khawaja in a wheelchair is seen as they tour around near the Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on May 5, 2022.
The thing with Bahrain that's interesting is that our civil rights movement is one of the oldest in the region. We’ve had uprisings almost every 10 years since the 1920s. People were making the exact same demands that we're making now about representative government, self-determination, human rights, basic rights and freedoms that they want respected. And so, this is a continuation of a wave of civil rights movements and demands around human rights and civil liberties that my people have been fighting for a very long time.
I think that that's one of the things that is interesting about the way that the Western media portrayed the uprisings in the region, and how they love to say that they were Twitter uprisings or Facebook uprisings or that they caused each other. I've always disagreed with that. I don't think that there were Twitter or Facebook uprisings. Twitter and Facebook were tools in the hands of people like myself and my colleagues, and the people that took to the streets. But they weren't what caused the uprising. We caused the uprisings: us the youth, the people.
In Bahrain, how it works, as it does in many countries and the region and beyond, is that if you are an activist, you're not the only one who is targeted. Your family becomes targeted because they know that while you might be willing to go to prison to risk your life, your well-being, your finances, and so on for the work that you do, it's more difficult to know that other people are risking it along with you. So when they targeted our family, they didn't just target my father.
In 2010, when I came back to Bahrain from the United States, I was on a Fulbright Scholarship. My plan was that I was going to get a job and start working just like everyone else I knew in Bahrain. But what ended up happening is that no one would hire me because of my last name, because of my dad's activism. And it was the same with my younger sister who graduated as a nurse, and they refused to give her the paperwork to allow her to be employed, even though she graduated not only with the top scores of her class, with the top scores of the entire school. This was part of how they target you.
Maryam Al-Khawaja speaks to Kimberly Stanton, Democratic Staff Director of Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission during a meeting about Al-Khawaja’s father, who has been imprisoned since 2011, at Thomas P. O’Neill Jr. House Office Building in Washington, DC.
I remember the only interview that I was called in for, the man who looked at my CV and he looked at me and he said, “Abdul-Hadi Abdulla Hubail al-Khawaja? Isn't that the man who is in and out of prison?” And I said yes — to which he said, “Oh, and you're expecting to get a job?” and he laughed. That’s when I realised that there wasn't much of an opportunity for a normal life. So, I started volunteering with the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights. I had already volunteered previously and, at that time, my dad wasn't running it.
In some ways, of course, my trajectory has a lot to do with my parents and how I grew up, but especially my dad. In other ways, it also took a life of its own.
In terms of the civic space in Bahrain, I would say things have actually gotten worse. It's not as obvious. It's not as "in your face" because you don't have people getting shot on the streets and killed. As a result, many people say it has gotten so much better. You no longer hear news of children being shot in the neck with tear gas canisters and being killed by the police.
What happened is that they've shut things down. Bahrain went from being or having very little space to actually speak out, to organise, and exist for civil society and human rights defenders to having none at all. That's why I say it's gotten worse — and I would say not just in Bahrain, but we've seen this as a trend across the region. The only opposition societies that existed in Bahrain were all shut down. What little public space we had as a people in Bahrain has been completely taken away from us. Bahrain has turned completely into a police state. You have police on every turn and corner, wherever you go. And so, it's shifted from being a place where you could speak out and then risk being arrested or at least be able to organise on the down-low, to a place where you can't breathe without being watched, without being surveilled, without having people come after you.
However, we are giants and the government is a tiny, tiny man. How do we, as a giant, unshackle ourselves and make this world a better place for all of us? I think that's really the question. I know that there is not a straightforward answer as to what people can do right now. I think that if you have democratic governments, talk to your representatives, ask them why they're not doing better. Ask them about the double standards that they hold for their allies versus others, and explain to them how it's such a short-term vision and strategy to think that supporting dictators is a good thing.
Seth Binder, Director of Advocacy at Project on Middle East Democracy, pushes Bahraini human rights activist Maryam Al-Khawaja in a wheelchair as they spend time on Capitol Hill ahead of meetings, in Washington, DC on May 5, 2022.
Talking to your representatives, tweeting, writing about these things, and creating solidarity is important. Solidarity is so important. And I know this because when I was in prison, knowing that people were tweeting about me, knowing that people knew that I was in prison, that they were talking about it, made all of the difference. I don't think one can really fathom that unless one has been in that situation, what it means to be sitting in a prison cell and knowing that people outside care. So sometimes even the 280 characters in a tweet that we think are pointless makes or breaks a person who's spending time in prison.
Then there is also pushing and creating pressure, whether it's through petitions, campaigning, protests, and raising cases of people who are in prison and fighting against the human rights violations that exist, and especially in democratic countries, knowing when your government commits crimes, violates human rights, supports dictatorships, and helps prop them up. You voted for these people and therefore you hold part of that responsibility and must speak out against it. I take that very seriously myself as a Danish citizen. I feel like I have a responsibility to call out my government in Denmark, and to say that what they're doing does not represent me, that I don't agree with it, and that I will vote for people who are closer to my principles and values come next election.
Bahraini human rights activist Maryam Al-Khawaja is photographed for a portrait near the Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on May 5, 2022.
As told to Gugulethu Mhlungu.
The 2022 In My Own Words series was made possible thanks to funding from the Ford Foundation.