With her country in crisis and her father in prison, a twenty-six-year-old exile becomes the international face of Bahrain’s restive uprising.
On August 8, 2013, Maryam Al-Khawaja walked up to a check-in counter at London’s Heathrow airport to pick up her ticket home. The woman who put Al-Khawaja’s information into the computer gave a confused look before informing her that she was not allowed to board the flight to her native country of Bahrain.
The government of the small, Persian Gulf island had contacted the airline and requested that Al-Khawaja not be allowed on this — or any other — flight to the country. The airline had no choice but to comply.
In that moment, at the age of twenty-six, Al-Khawaja officially became an exile. But her life had been heading in that direction for a long time. Born into a family of activists, the uprisings of the Arab Spring in 2011 thrust Al-Khawaja into the role of high-profile human rights defender. Now, as the Bahraini government has cracked down on dissidents, she can no longer return home.
For the three years since protests began in Bahrain, as the regime tortured and imprisoned members of her family and other activists, Al-Khawaja has been trying to raise awareness in the international community about the human rights abuses perpetrated by her government. Composed and confident, with quick, intelligent eyes that convey an energetic, undeterred dedication to her work, Al-Khawaja has unwittingly been preparing for this role her whole life.
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Bahrain is tucked like a small pearl in the gulf between Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province and the peninsular nation of Qatar. The island has a long history of protest for expanded civil and political rights, stretching back to at least the 1930s. At that time, Bahrain was a British protectorate and protesters were demanding greater autonomy and self-governance.
Even as the ruling Al-Khalifa family, which has governed the island for over 200 years, gained more independence from Britain, largely secular and nationalist opposition movements continued to call for greater popular representation in the government. The Al-Khalifa regime has responded to each successive round of unrest with campaigns of arrest and by driving opposition leaders into exile.
Al-Khawaja was born into this ebb and flow of protest and oppression. Her parents, both activists, met in London, where they had fled from a government crackdown in the early 1980s. The couple then briefly relocated to Syria, where Maryam Al-Khawaja, one of four daughters, was born in 1987. With prospects of returning to Bahrain slim and no path to citizenship in Syria, Al-Khawaja’s parents decided to seek political asylum in Denmark in 1991.
Growing up in Denmark, Maryam Al-Khawaja’s life revolved around a tight-knit community of Bahraini families who relocated to the country to avoid political persecution. “We grew up like brothers and sisters in the community,” she says.
The adults intentionally raised the younger generation with an awareness of their Bahraini identity. “Every Saturday we had the Bahrain Danish club,” Al-Khawaja recalls. “It was mandatory.” Al-Khawaja and the other children learned patriotic songs, put on plays with national themes, and were introduced to the culture of a country most had never seen. “We hated it when we were kids, but now I’m really glad they did that,” Al-Khawaja says.
Al-Khawaja’s parents never intended to stay in Denmark. Despite the financial burden, they sent her to an English language international school because having a command of English would be more helpful than Danish once the family returned to Bahrain. They also made sure she took Arabic classes outside of school so she would be able to communicate in her native language.
Because her life revolved around the Bahraini community and international school, Al-Khawaja never really connected with the Danish social world. “I grew up in Denmark for twelve years,” she says, but “I never really had any Danish friends.”
She was also steeped in her parents’ activist tradition. “We were constantly told by my parents that if you see an injustice and you don’t do anything about it, then there is something missing in your own humanity and with your faith,”Al-Khawaja says.
Her father, Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, continued to be politically active during the family’s time in Bahrain. A lithe and tirelessly optimistic man, Abdulhadi co-founded the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, which is focused on the rights of political prisoners, and organized demonstrations to draw international attention to the issue. Al-Khawaja grew up attending these protests, and the ethics of human rights permeated the family’s life.
“My father told me one thing,” Al-Khawaja says, “that you either stand for human rights everywhere or not at all.”
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In 2001 a new leader, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, ascended to power following the death of his father. The beginning of his rule marked a moment of hope for reform.
The National Action Charter (NAC), a document that laid out a vision for political, judicial and economic reform, encapsulated the sense of optimism brought by Hamad’s rule. Almost ninety percent of eligible voters in Bahrain cast ballots in a popular referendum on the NAC, with ninety-eight percent of those voters supporting its adoption. Hamad’s government repealed the State Security Law, which had, since 1975, allowed for the imprisonment of individuals for up to three years without trial. The government also pardoned a number of political prisoners and invited activists and political leaders to return from exile. After two decades, Al-Khawaja’s mother and father were finally able to return home with their daughters, who had never seen the island.
“We had such a sense of culture shock going to Bahrain,” Al-Khawaja, who was fourteen at the time, recalls. Raised as a Bahraini, Al-Khawaja always felt like an outsider in Denmark, and thought returning to Bahrain would make her feel a sense of belonging. “I moved to Bahrain and suddenly everyone in my high school called me the Dane,” she says. She realized shortly after returning that, as she now puts it, “even if I live in Bahrain, even if I come from the same background, people in Bahrain are never going to see me as completely belonging.”
“To be very honest, I didn’t like Bahrain,” Al-Khawaja continues. “I didn’t want to live there. I was looking for the first opportunity to leave. I blamed my parents for moving us there. I just wanted to go back to Denmark.”
She was also frustrated by the political attitudes of the people she encountered in Bahrain. Because the community she grew up in consisted of political dissidents, Al-Khawaja assumed she would be moving to a country of revolutionaries. Instead, she says, “I went back to a country where most people were apolitical and did not want to talk about politics or human rights.”
Her father continued to be politically active, co-founding the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR), an umbrella organization that trained marginalized torture survivors, women and migrant workers to advocate for themselves, and organized protests to raise the profile of human rights issues on the island.
In the beginning, Al-Khawaja attended her father’s protests. “I saw how it was always no more than twenty people,” she says. “The police would come and beat the crap out of them and then they would either get thrown in prison for a night or let go.”
She also saw that most people viewed her father as a troublemaker, and as a result she became one of his biggest critics. “I used to tell my dad there’s actually no point in what you are doing,” she recalls. “’How can you change a society, how can you change a country, if the society doesn’t want to change?’”
For a time, Maryam Al-Khawaja turned her back on the activist tradition of her family. She got a job at The Lost Paradise of Dilmun Water Park and then worked as a teacher while attending university. “I had a convertible car, and my biggest worry was which restaurant were my friends and I going to in the evening,” she says.
“I was disenchanted with, specifically, what my dad was doing,” Al-Khawaja explains. “As for human rights in general, I never lost interest.”
Before too long, the force of events beyond her control would push Al-Khawaja back into the world of activism.
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In the summer of 2010, Al-Khawaja sat down for a job interview. She had recently returned to Bahrain after spending a year in the United States on a Fulbright scholarship and was on the hunt for a job that would pay enough to buy a sports car and spend time at nice restaurants with her friends. She had sent out applications to every position she could find and only heard back from one company.
At the beginning of the interview, the manager looked at Al-Khawaja’s name on her resume and then at her over the top of the paper. He asked, “Isn’t your dad in and out of prison?” To which, Al-Khawaja truthfully answered, “Yes.” The manager replied, “I hope you are not expecting too many callbacks.” And the interview ended.
“I couldn’t find a job,” Al-Khawaja says. So, she started volunteering with the BCHR, which was looking for someone with strong English skills to be the organization’s liaison to the international human rights community.
By 2010, the optimism and goodwill surrounding the early years of Hamad’s rule had long since faded. One year to the day after the referendum on the NAC, Hamad had declared Bahrain a kingdom by royal decree, making himself king. He then introduced a new constitution that included a bicameral National Assembly, as had been agreed upon in the NAC. However, the power to enact legislation was vested in the upper house, whose members are appointed by the king. Critics lamented that the National Assembly had very little real authority and the king could still govern with almost no counterbalance to his power. Opposition parties grew increasingly frustrated and distrustful of the government.
By the fall of 2010, according to veteran Middle East analyst and George Washington University professor Marc Lynch, “the regime had become increasingly intolerant, arresting bloggers and journalists and various activists on trumped-up and widely disbelieved charges.”
At the BCHR, Maryam Al-Khawaja’s primary role was sending information about the arrest, detention and torture of activists, journalists and other opposition voices to international human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. These activities quickly placed her on the Bahraini government’s radar. Numerous activists who had been detained and interrogated told her they had been questioned about her role with the BCHR.
“Usually, people who have their names brought up repeatedly during interrogations are the next targets for arrest,” Al-Khawaja explains. “So, within twenty-four hours I packed my bags and I left Bahrain.”
Al-Khawaja moved to London to work as the head of the BCHR’s international office. The move was calculated so that the organization would have a voice on the outside as the crackdown on dissent in Bahrain intensified.
The quick succession of events, from being blacklisted for employment because of her father’s political activity to self-imposed exile to avoid arrest, solidified her return to the world of human rights.
“In my mind, I never planned to become a human rights defender,” she says. “It was the government that pushed me towards it.”
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In January 2011, when protests rippled across the Middle East, Al-Khawaja was still in London. The events of the Arab Spring inspired activists in Bahrain to begin using social media to organize demonstrations calling for the regime to make good on the reforms it promised in 2001. The activists chose February 14, the ten-year anniversary of the NAC, as the date for the protests to begin.
Al-Khawaja contributed to the calls for protest from abroad, but was not overly optimistic about their success. “I didn’t think it was going to happen,” she says. “I thought twenty people would show up, get beaten and go home, and that would be the end of it.”
Still, she returned to Bahrain around the first week of February. “I knew I was going at the risk of being arrested,” she explains, “but I didn’t care. I wanted to make sure that if anything happened, I was there.”
When February 14 arrived, protesters gathered across Bahrain. According to the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), a task force created by the king to investigate the events of February and March 2011, approximately 6,000 people took part in protests on the first day.
In the streets, the people chanted slogans calling for reform. The unifying cry of the Arab Spring, “The people want to overthrow the regime,” became, “The people want to reform the regime.”
The protesters were very careful with their message. The ruling Al-Khalifa family is Sunni Muslim, and the majority Shia population claims it has suffered from systematic discrimination over decades of Al Khalifa rule. While the anti-regime protestors’ demands have never been sectarian, according to Cambridge University research fellow and author of “Sectarian Gulf,” Toby Matthiesen, the Bahraini government, like others in the region, has stoked sectarian fears to divide and control the population over the years. Sensitive to the possibility of the demonstrations being viewed as sectarian, the protesters expressed their grievances in the language of civil, political and human rights. Chants such as “No Sunni, no Shia, national unity!” could be heard along with calls for the government to respect the human rights of its citizens.
Eventually, police moved in to disperse the protesters. During the ensuing confrontation, officers shot a man, Ali Abdulhadi Mushaima, in the back. He died en route to the hospital.
“I personally saw him at the hospital. I can still close my eyes and see him right in front of me,” Al-Khawaja says, her face growing serious. “He was shot in the back with pellets while running away. The government says the police killed him in self-defense. It can never be self-defense if they are shot in the back.”
Early the next morning Al-Khawaja returned to the hospital with her father and sisters to take part in Mushaima’s funeral procession, consisting of around one thousand people. Government and protester reports of what happened next differ, but when the procession exited from the gates of the morgue, another confrontation broke out between marchers and the police.
After the confrontation, the funeral procession regrouped to bring Mushaima’s body for burial. It was at the cemetery that mourners received the news that another man, Fadi Salman Al-Matrouk, had died after being hit in the back at close range by a police shotgun blast. The funeral procession morphed into a political protest fueled by anger over the deaths. The marchers headed to the Pearl Roundabout, an iconic traffic circle in Bahrain’s capital of Manama, where they set up camp and settled in.
On February 16, thousands more Bahrainis joined the demonstrations as anger spread over the government’s heavy-handed response. According to the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry’s report, the participants in the protests represented “a cross-section of Bahraini society.”
That night, in the early hours of February 17, Al-Khawaja was at the Pearl Roundabout with about two thousand others. A rumor spread around the encampment that the police were coming to disperse the protesters. “And then I saw those flashing lights…and they started shooting without warning,” Al-Khawaja says.
Four protesters were killed and hundreds of others were wounded.
“It was horrifying what happened that night,” Al-Khawaja recalls. “I thought that it is impossible, after what I witnessed, that there is anyone who is going to have to guts to go back on the streets.”
But the government’s crackdown only increased public outrage and tens of thousands took to the streets to voice their frustration. The regime’s offer to initiate a national dialogue on reform seemed like too little too late after the events of the first three days of the protests. “Something had changed,” Al-Khawaja says.
People had lost the fear that had kept them silent — the silence that so frustrated Al-Khawaja when she first returned to the island, the fear she had mistaken for apathy. “I felt so ashamed for judging people when I did not understand why they were the way they were,” Al-Khawaja explains. “It was when people were attacked while they were sleeping, and I saw people get shot in front of me, and I felt that fear of being chased, of being wanted, that I understood.”
“It took the revolution to teach me that I do belong to Bahrain. I do respect people in Bahrain. It is a society I am very proud to be a part of,” she continues. “It’s after the revolution that Bahraini people started to see me as much more of a Bahraini than a Dane.”
Al-Khawaja’s newfound embrace of her home occurred under the pressure of the government’s continued crackdown. The more violent it became, the more protesters came out onto the streets. This cycle of repression and protest persisted for the remainder of February and into March, reaching several crescendos with demonstrations swelling to an estimated 100,000 to 300,000 participants — in a country with a native population of only around six hundred thousand.
Al-Khawaja was involved during every step of the protests. As the number of high-profile demonstrators being arrested and imprisoned grew, her family became increasingly concerned for her safety. Around the end of February, she received an invitation to testify at the United Nations Human Rights Council about the abuses during the government’s crackdown.
“My first response was, ‘Hell no,’” Al-Khawaja says. “With everything that is going on, there is no way I’m going to leave.”
Then her father sat her down and told her, “In a revolution everybody plays a different role. There are only so many people who are going to be on the outside making sure that the people who are being silenced in Bahrain are actually being heard. That’s a responsibility that has to fall on your shoulders.”
Her strong command of English and the connections she had built in the international human rights community during her time in London made her a natural fit to be a voice for the Bahraini revolution to the outside world. Ultimately, she decided to give testimony in Geneva and the United States, planning to return to Bahrain about two weeks later.
Al-Khawaja bought a round-trip ticket and left Bahrain at the beginning of March. “I left with a very small suitcase,” she says, “because I was like, ‘I’m going back, no matter what.’”
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During the two weeks of Al-Khawaja’s trip, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a political and economic union of Arab Persian Gulf states, invoked its collective security agreement for the first time, at the request of King Hamad.
On March 14, one month after the uprising began, around 1,000 troops from Saudi Arabia and 500 more from the United Arab Emirates rolled across the causeway connecting Bahrain to Saudi’s Eastern Province. The following day King Hamad declared a three-month period of martial law. Marc Lynch described the crackdown that ensued, symbolized by the sacking of the protest camp at the Pearl Roundabout, as “one of the most comprehensive, brutal, and oppressive of any in the region.”
“Once Saudi came in, I knew that going back means getting arrested on the spot and more than likely tortured,” Al-Khawaja says. Her fears were confirmed a week later when her uncle was violently arrested.
Then, on April 3, her father was arrested and charged with plotting to overthrow the monarchy. In a trial described as grossly unfair by human rights groups, he was sentenced to life in prison. During his imprisonment, human rights groups say that Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja has been subjected to torture and sexual assault.
As the government cracked down on her family members and other protestors in Bahrain, Al-Khawaja spent the remainder of 2011 watching, powerless, outside the country and living out of her suitcase. As the head of foreign affairs for the BCHR, she accepted every invitation to speak at universities, human rights organizations or other events and mostly lived in hotels. “I tried to play as big of a role as I could in making sure people didn’t forget what was happening,” she says.
By January 2012, the stress of following events in Bahrain from afar and her transient lifestyle took their toll on Al-Khawaja, who became very sick. She also realized that it would probably take a long time for the political situation to improve in Bahrain. In February, she decided to move back to Denmark so she would have a home base from which to continue her advocacy efforts.
Then, in July 2012, the president of the BCHR, Nabeel Rajab, was arrested and sentenced to two years in prison on various charges related to his role in ongoing protests. He was released from prison at the end of May. Al-Khawaja took over his position for the duration of his time in jail.
As part of her role, Al-Khawaja has spent the past three years talking to government officials in the United States about the human rights situation. For years, the United States has had a very close relationship with the government of Bahrain. The island is home to the United States Fifth Fleet, with more than six thousand American military personnel stationed there. As such, it has been a major part of America’s strategy, coordinated with other Gulf allies, to contain Iran, explains Cole Bockenfeld, advocacy director at the Project on Middle East Democracy.
Bahrain is also a major purchaser of American military technology, from weapons to aircrafts and tanks, and the first GCC country to establish a free-trade agreement with the United States.
Initially, the United States sent signals to the protesters in Bahrain that it supported the movement to reform the government. In a major speech about the Arab Spring in May 2011, President Obama said, “It will be the policy of the United States to promote reform across the region, and to support transitions to democracy.” Specifically about Bahrain, he added, “Mass arrests and brute force are at odds with the universal rights of Bahrain’s citizens…You can’t have a real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail. The government must create the conditions for dialogue.”
“The Bahrainis were really looking to the U.S. in the spring of 2011,” Bockenfeld says. “They really thought that they were on their side because we said we would be.” Instead, according to Bockenfeld, the U.S. has “never really been willing to use any leverage to push the Bahrainis for the reform they would like to see.”
For her part, “I went from somewhat optimistic to completely pessimistic about what role the U.S. could play,” says Al-Khawaja.
After three years of using non-violent means and being met by violent repression without gaining tangible international support, the Bahraini opposition runs the risk of becoming radicalized. Although it has not happened yet, Toby Matthiesen says the regime’s response to the protests is fueling a nightmare scenario where the opposition fractures along sectarian lines, seeks support from Iran and moves away from non-violence. “It’s dangerous, and it’s not getting any better,” he adds.
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The three-plus years since February 14, 2011, have been emotionally trying for Al-Khawaja. Denmark is still her home base, but she spends much of her time traveling to the United States and around Europe speaking about the human rights situation in Bahrain to anyone who will listen. While living in exile, she had to learn the details over the phone of how her father was beaten unconscious in front of her family when he was arrested. She also watched a YouTube video of her older sister, Zainab, being beaten and arrested.
“I felt like it was my responsibility to protect my family and that I failed,” Al-Khawaja says. “Even though that is not realistic and even though logically that doesn’t make any sense, you feel like you should’ve been there and you should have done something to stop that.”
“It’s really difficult seeing where we are headed right now,” Al-Khawaja says. “It’s a lot easier to be pessimistic than optimistic.
“You work day and night and you do what you can,” she continues, her shoulders slumping slightly as a small crack opens in her otherwise composed and energetic persona. “At the end of the day, there’s so few people that will actually listen.”
Al-Khawaja draws hope and strength from the protesters still on the ground in Bahrain. “Against all odds they’ve continued,” she says. “They’ve continued going out to the streets. They’ve continued getting shot at and killed, and they’ll continue tomorrow as well.”
She feels a sense of responsibility to the many people who approach her looking for help. “I can’t explain the number of mothers or sisters who call me or message me and think that I can get their sons out of prison or that I can stop them from being tortured,” she says. “I’ll do everything I can, but I can’t stop the torture.”
She is also motivated by a desire to see some measure of justice for the abuses she has witnessed. “Who is going to bring back the time that they lost?” she asks of the protesters imprisoned in Bahrain. “The fact that their father died when they were in prison. Who is going to bring back the fact that they weren’t able to say goodbye to their father before he died? Who is going to bring back the three years that this kid lost from high school? Who is going to take away the memories of the torture they experienced?”
“These are things that cannot be compensated,” she continues. “There are some things that will just never go away. The government can never make up for some of the mistakes they’ve made.”
At present, there is no end in sight for Al-Khawaja’s work as a Bahraini human rights defender, just as there is no end in sight for the unrest on the island. In the eight months following the beginning of the demonstrations, the Bahraini government put between 1,300 and 1,500 protesters behind bars. In the years that have followed, the government has continued to imprison many of the most prominent human rights activists and opposition voices. Yet the protests continue on an almost daily basis.
Despite the intractability and gravity of the situation, Al-Khawaja draws solace and strength from the words of her father, who told her, “If you are going to be a human rights defender, don’t do what you do because you think it’s going to result in something tomorrow. It might not even result in change in your lifetime. You do what you do because it is the right thing to do, whether it brings that wanted result or not.”
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Eric Reidy is a freelance journalist writing about the Middle East. His work covers topics ranging from human rights and environmental issues to entrepreneurship and culture. Follow him on Twitter:@eric_reidy