Bahrain’s Spring: Activism and Society in Revolt
Maryam Al Khawaja talks to Azzurra Meringolo 19 November 2012

At the end of September, 13 doctors and nurses who treated anti-government protesters during demonstrations in Bahrain earlier this year were jailed for 15 years for crimes against the state. Seven other medical professionals were given sentences of between 5 and 10 years by a special tribunal set up during the emergency rule imposed following the protests. What is the situation in Bahrain now?

The doctors’ trial has been closely watched and criticized by human rights groups because of Bahrain’s use of “special military tribunals”, which have military prosecutors and both civilian and military judges, to prosecute civilians. Most of the medical staff worked at the Salmaniya Medical Centre in Manama, which was stormed by security forces after on March they drove protesters out of the nearby Pearl Square, the focal point of Bahrain’s protest movement . Since 2011, protests have never stopped and are held almost every day. But something has changed. What has changed is the Bahraini regime’s self-confidence. Now they feel they have international immunity. They feel that, no matter what they do, they will not face consequences for their actions. This allows them to do whatever they want. They are going against the most prominent human rights defenders. They would never have done this last year. Now they feel free to do what they want, because they know that, even if there are international statements, there are no consequences.

Your father, Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, is one of Bahrain’s most prominent human rights activists. After 12 years in exile, in 1999 he returned to Manama, but he is currently in prison, after the repression of pro-democracy protests. In July, Khawaja’s longtime friend and collaborator, Nabeel Rajab, was arrested and detained for criticizing the country’s leadership on Twitter and eventually charged with organizing illegal protests and sentenced to three years imprisonment. Your sister Zaynab, aka angryarabia, was also detained for participating in protests, and has run significant public risks in an effort to draw attention to the regime’s brutality. What is their situation?

In recent years, my father has been the subject of ongoing harassment, including physical attacks and smear campaigns in the media. He has often been tortured. While in jail he recently decided to start a hunger strike. Rajab was recently sentenced to three years imprisonment. Amnesty International too has asked for the release of opposition activists and prisoners of conscience. But it never happened. I am the only one in the family free who is free to speak out since I am not in Bahrain, but in Denmark. If I were in Bahrain, I would be in their same situation.

Do you think anyone from your organization who tries to lead protests will also be silenced?

They tend not to target everyone in the same way so that attention is not focused on one issue such as, for example, arrests. Said Yousif has already been arrested and released several times, and he’s been beaten on the streets and that is without counting the threats he continues to receive.

Bahrain’s Sunni royal family rules over a Shiite majority. There are those who say that Bahrain’s protesters are taking orders from Iran, and others who argue that the Saudis are the ones who are supporting the regime. What is the role of Shiites and Sunnis in the popular revolt?

Bahrain is not a Shiite country. Bahrain belongs to Bahrainis, it belongs the them all. The protests too are for everyone. What happens in many oppressed country is that the government tries to divide people on religious issues in order to control them. In Egypt, they tried to convince the world that there was a battle between Muslims and Copts (10% of Egyptians are of Christians). In Syria, they are convincing people that the Alawites are against Sunnis, but this is not the case. In Bahrain, we have an oppressive regime against the people, no matter their religion. The regime wants to transform the revolt into a sectarian issue, but this is just for their benefit. It is not the truth. At the end of the day, if you are Sunni and you criticize the regime, you will be sentenced to prison and tortured. If you are a Shiite and you defend the government, you could become a minister. What matters does not depend on whether one is Shiite or Sunni, but whether one criticizes the government or not.

Could you give us a picture of activism in Bahrain?

These protests showed that young people not only are active, but also really well organized. The protests were called for by young people using Facebook. They called for protests on February 14 because this date coincides with the 10th anniversary of the day the king unilaterally changed the constitution appointing himself as the highest authority in the country. In Martyrs’ Square, the name protesters have chosen for the Pearl Roundabout after people were killed there, people do not know one another but have organized themselves in different groups. For instance one group came down to the Square and opened a media centre, another group volunteered to clean the streets during and after protests.

According to recent research by Mastercard, Bahraini women are the most empowered in the Arab region. What role do women play in the uprising?

They play a very important role. Sometimes, western observers think they do not play a leading role just because they stand in a different line from the men. But this is a cultural attitude. I do not think we should consider women as oppressed just because men and women protest in separate groups. Sometimes it is just more comfortable not to be stuck between two men. One of the goals of the Arab Spring is to remove western stereotypes. My favorite Arab Spring video is the one of a Bahraini woman wearing an abaya and writing graffiti on the wall saying: “even if the men stop, the women will continue”.

Photo: Maryam Al Khawaja (by amnestystudent, cc)