Dubbed “the inconvenient revolution” by those on the ground who have fought it, Bahrain’s democratic uprising remains very much a black dot on the Arab Spring map, a revolutionary movement which the media has gladly avoided due to the overlapping and conflicting political and moral interests it has laid bare.
“We knew that Bahrain’s freedom would be subject to contention. It has to do with Bahrain being central to Britain and other foreign powers’ strategic interests in the region,” Maryam al-Khawaja said in a recent interview with MintPress News.
More than an island kingdom home to just over 1.3 million people, less than half of whom are Bahraini nationals, Bahrain is a geostrategic jewel of extraordinary importance to Gulf monarchies as well as Western powers. Both the United States and Great Britain understand Bahrain and its regime as crucial to maintaining, preserving, and carrying out their respective military, political, economic and hegemonic interests in the region. A piece in the greater puzzle which is the Middle East, Bahrain simply cannot fall out of its designated political zone.
While such powers may feel their interests can take precedence over the Bahraini people’s inherent right to self-determination, one family in Bahrain, the Khawajas, have ensured that the voices of Bahrainis continue to carry over the political white noise. Acting as a beacon and a rallying point for all those whose hopes and cries have been crushed under the repressive Al Khalifa regime, the Khawajas have very much risen as the champions of the ongoing Bahraini uprising.
Overlapping foreign and regional interests
As investigative journalist Alberto Cruz wrote for Scoop at the very onset of the revolutionary movement in March 2011, “The geostrategic importance of events in this small country is so great that if the current revolt triumphs it will affect Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.”
By way of foreign alliances, any fallout in Saudi Arabia will echo across the world’s capitals — London, Washington, Moscow and Tehran, to name a few — and thus, essentially turn the world’s balance of power on its head.
Summing up Western interests in Bahrain, Cruz explained in his analysis that oil, military interests and regional political pressure points vis-a-vis countries like Iran stand in the way of Bahrainis’ emancipation.
Bahrain’s revolutionaries have been facing these realities, walls and powers since 2011. Of course, Bahrain’s march toward freedom and democracy began decades ago, but 2011 came to represent the unyielding need for immediate change. After decades of living in autocratic darkness, Bahrainis decided to reclaim their rightful place under the sun, hoping to reinvent themselves as the masters of their own political and religious destinies. The Khawaja family has stood at the forefront of this movement, with each member shaping not just a movement, but a way of being.
“My mother brought me into this world free”
Speaking before a court in Bahrain earlier this month as she faced charges relating to “the destruction of government property” (in this case, tearing up of a photograph of King Hamad Bin Issa Al Khalifa), a very pregnant Zainab al-Khawaja declared, “I am the daughter of a proud and free man. My mother brought me into this world free, and I will give birth to a free baby boy, even if it is inside our prisons. It is my right, and my responsibility as a free person, to protest against oppression and oppressors.”
But who are the Khawajas? Like the Mandelas of South Africa, the Khawaja family is in the business of freedom. When it comes to speaking up for people’s inherent civil liberties and human rights, the Khawajas are standing on the frontlines, unapologetic and definitely unafraid. Whether it’s Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, one of Bahrain’s most prominent and well-known rights activists and the founder of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, his wife, Khadija al-Mousawi, or his daughters, Maryam and Zainab al-Khawaja, it’s apparent that activism runs in this family’s DNA.
Thrown into the world of activism as a teen, Maryam, now 27, picked up her family’s legacy when both her father and her sister fell victim to the wrath of Al Khalifa, prisoners of conscience in a state that many accuse of lacking any moral standing. Abdulhadi al-Khawaja has remained in prison since April 9, 2011, when he was arrested for his role in the 2011 pro-democracy uprising. Zainab has been arrested multiple times, and has reported to Amnesty International about being physically assaulted while in police custody.
In an exclusive interview with MintPress, Maryam explained how she became instrumental in the Bahrain revolution and what she hopes will ultimately dethrone Al Khalifa.
“Activism is something we grew up with as children. We grew up around parents who have been activists all their life, not just my father but also my mother. My mother has actually been the driving force in my family, the engine behind our dedication to not only Bahrain but human rights in general. My mum has always been very strong and very outspoken. She has molded us into who we are and made us aware of the responsibilities we should all, as people, carry for ourselves, our family and our community,” she told MintPress from the headquarters of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights in Denmark.
She continued, saying she understands her work as a human rights defender as more of a calling than a profession, the manifestation of a responsibility rather than the fulfilment of personal ambitions.
“To some extent, the reason why we [the family] are at the forefront of the Bahrain revolution is because we were offered the tools and the knowledge. Our parents helped shape and nurture our commitment to fairness and justice, our understanding of what it means to defend people’s inherent rights and demand that all be treated equally,” she said.
Though some may understand activism as a means for someone to promote his or her ambitions and political narrative, she stressed that for her family and hundreds of human rights defenders across the region and the world, the focus is on giving a voice to those who have been silenced.
Change begins within, not without
Recalling her father’s footsteps, Maryam said that after her father was released from jail in 2005, people turned to him to lead and initiate change, but this isn’t what he had envisioned.
“My father didn’t want to tell people what to do. Back in 2005, he gave a speech and explained that the easiest thing for people to do would be to follow a leader when really they should look within to engineer change and bring about the society they dream about … it is about self-empowerment and political emancipation. And that really spoke to me,” she explained. “I think this is what my father stands for and this is what I strive to achieve for my country.”
She emphasized that she and her family want to serve the people, not tell them what to do.
“As a Bahraini human rights defender, my job is not to speak for the people but to amplify the voice of the people and become a vessel for their cries, aspirations, hopes … I want to make sure that the voiceless do not remain voiceless,” she said.
“I speak on behalf of people. This is how I see it, anyway.”
Of the over 3,000 men and women remain in Bahraini prisons, according to the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, few have tested the bile of Al Khalifa in the same manner as the Khawajas. Harassed, oppressed, followed, brutalized, victimized, tortured and imprisoned, father, mother and daughters have paid dearly for their convictions and their refusal to bow to a system they deem both amoral and unjust.
Systematic repression and what the future holds
When asked why she felt Al Khalifa royals have been aggressive in their systematic crusade against her family, Maryam described the monarchy’s ire as a symptom of Al Khalifa’s tribal mentality and a reflection of the monarchy’s own political inadequacies and inability to relate to their people’s demands.
“The regime has always felt compelled to oppress and suppress. Our family has always been outspoken and Al Khalifa has always been wary of my father and my mother and their work. My father decided he wanted to be the person who would hold the regime accountable for its actions, even when it would have been easy for him to fall into the political trap,” she said.
“Because they could not buy us they chose to oppress us. My father became a problem because he was the only one speaking out. Oppressive regimes fear human rights as, unlike in politics, there is no shying away from the truth … there is no grey area. You are either a criminal or a good man. This is scary to the regime, and therefore, we had to be silenced.”
Maryam and her family are determined to continue their mission, but she urged the need to maintain realistic expectations for the task ahead.
“There are geopolitical ramifications to Bahrain and I know that certain powers, mainly Britain, will be hard to crack … There are historical ties in between Bahrain and the United Kingdom which go back centuries … There is a pattern of economic interests, political allegiances and military parameters that come into play when it comes to Bahrain. We know that, but yet a people cannot be made to live in slavery because it is politically and economically convenient to foreign powers,” she said.