By Megan O’Doherty
21 April 2011
At 2 a.m. on April 11th, Bahraini human rights activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja was brutally beaten and dragged from his home. Currently he is imprisoned along with two of his daughters’ husbands. To protest the illegal detainment of her father, as well as that of her husband and brother-in-law, Zainab al-Khawaja, Beloit alum, class of ’07, went on a hunger strike for 10 days. Khawaja was willing to see her hunger strike out until the end, vowing that her next meal would be with her father, or else she would die trying to save her family and protesting the current condition of her country.
The imprisonment of Zainab’s father is one of many such injustices that has occurred recently due to a nationwide crackdown by Sunni king Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifah on the Shiite uprising. Khawaja used her Twitter account “angryarabiya” to keep followers updated on her status, and to comment on the current situation in Bahrain. On April 13, Zainab tweeted to her 10,000 followers “I don’t want to be a hero, I just want my family back.” On April 12, she wrote, “I’d rather die free than live as a slave under the Khalifah regime.” And on April 18, Khawaja and her family went into hiding due to the media coverage on her peaceful protest, and the subsequent animosity from the government.
Until recently, Bahrain had been considered one of the most stable Middle Eastern countries, despite the leadership of a Sunni king in a nation with a Shiite majority. Bahrain is a long chain of islands located off the east coast of Saudi Arabia. The country has been ruled by the Khalifah family since 1783, causing many struggles for power between the ruling Sunni minority and the rest of the population. In 2002 Bahrain made a step towards democracy and created a 40-member parliament, a dozen of which were Shiite Muslim. In the decade since the parliament was created, the inequality between the Muslim sects has lessened greatly. Recently, a reform was proposed which would eliminate two of the Shiite political parties, and establish more power for the party majority in parliament (i.e. Sunni political parties). This exacerbated the conflict between the groups and in February 2011, inspired by the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, the Shiite began to openly protest the inequality of the government. Although there have been several violent protests in the last three months, the government has exerted an unnecessary amount of force against protestors. King Khalifah has made it clear that he intends to stomp out all Shiite resistance immediately and by any means necessary. Approximately 30 Shiite protestors have died in the scuffle while hundreds have been detained. As of April 14th four people have “died under custody” since the protests began. The conditions for detainees are horrific; many are being subjected to torture, dehydration, harassment and, in some cases, sexual abuse. The situation is directly defying the United Nations’ (UN’s) human rights regulations and warnings, although little action has been taken by the UN to change conditions. Zainab al-Khawaja and her sister Maryam have suggested that the UN is purposefully ignoring these conditions at the request of the United States, who have had a close political alliance with the Bahraini monarchy for decades.
On April 20, Zainab finished her hunger strike after she learned that her family was safe, and trial proceedings began on April 20th. But her struggle isn’t over; Zainab and her sister still remain vocal and unrelenting advocates of human rights in Bahrain and thus, they are in constant danger of punishment by the government. Manama, the capital of Bahrain, is a dreary comparison to what it was only several months prior; nearly 1,000 troops constantly patrol the streets, police checkpoints are stationed all over the city, and a midnight curfew is strictly enforced. Despite this, Zainab and other Shiite activists seem more determined than ever to combat the political and social inequality in Bahrain today, Zainab’s twitter is constantly brimming with short messages of perseverance and concern for her family. On April 21, Zainab tweeted about her motivation during this struggle for inequality: “My baby is asleep unaware what her father, grandfather and others have to sacrifice so she and all children of Bahrain can live free.”
**Friday, April 22nd there will be a 24-hour fast in solidarity with Zainab. Also be sure to follow her on Facebook and Twitter: angryarabiya.