Zainab’s War: A mother risks everything for dignity

March 25, 2013

Bahraini police arrest Zainab Al-Khawaja in October 2012. (EPA/MAZEN MAHDI)

On Sunday, Zainab al-Khawaja, a 29-year-old human rights activist and mother from the tiny and pro-American nation of Bahrain, did two things.

First, she wrote an open letter, from prison, asking the U.S. to reconsider its support for the increasingly authoritarian Bahraini monarchy and imploring her fellow activists, frustrated by two years of mass protest that had achieved some of the most meager gains of the Arab Spring, to never give up their commitment to nonviolence.

Second, she stopped consuming liquids.

Her father, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, a well-known activist and co-founder of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights who has been in prison since April 2011, had begun his own "dry" hunger strike a week earlier. Now that Zainab has followed, her health appears to be deteriorating rapidly and dangerously. One doctor told the Bahrain Center for Human Rights that she is at "high risk" of death. According to the center, doctors told Khawaja that "she is at risk of organ failure, cardiac arrest or coma at any time."

The precipitous drop in blood sugar "will put her at high risk of sudden onset arrythmias loss of consciousness and possibly death especially [because] she is in a detention center were no cardiac monitor or cardiac resucitation service is available," according to a medical doctor named Fatima Haji, one of 20 Bahraini doctors who had been arrested and tortured for treating protesters.

Khawaja's wider cause, her war, is to peacefully bring freedom to Bahrain by shaming both its government and its American sponsors. But the battle for which she may sacrifice her life is distressingly small: the size of a prison uniform. The guards at her prison insist she wear the orange garb of a criminal, one being held for disrupting traffic and insulting an officer. Khawaja believes she is in fact a prisoner of conscience and refuses to wear a uniform suggesting otherwise. "I knew I couldn’t put them on without having to swallow a little bit of my dignity," she wrote in her letter. The government is punishing her by refusing family visits, including from her mother or young daughter.

If she succeeds, she will have won the right to see her family without being forced to wear a prison uniform. And she will have preserved her dignity. Failure would mean either the embarrassment of abandoning her hunger strike empty-handed or, if she persists, slipping into a coma or even death.

One year to the day before he was killed, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave an address titled "Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence" at the Riverside Church in New York City. His speech called for a more moral American foreign policy that supporting revolutionary movement abroad. Khawaja, in her letter posted from Sunday, quoted extensively from this speech.

"As I read Dr. King’s words recently, I found myself wishing he was alive," she wrote by way of introduction. "I found myself wondering what he would have to say about U.S. support of Bahraini dictators. What he would say about turning a blind eye to the blood  and tears being spilt in the quest of freedom? All I had to do was turn a page, and this time Martin Luther King spoke not to me, but to you — to America."

Here is the section of Khawaja's letter where she quotes from King:

“The words of the late John F. Kennedy come back to haunt us. Five years ago he said, ‘Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.’ Increasingly, by choice or by accident, this is the role our nation has taken — the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investment. I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values,” Dr. King said, “a true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies.”

King continued: “These are revolutionary times. All over the globe men are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression and out of the wombs of a frail world new systems of justice and equality are being born. The shirtless and barefoot people of the land are rising up as never before. ‘The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light.’ We in the West must support these revolutions. It is a sad fact that, because of comfort, complacency, a morbid fear of communism, and our proneness to adjust to injustice, the Western nations that initiated so much of the revolutionary spirit of the modern world have now become the arch anti-revolutionaries.”

Concluding his speech, Dr. King added, “We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace,” He said, “If we do not act we shall surely be dragged down the long dark and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.

The echo of Martin Luther King’s words has travelled across oceans, through the walls and metal bars of a Bahraini prison, and into the overcrowded and filthy cell I sit in. I hear the words of this great American leader. A presidency isn’t what made this African American leader great, but his unbending dedication to morality and justice.

As I marvel at his wisdom, I wonder if America is also listening.

She ends with a more modest hope: to be reunited, if only during a brief visit, with her family. "Yesterday, while looking at my prison cell door with its iron bars, I had a dream," she wrote. "This time it was a small and simple dream, not a grand dream of democracy and freedom. I just saw my smiling mother, holding my daughter’s hand, standing at the door of my prison cell."

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Max Fisher · March 25, 2013