In April 2011, Bahraini human rights activist Maryam Al-Khawaja, then 23 years old, was in the United States when her phone rang. Back in Bahrain, a government crackdown on the massive prodemocracy uprising was proceeding at a ferocious pace. On the line was Nabeel Rajab, the president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. “Maryam,” he said. “I need you to write this down, it’s very important.” Maryam grabbed a pen and paper while Rajab launched into a graphic description of a man who had just been arrested and tortured by the county’s security forces. His jawbone was broken and his face so disfigured that his friends were unable to recognize him. Maryam wrote down every detail.
“Oh,” Rajab said at the end of the call, “And write that his name is Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja.” The tortured man was Maryam’s father.
Maryam’s family had staked everything on the struggle for democracy in Bahrain for as long as she could remember. She had learned to be tough in moments like this one.
She turned to her laptop, opened her email, and wrote an urgent news release about her father’s torture as if he were any other political prisoner. “As a human rights defender, we depersonalize the cases,” she said.
Several hours later, a wave of guilt came over her, a feeling that she had not done enough for her father, or for the human rights cause. She wept and went into what she remembers as a trance, for two hours, before snapping back into Human Rights Defender mode and going back to work.
Even in the larger sweep of the Arab revolutions that began in 2011, the story of Bahrain, a small island kingdom in the Persian Gulf, is one of the hardest to stomach. After the uprising there in April 2011, the Obama administration issued mild criticisms of the monarchy, but in the end stood by the government in spite of the government’s violent crackdown. America’s hesitation to pressure the regime stemmed from two geostrategic factors: a need for a stable base for the massive US Fifth Fleet, which is docked in Bahrain, and the close strategic ties with Saudi Arabia.
The uprising in Bahrain began as a peaceful revolt against the Khalifa family monarchy (who have ruled since 1783), with as many as 300,000 people out of a population of just 1.3 million joining the largest marches. Within a month, the government, with the help of Saudi troops, moved to crush the uprising in a clampdown characterized by the one-two punch of stamping out public demonstrations and widespread and systematic detainment and torture of antimonarchy activists.
Maryam is the scion of one of Bahrain’s preeminent dissident families. Her father has been an outspoken prodemocracy activist since the 1970s. Her sister Zainab is famous for an iconic photo of her standing in front of a line of police cars. Zainab is also currently in prison, and in late March she announced a hunger strike in a letter quoting Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy. She called off the hunger strike, however, after learning that her father was striking in solidarity with her. After his arrest and beating in April, he was sentenced to life in prison.
I met Maryam in May in a café on the ground floor of a hip Manhattan hotel with fake graffiti on the walls and indie rock on the overhead speakers. Maryam, dressed in a brown suit and black head scarf, sat with straight posture while she explained to me how, when she has to write news releases about her imprisoned father and sister, she compartmentalizes her emotions.
“I always remind myself how important it is to get the news out there, to make sure people are aware of it,” she said in between sips of black tea. “At the end of the day whether I cry about it or not isn’t going to make a difference.”
Maryam is Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja’s youngest daughter. She was born in Syria in 1987 and grew up in Denmark, where her family received political asylum. After her father had participated in student activism in London in the late 1970s, the monarchy refused to renew Abdulhadi’s passport and asked him to return to the country. Fellow students who returned were detained and tortured, so he chose a life of exile.
During his years in Denmark, Abdulhadi worked with a network of Bahraini exiles demanding human rights in their home country. The family was allowed to return to Bahrain in 2001 following a period of political openness at the beginning of the reign of Emir Hamad, the crown prince of the Khalifa family dynasty who succeeded his father in 1999.
Back in his home country, Al-Khawaja resumed his fight for human rights and for the prodemocracy protest movement, but the brief window of glasnost was closing. In 2005, after the security forces broke up a labor protest, Abdulhadi returned home from the hospital with deep red marks on his back, the product of a brutal beating meted out by police. By then, Hamad had declared himself not simply emir, but king.
In high school, Maryam joined numerous protests, but grew disillusioned by the time she reached college. “I used to continuously ask my dad why he was doing what he was doing,” she recalled. “What was the point? They would call for a protest and only 20 people would show up and they’d get beaten and no one would talk about it.”
At university, she avoided politics. She worked and studied, participating in campus clubs, bowling and playing on the women’s basketball team. “My main concern was which restaurant was I going to go to with my friends,” she remembered.
In the fall of 2009 she began a Fulbright scholarship in the US that included a semester at Brown. She returned to Bahrain in the spring and began applying to public-relations jobs, but she received only one interview. Her interviewer looked at her CV and asked, “You’re Maryam Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja? Isn’t your father in and out of prison? I hope you’re not expecting too many callbacks.”
Unable to find work due to the stigma of her family’s activism, she joined the family business and began volunteering, and later worked full-time for the Bahrain Center for Human Rights documenting abuses and writing reports. Shortly after she began work, the regime launched a new wave of political repression, arresting some 500 people between August and December of 2010.
In September, she received word that her name was coming up during interrogations. The authorities were asking detainees about her work with the center. Concerned that a warrant would soon be issued for her arrest, she left the country.
In February, after Egyptians and Tunisians managed to topple their dictators through popular protests, Bahraini activists readied for their own uprising.
Maryam called her father in early February to say she was planning to come home before the protest planned for February 14. Even after Tunisia and Egypt, Abdulhadi was pessimistic about the prospects for an uprising in Bahrain. “You know, you might come here and only five people go out,” he said. “That’s fine,” she said. “I just want to make sure I’m there if that does happen.” They agreed she would come home for two weeks, and leave again if nothing of consequence took place.
The protests began at dawn. Maryam drove to the village of Deraz with a group of foreign journalists. Almost as soon as the demonstrators took to the streets, riot police began firing at the crowds with tear gas and birdshot. She was shocked: it was the first time she had seen the police react with such violence in plain view of the international press.
In the evening, Maryam drove to the Salmaniya Medical Complex, where she moved through the corridors, taking notes and photos of wounded demonstrators. A crowd had gathered at the doors of the intensive care unit. She elbowed her way through the crowd and spoke to a doctor who recognized her family’s name and admitted her to the room.
Inside the ICU, doctors were attempting revive a 21-year-old welder named Ali Mushaima. He had been shot at close range with birdshot, leaving a pattern of pockmarks on his back. Maryam stood over him and photographed his limp body.
The doctors realized their attempts at resuscitation were helpless. One stepped out of the ICU and announced that Mushaima had died. He was the first martyr of the uprising.
“And that’s when the chants changed,” Maryam said. “They changed from ‘We demand a constitutional monarchy, we demand a constitution, we demand this and that,’ into Ash-shab yureed isqat an-nizam!,’” The people demand the fall of the regime.
By seven the next morning, thousands of people massed at the gates of the hospital, prepared to carry Mushaima’s body to the cemetery. Riot police in white cars approached on the road leading to the medical complex. Facing them, Maryam’s father was at the front of the procession. Maryam and Zaynab were at the gates of the hospital. Before the march could even begin, the riot police opened fire with teargas and shotguns. Maryam grabbed her sister by the arm and hurried her inside.
Later that day, the mourners managed to reach Jidhafs cemetery, where they buried Mushaima. From there they marched the 15 minutes to Pearl Square in Manama, where they set up a protest camp, launching a revolution in earnest.
In early March, with the uprising at its peak, Maryam traveled to Geneva to testify about the government’s rights abuses. She didn’t want to leave Bahrain, but her father convinced her it was important for the world to know what was happening in their country.
She had planned on a two-week trip, but on March 14, a thousand Saudi troops in armored vehicles crossed into the country to provide reinforcement for the monarchy, and the next day, the crackdown began. On March 16, tanks rolled into Pearl Square, expelling the protest camp. Two days later the government demolished the iconic pearl statue at the center of the roundabout. Maryam knew she could not risk returning home.
A year after Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja’s imprisonment, he went on hunger strike for 110 days. The next time Maryam saw him was in January 2013, when she returned to Bahrain for the first time since the uprising. International pressure ensured her entry and kept her out of police custody.
She was apprehensive about visiting her father, concerned that the torture had broken him, that he would be a different person. She was permitted to visit her him twice, 20 minutes each time, in a small cabin in the prison complex. He sat on one side of a table, she on the other, while a guard stood watch in the corner. He was thinner from the hunger strike. His face was a different shape; his jaw moved in a peculiar way, but he was still the same man.
“They had been able to break his body physically but they hadn’t been able to break his spirit at all,” she said. “That gave me a new push of energy to see that despite everything he had been through, they hadn’t been able to get to him.”
The crackdown ended the initial uprising, but it also hardened the determination of thousands of Bahrainis who demanded their civil rights. In April 2013, tens of thousands of protesters blocked a highway ahead of the Formula 1 Grand Prix in Bahrain. A handful of villages hold demonstrations against the government every single day.
Throughout her visit to Bahrain in January, Maryam kept hearing people say the word sumoud, meaning "steadfastness," "perseverance." Long used by Palestinians, and by Arab democracy movements, it is a word that marks long struggle. “You say it as hello. You say it as goodbye. You say it as ‘How are you.’” To Maryam, it had become the most commonly spoken word in Bahrain.