Maryam al-Khawaja – A dictator’s nightmare

Maryam al-Khawaja has been described as ‘the sort of woman dictators have nightmares about’. Now operating from Denmark, this Bahraini activist works hard to raise international awareness about the situation in the country where her father is imprisoned. ‘Especially the US keeps empowering the Bahraini government to continue its human rights violations.’

Maryam al-Khawaja ‘is the reason our story is known around the world’, says Bahraini fellow-activist Nabeel Rajab in the film We Are the Giant. Maryam al-Khawaja, daughter of imprisoned, leading pro-democracy activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, is vice-president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights and its foreign spokesperson.

Maryam al-Khawaja (27) was born in Syria, grew up in Denmark, of which she is a citizen, and moved only to Bahrain when she was fourteen. Her operating base now is Denmark again. ‘When in Denmark’, she said recently on the telephone from Copenhagen, ‘I spend much of my time on emails and meetings and so on. But most of the time I am actually travelling.’

The work is difficult. To change the situation in Bahrain international pressure is essential, but Western governments are very unwilling to sanction or even criticise the monarchy for its human rights violations and its unwillingness to introduce democratic change. In the film, Al-Khawaja says the response of foreign governments ‘has slowly made me lose confidence in humanity as a whole’. To change this mindset, she approaches the people in charge. ‘We try to tell them why it would make sense for them to change their attitude.’

Part of her job means being harrassed and threatened. She says the Bahraini government sends people to attack her verbally in conferences where she speaks; they ask her questions about being an agent for Iran or Israel. As the Bahraini pro-democracy movement is mainly Shi’a – the majority of Bahraini population is Shi’a – the Sunni rulers accuse them of being in the service of neighbouring Shi’a Iran. Al-Khawaja denies Iran is involved.

She takes death threats very seriously. ‘But the way I cope with them is first of all to focus on my work. If I let them hinder my work, I would not get anything seriously done.’ It is the way she always has been doing her job: separating emotions from her work.

In August 2014 she went to Bahrain to visit her father in prison. She was arrested right away. After she started a hunger strike, she was released. She left Bahrain on October 2. In December she was sentenced in absentia to one year in prison, accused of assaulting police officers. The sentence has various consequences for her work. If she tries to return, she goes to prison. It means also that she cannot travel to any country which has an extradition treaty whith Bahrain.

Did she ever think of quitting? ‘Not really’,  she says. ‘I feel I have a responsibility.’

By Carolien Roelants