Thursday, 12 January 2012

From inside the Palm of a Revolution: Part II: An Interview with Zainab Alkhawaja

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Coming from a family with four daughters, Zainab Abdulhadi Alkhawaja is a pro-democracy activist from Bahrain. When the winds of change blew life into the Arab Spring last year, Bahrain was not left behind as activists in the country took up cudgels for their cause of being subjected to gross oppression. Zainab was born in exile, but came back to Bahrain when she and her sisters were young adults. To her, Bahrain was the right place to be, the very place she believed she was always meant to be. Over the past year, Zainab has been the voice of her people, as she tweeted and blogged for the world to see and learn of the situation prevailing in Bahrain. (Follow Zainab on Twitter as @angryarabiya)

Calling herself "the Angry Arabiya", Zainab tells the world of all the horrors that have unfolded under the aegis of the draconian leadership in Bahrain, truly showing the world the precise reason for her anger. In her trajectory as a human rights activist, Zainab has seen horrible situations- right from her own arrest to being beaten and subjected to rudeness, to seeing her father and husband being arrested. Over a short Skype conversation, Zainab spoke to Delta Women on the situation in Bahrain and on her role as a pro-democracy activist.

Bahrain is on the cusp of a revolution, an uprising that is soon set to turn a year old. Do you think it took a revolution in Tunisia and Egypt to inspire the people of Syria?
Uprisings are not new to Bahrain. There have been plenty of revolutionary uprisings, in the 1980s, in the 1990s, where people have shown their antagonism to the harsh rule of the longstanding dictatorship that has lasted right up until now. So technically, this isn’t the first time that Bahrain is rising against the despotic rule. After events in Egypt and Tunisia, people began reinforcing their faith in the power and efforts of people coming together. For a very long time, Arabs in general, have been living under dictatorships. Governments in most Arab countries have been completely different from governments elsewhere. What happened in Egypt and Tunisia reinforced the courage and the faith of the people in mass efforts. It is not that the people of Bahrain have just realized that they were living under tough rulers, but just that the success of the revolutions in their neighbouring countries effectively encouraged them to take to the bull by the horns.

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As a woman based in Bahrain who is also a blogger and tweeter, you have faced a lot. What threatens you most about the journey of pro-democratic activism that you have embarked upon?
The very fact that one is being an activist against an oppressive regime is sufficient to warrant that there are going to be threats. When it is your loved ones that are targeted, though, it hurts you so much more. My father is a prominent human rights activist, and he has been targeted by the regime plenty of times. I went on a hunger strike when my father was in prison, and I am so proud of my father. Sometimes, my family is targeted for my activism. It is a lot more personal when your own loved ones are subjected to harsh treatment. My husband Wafi was arrested too, he stuck with my father though he knew they were after him for it. He was arrested and kept in prison, subjected him to so much torture- at one point he had to crawl about because his legs were swollen from relentless whipping. When the government in Bahrain wants to punish someone, they bring that person’s family into it, knowing it hurts more. I fear for my little daughter, Jude, and it does affect me when my family is targeted because of the things I do. But, seeing the way my family was targeted, I have come to realize that that was a sample of what happens to several people who have been subjected to such treatment. It doesn’t stop with just my family, and though it gives me a lot of pain, I use it to spur myself on, and to make myself much stronger.

What do you think of the West’s stance on Bahrain? Do you think they should take on a military intervention for Bahrain?
We don’t want military intervention. From the very beginning, our message has always been the same- we don’t want troops sent here, we don’t want anyone to fight our battles for us. It is our revolution, and we are capable of seeing it through. We want just one thing- that the West should stop supporting dictators in this part of the world. Many dictatorial governments, Bahrain’s regime included, have been supported by the west- be it financially or with weapons. When tear-gas was used against peaceful protesters here, what smacked us in the face was the fact that each of those canisters was marked with the phrase that read “Made in Pennsylvania, USA”. That’s the message we’re getting. It is no use saying that they support the crusade for self-determination that we are in, while on the other hand, covertly supplying our oppressive government with everything they need to crush us. Today, everyone in Bahrain has stood up to the oppression of the government, and is fighting strong for the freedom that is eluding us. It is unfair to allow the government and the dictatorial regime to continually receive support from the West.

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Do you think Bahrain is ready for Democracy? Is it something that would suit the country?
Democracy is essentially a state of affairs where people are guaranteed their rights and live lives with dignity. Self-determination is a basic right, a right of the people to choose who rules them, and how. These are basic human rights- for every human being, irrespective of whether they may be in Bahrain or wherever. That being a given, I don’t see why a democratic set up and a regime steeped in democratic values wouldn’t fit Bahrain or any other country for that matter. People from Bahrain go abroad to study, they see what democracy appears to be and how it functions, and they realize that things are a lot better with such a political and social setting. When they come back, the glaring differences strike them, and that is why this uprising is what it is.

There were aspersions cast on the uprising, surmising that the entire revolution was a “Shiite Conspiracy”. What are your thoughts on that?
Shias and Sunnis have been living side-by-side for years in Bahrain. It is not true to say that this is a Shiite conspiracy- Sunnis have also borne the brunt of oppression and face the same harsh treatment that the government metes out. There are also poor Sunnis, as there are poor Shias. Bahrain is a very peaceful country, and there are almost next to no crimes- and most certainly no sectarian crimes. It appears that the aspersion cast is just a case of dividing and ruling. The claims that Shias were receiving support from Iran, and that they were just trying to convert Bahrain into a Shiite country has no basis, it’s completely absurd. The Al Bandar report explains this. There were reports when the Bahraini government laid claim that the Iranian media had mentioned the revolution in Bahrain, and that was the basis for the claim that Iran backed the revolution in Bahrain, but that’s absolutely absurd- the media simply reports exactly what happens, and merely reporting something does not mean that a country has a hand in the event reported! Shias and Sunnis have fought side-by-side for the revolution, they have prayed together and they both want to see a bright future for Bahrain. There is a lot of love, a lot of unity between the people, irrespective of whether they are Shia or Sunni. The baseless allegations of a Shiite conspiracy are just cases of hate speech, scare tactics that are used to scare off the West.

As people of the world who pursue a common cause, what would you like those who support your cause to do about the situation in Bahrain?
Today, in Bahrain, people of all ages, including children aged between twelve and fifteen are being arrested, tortured and subjected to a lot of ill-treatment. There have been martyrs and mothers of martyrs who lie mourning, crying in despair as the children they would call out to would no longer respond, no matter how many times they are called. We just need people out there to be echoes of our voices. Tell the world our story. Tell the world to let us be heard. Don’t let our voices be lost in the annals of history. I had a recent twitter campaign, where so many people all over the world have written with a wonderfully kind statement, saying that they care. We need more people to just hold up our voices, and to make sure that we are heard.

Zainab's Twitter Display Picture: The Angry Arabiya

By Kirthi Jayakumar

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