It’s hard not to watch the political unraveling in the Middle East these days and worry that the Arab Spring has turned into the Arab Winter. But Maryam al-Khawaja, a leading human rights activist from Bahrain at just 26 years old, begs to differ.
“I can understand why a lot of people when looking at the region could be very, very pessimistic,” al-Khawaja says over coffee during a visit to Washington, D.C., this week. “I disagree. I think that when we see this kind of change, when it’s this big of a change, it’s something that’s a process, it’s something that takes a long time.”
In other words, al-Khawaja is taking the long view, both for the pro-democracy movement in her tiny Persian Gulf country and across the Middle East and North Africa. It’s a dose of realism that policy makers in Western capitals might do well to heed.
“As long as we continue against all odds, that’s what’s going to guarantee that, whether it’s in 20 or 50 or 70 years, things will change to the better. But it’s going to take time,” she says. “And in Bahrain it’s going to take much longer than other countries.”
It’s a startling mature perspective for someone her age. But it’s just one of many surprises about this “accidental” activist.
“I wasn’t planning on becoming a human rights defender. I was forced into it,” says al-Khawaja, chattering away in flawless English and sounding very much like any Western 20-something woman, her discourse on Middle East politics and identity interspersed with you know’s and like’s and self-deprecating asides.
“I actually was completely apolitical when I was in university. I hated politics,” she says. In particular, she was turned off by the indifferent response to years of protests led by her father, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, one of Bahrain’s most prominent human rights activists. In 2002, he co-founded the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, an organization that has been alternately tolerated and banned in this oil-rich island nation of about 1.3 million in the Gulf. He is now in prison, serving a life sentence after being arrested and sentenced in 2011 for his leadership in Bahrain’s Arab Spring uprising.
“I got to a point after seeing my dad being beaten up on the streets, and getting arrested and nobody caring, I thought that it wasn’t worth it and I didn’t understand why my dad continued to do what he did,” al-Khawaja recalls. “Now I see the reflection of his work, I see how that’s impacted the Bahraini society as a whole.”
They don’t understand that history has taught us that … they don’t stay in power no matter what.
One of al-Khawaja’s sisters, Zainab, was also jailed in 2013 for her activism. The Centre’s president, Nabeel Rajab, is serving a two-year prison sentence and was denied early release just this week. That has thrust al-Khawaja into the role of acting president at the Centre, which is now being operated out of Copenhagen, where she has gone into exile. In August, she was on her way back to Bahrain in advance of protests there, but was removed from a British Airways flight at the request of the Bahraini government.
If her exile, her family’s incarceration or the mounting expectations in her role as the new face of the movement are weighing on al-Khawaja, it doesn’t show. One-on-one, she’s upbeat, forthright and remarkably relaxed.
“She has to be enormously disciplined because a lot of this stuff is enormously personal for her,” says Brian Dooley, director of the Human Rights Defenders program at the American NGO Human Rights First. “She is juggling an awful lot of responsibilities,” he says, and “it’s not like she’s had a lifetime of experience.”
“I’ve been doing this for, like, 25 years; I’ve never met anybody who is as good an advocate for their cause,” says Dooley, who has visited a long list of foreign capitals with al-Khawaja to lobby other governments to pressure Bahrain’s ruling al-Khalifa family.
The hand-wringing in the West over the ramifications of the Arab Spring has grown markedly in recent months, as the heady early days of the revolutions in 2011 have given way to power vacuums and sectarian violence.
She acknowledges that real democracy and respect for human rights and civil liberties in the Arab world may not happen in her lifetime.
Just this week, a New York Times report confirmed the growing concerns about a surge of jihadism in the region, with extremists taking advantage of the lawlessness in much of Libya, Egypt’s Sinai peninsula and across Syria.
While not condoning the growing violence, al-Khawaja says it is a predictable response to the social divisions autocratic regimes have sowed in an attempt to defend their regimes.
“They don’t understand that history has taught us that … they don’t stay in power no matter what,” she says. “Yes, they might be successful in getting the people to kill each other, but even if they do, they’re still going to be removed and those people are going to continue to kill each other until something better can come.”
For her part, al-Khawaja remains optimistic that the region is moving in the right direction, even while she acknowledges that real democracy and respect for human rights and civil liberties in the Arab world may not happen in her lifetime.
Dooley credits al-Khawaja — who travels constantly and is an active presence on Twitter and other social media — with helping keep Bahrain and its political crisis on the West’s radar despite the ghastly violence in Syria and political upheaval in much bigger Egypt. He doesn’t think the issue “would have anything like the international media profile” without her.
With the Bahraini government’s intimate ties to its much larger neighbor, Saudi Arabia, its strategic location in the Gulf and its agreement to provide a base for major U.S. naval operations, that’s proved to be an uphill climb.
The United States’ response to the crackdown on dissidents in Bahrain has been far more tepid than elsewhere. In a State Department report on the status of the Bahraini government’s reforms after the original 2011 uprising, a copy of which was obtained by OZY, the United States acknowledges that there is no indication of any high-ranking officials being held accountable for the deaths of protesters at the time, as promised. But it continues to maintain that the government “has taken some important steps.”
On Tuesday, a senior U.S. Navy official said it plans to expand its Fifth Fleet, despite growing pressure to consider relocating it out of Bahrain.
Al-Khawaja says she is realistic about the challenges. A piece of advice from her father has helped her maintain her resolve. “He told me, ‘Maryam, when you become a human rights defender, you do the work not because you’re waiting for an outcome,’” she says. “‘If you wait for an outcome, you’re going to get depressed, you’re going to get pessimistic and you won’t be able to continue. When you know that it doesn’t matter if the outcome is today or after we’re dead, you’re doing it because it’s the right thing to do,’ that’s what helps me continue.”
Why you should care
Against all odds, young Maryam al-Khawaja is taking her fight for democracy and human rights in Bahrain to the international stage. Meet hope personified.