Women’s Month Profile: Maryam Alkhawaja
By Jess Ballance
This week, Human Rights First will profile just a few of the millions of women worldwide who are fighting discrimination and gender-based violence, who work tirelessly to make universal human rights for women a reality. On March 8, International Women’s Day, thousands of events will be held throughout the world to inspire women and celebrate achievements; the United States designates the whole month of March as Women’s History Month. At Human Rights First, whether we’re helping female refugees or partnering with activists working on the frontlines, we make women’s human rights a priority.
Today, Human Rights First celebrates Maryam al-Khawaja, acting President of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BHCR). “You can imprison the revolutionary, but you cannot imprison the revolution,” says Maryam. “You can imprison the human rights defender, but you are only creating a path for hundreds of new human rights defenders.”
The Bahraini government reacted to large-scale peaceful demonstrations in early 2001 with a crackdown on political dissent and human rights activism. Many of the leaders of the 2011 protests remain in prison with estimates of thousands of others also jailed for protest-related activities. Since 2011 there has been an increase in violent protests against the regime. Civilians and police officers have been killed in the streets, and there has been a pattern of torture in custody.
Maryam comes from a family with a long history of defending human rights in Bahrain. Her father, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja is the co-founder of BHCR, and has received worldwide attention for his human rights campaigning activities. He is currently in prison serving a life-sentence for his role in the pro-democracy protests in 2011. From a young age, Maryam was actively participating in protests and volunteering in human rights organizations.
After nearly a year spent in prison, Bahraini pro-democracy activist Zainab al-Khawaja, Maryam’s sister, was released last month. Zainab was imprisoned after being convicted on several charges, including participation in an illegal gathering and insulting police. “I haven’t been able to see her yet, but the only reason she was released was because she finished her sentence,” Maryam has said. “She could still be sent back to prison.”
In 2012, Human Rights First awarded the Roger N. Baldwin Medal of Liberty to the Bahrain Center for Human Rights for its prominence in documenting and publicizing human rights violations during the government crackdown, often at great risk to its members and supporters.
When accepting the award on behalf of the award, Maryam said, “I watched my father work in the human rights field my entire childhood and I had hoped that by the time I grew up; maybe I wouldn’t even have to be in the human rights field. I had hoped that the day would come when your value as a human being, and your rights are not based on the passport that you carry, but because you are a human being. But unfortunately, we have not reached that today.”
Human Rights First commends Maryam for her tenacity in pursuing human rights ideals while in exile from Bahrain, and for advocating for an end to impunity and a peaceful resolution to Bahrain’s human rights crisis.