Maryam Al-Khawaja began her activism with only 24 years old after the protests of the Arab Spring in Bahrain in 2011. She acquired a relevant role, mainly due to her direct transmission through Twitter of the protests and violations of human rights that were committed. In March of that year, the Human Rights Council of the United Nations invited her to participate in a roundtable to raise awareness of the human rights situation in Bahrain. Precisely those days they arrested her father, Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, prominent human rights defender of Bahrain and one of the leaders of the Arab spring. Since then, Maryam has been forced to live exiled in Denmark and continues her activism from abroad. She has conducted numerous interviews for Democracy Now, the BBC, Al Jazeera, Frontline Defenders, and participates in forums such as the US-Islamic World Forum.
What was your role during the Arab Spring in Bahrain in 2011?
As a human rights defender I played a very active role in promoting the pro-democracy protests. I also monitored the protests, documented human rights violations and was a connection point for journalists and international NGOs.
What impact did Twitter and social media have on the Bahrain revolution?
Activists and protesters made use of social media to document events, communicate and report on the situation on the ground. Due to the lack of media attention on the situation in Bahrain, social media was crucial to reach beyond the borders of Bahrain and report the situation on the ground.
4 years after the uprising in Bahrain, have changes been achieved? Has the human rights situation improved or worsened?
Unfortunately, the situation has worsened, more and more people are imprisoned for political reasons, torture is systematic and impunity is the norm. The difference between 2015 and 2011 is that in 2011 repression was chaotic and everywhere, a fact that captivated international attention. In 2015 the same violations and repression are committed, but now they are institutionalized and systematic.
How did you become such a young activist?
I was looking for a job after graduating from university, but because of my father’s human rights activism, I couldn’t find one, so I started volunteering at a human rights NGO. After a short time I had to go into exile because of kidnapping threats and became a full-time human rights defender.
What kind of challenges and threats do you face as a human rights activist? Especially what are the consequences of being a young, female activist in a country that constantly violates human rights?
I have suffered threats of all kinds: violence, rape and also death threats. I have been the victim of numerous smear campaigns over the past eight years. A policeman assaulted me, I have spent three weeks in prison, I am currently sentenced to one year “in absentia” and with eleven cases pending. I have many colleagues and family members in prison, many of whom are survivors of constant torture.
How would you encourage young people to get involved in activism and human rights advocacy?
I believe that reacting to injustice should be the norm rather than the exception, but we put people on a pedestal and consider them heroes who are simply doing what should be the normal reaction of any human being to injustice. e do not go out of our way to support or protect them, we simply prefer to quietly appreciate their choice to stand up for human rights.