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Profile of a revolutionary: Maryam Al-Khawaja

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Image via The Atlantic: Maryam in Manama before leaving the country / Twitter

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Earlier this year a wave of revolutions rolled across the Middle East. Orchestrated via text messages  on BlackBerries and call-outs on Facebook and Twitter, many of the uprisings were driven by young  people no longer willing to tolerate their country’s repressive politics or flagrant disregard for basic  human rights.

One of the most vocal proponents of human rights throughout the region is 24-year old Bahraini  woman, Maryam Al-Khawaja. In a region where women are still expected to defer to men, Al-  Khawaja refuses to go quietly. The daughter of Bahrain’s most famous human rights activist and the  current head of foreign relations for the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, the organization founded  by her father, Al-Khawaja travels the globe demanding attention for her cause.

But the life of a human rights activist is never easy, nor without danger. Returning to Bahrain to  participate in the protests earlier this year, the threat of arrest forced Al-Khawaja to flee the country in  early March.
A few weeks later, her father was sentenced to life imprisonment for anti-government propaganda, a fact she learned when a journalist called to get her response.

She receives regular death threats.

She has not seen her family since early March and heard her father’s voice for the first time since his arrest last Friday, when her mother put him on speakerphone while Al-Khawaja called her sister, who sat beside her mother.“I only heard his voice for a few seconds but that gave me so much strength,” she told me on the phone from the US, where she continues to fight for the rights of the Bahraini people.

I wanted to know more about the woman behind the revolutionary and caught up with Al-Khawaja recently.

Your family is Shia Muslim but you grew up in Denmark. How do you reconcile an upbringing in the West with your Muslim heritage?
Even though I was raised in the west, I was brought up with the values of Islam. What many people don’t know is that Islam is a religion that allows you to ask questions, so my parents encouraged us to question things and investigate other religions before making a choice.
Reconciling my upbringing in the west with my Muslim heritage only became difficult when I returned to Bahrain in 2001.
Going from Denmark, a society that is very focused on the rights of the individual, to Bahrain, a society in which the family unit is the main focus and where everyone wants to know where you’re going what you’re doing, that was a real culture shock.

You are the daughter of one of Bahrain’s most prominent human rights activists. Your father is often described as “very courageous and very outspoken”. What are the most important things he taught you?
My father raised us to have a strong sense of right and wrong. But he was always very clear about what that entailed: ‘Never hate the person, hate the act.’ he said.He taught us that if we hated the human being, our job ended with that one person, but if we hated the act, we truly fought injustice. That is a powerful lesson to learn.

We don’t know all that much about your mother Khadija. Tell us about her. What defines her?
I think my mother is as much a freedom fighter as my father. She is the backbone of our family, especially in difficult times.
I remember a time when my father, who was in prison at the time, went on hunger strike. Knowing that my mother was the only person who could truly affect him, officials asked her to talk him out of it. She refused. ‘I would rather bury my husband with my own hands than ask him to give up what he believes in,’ she said. I know how much my mother loves my father and how difficult it must have been for her to say this. This courage and strength of conviction defines her. Having her husband involved in a struggle for human rights and her daughters scattered all over the world isn’t easy. But her sense of doing what is right far supersedes her desire for a comfortable life with her children gathered around her.

What is your father’s point of view, as a human rights activist, about women’s rights?
Both my father and mother are strong believers in women’s rights. I think that is obvious when you consider the fact that they raised four daughters, always instilling the importance of a good education, encouraging us to travel and see the world and advising us not to marry too young but to wait until we were sure we’d made the right choice. I don’t think you can be a human rights activist without also fighting for women’s rights.

Do you think it is possible to be both a devout Muslim and a feminist?
I think being Muslim automatically makes you a feminist. Many people don’t realize the rights women are accorded in Islam, such as the right to inheritance or the right to make choices at a time when that still seemed impossible. Of course, there is often a vast gap between the teachings of a religion and its implementation in a society, but that is not limited to Islam.
It is a universal problem across many religions. Yes, I still have questions and things I am figuring out about women and Islam, but that’s part of the process.

You choose to wear the hijab (hair-covering veil). Why?
Wearing the hijab is a personal choice. In my opinion it empowers me. As a woman it allows me to be heard before I am looked at. Wearing a hijab also ensures that people will consider my personal space before touching or hugging me. Of course in a society in which men treat women as perfect equals wearing a veil would not be necessary. But that is not yet the case, neither in the west nor in Muslim countries. People have more respect for the hijab in western countries than they do in many Muslim countries. In many Muslim countries women now wear the hijab because they think it is expected of them. Men therefore often think women wear it ‘because they have to’ and they no longer respect it for what it is trying to convey, which is simply: ‘Respect me. Respect my space’.

How will Bahrain have to evolve to empower its women?
I think the question extends beyond Bahrain: the entire region has its work cut out. But first we have to make sure that basic human rights are respected.
Once human rights become part of a citizen’s constitutional rights we can begin to question women’s rights our societies. Without respect for basic human rights how can we even begin to ask these questions?

[Published on Women’s View on News, August 2011)

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Written by sabineclappaert

August 23, 2011 at 5:56 am

Fernand de neger.

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“Fernand, de neger, is ondertussen al met pensioen. Op school had hij pijl en boog en schoot hij mussen uit de boom.  ‘s Middags wandelde we samen naar huis, door Gent, de Kasteellaan uit, twee broekventen samen.” Of ze elkaar nog zien, vraag ik. “Ik ben peter van zijn zoon, mijn vrouw van zijn tweede, maar die pleegde zelfmoord. Onder een trein gesprongen. Liefdesverdriet, zo blijkt. Maar Fernand die zie ik nog. Apoteker is die geworden. Nu apoteker op rust. Met een grote familie – hier en in Rwanda. Ja, dat is de Fernand. Nen fantastische gast.”

(Lochristi, 23.01.2011)

Written by sabineclappaert

January 23, 2011 at 8:19 pm

Conversations: mid-life crisis

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He: “When men have a mid-life crisis they do one of three things: exercise intensely, take a mistress or buy a Porsche.”
Me: “Do you think women have a mid-life crisis too?”
He: “Yes.”
Me: “And how do these manifest?”
He (grins): “Vastly increased availability.”

(December 2010)

Written by sabineclappaert

December 4, 2010 at 6:12 pm

Posted in 8 - Conversations