Zainab AlKhawaja – a prisoner of conscience


The 27 year old Bahraini cyber activist was arrested last Saturday by the police as she was protesting against the Formula 1 race and demanding the release of her father. This is not the first time she has protested or has been arrested. Zainab has come a long way and is determined to go a long way.

Qurratulain Zaman met Zainab in September in Bahrain:

“Come to the Country Mall in Budaiya at 8PM.” This is the SMS I get from Zainab AlKhwaja after I arrive in Bahrain. I look at it twice and google the address. Budaiya is in the northwest of Bahrain and is the heartland of the anti-regime demonstrations.

I call my source and give him the address. His reply is, “are you sure you wanna meet her there? You know you will be watched and tracked?” (Later, it’s him who will be interrogated by the security agencies for taking me there.)

Zainab wants to meet me at a famous coffee shop with free wifi. She wants the riot police to watch her meeting a foreigner, a non-Bahraini. She talks loud and clear. She doesn’t care if the security officers are spying on her.

She walks in the coffee shop, holding her blackberry very close to her like a baby. She knows she is being watched, “I know the consequences and I know our government and its tactics. I know they are watching. We don’t have any respect. We learn to live in fear. Nobody cares about me.”

She doesn’t only want the regime but also the world outside Bahrain to hear her.  “After the government crackdown more people have sympathies with us because they saw the barbarity of the regime. We protested outside the US embassy. Obama is supporting dictators. We don’t ask for US intervention. We want them to just stop supporting dictators.”

Zainab says she finds similarities between their struggle and the victorious revolution in Yugoslavia in the 1940s. It was a movement of workers and masses against the imperial occupants. “Our struggle is not about Sunni and Shia. This is the impression the government is giving. The government is dividing Shias and Sunnis. Our struggle is against the oppressor. It is the oppressed who are fighting against the oppressor. I saw, met Sunnis at the Pearl Square. You know, one of the main slogans at the square was, ‘Shias and Sunnis are brothers’.”

Bahrain has a majority Shia population with a Sunni monarchy. It is widely believed that the Shias are protesting against the Sunni monarchy. The Shia demonstrators say that this is for the rights of the underprivileged majority.

Pearl Square:

There is no Pearl at the Pearl Square near the financial hub of Manama district. On 18th March 2011, the Pearl monument was destroyed as it was the place where the pro-democracy demonstrators camped. The riot police ran over it with military tanks. Remembering the Pearl days Zainab says, “Pearl was so beautiful. Our people have a sense of humour. We were singing, reciting poetry and chanting slogans for a better tomorrow. It was the best way of civil disobedience. Most people never touched weapons.”

King Hamad Bin Isa al-Khalifa declared a three-month state of emergency and established an independent commission of inquiry to report about Pearl massacre.

Usman Abdullah is a naturalized Bahraini citizen of Pakistani origin working at a local bank. He justifies the government’s crackdown on the demonstrators. He is skeptical about the pro-democracy movement. “No one touched them, they were having a picnic at the Pearl Square. Have you ever seen a revolution coming in imported cars? The government feeds these people. They don’t work. They are not skilled and still they agitate.”

Pakistani migrants:

Bahrain is a land of opportunity for many Pakistani workers. They can serve in the military or stay in Bahrain for 25 years legally and can get citizenship unlike in other Gulf Cooperation Council or GCC countries.

There are 50-60 thousand Pakistanis living in Bahrain, according to the Overseas Pakistanis Foundation. For Zainab the government is using the migrant workers against the pro-democracy protestors. “I am not against the migrant workers. Migrant workers are poor. But understand their situation: you give him 50 BD to beat people and he will do the job. The government used them against us. Riot police in Bahrain are not local. They are migrants.”

If you join military service as an immigrant, you get Bahraini nationality faster. Many Pakistanis were given nationality ahead of time last year because they were Sunnis and pro-monarchy.  Bahrain’s foreign minister visited Pakistan during the riots and there were ads in the Pakistani newspapers for urgent hiring of Bahrain National Guards.

According to the Bahrain Center for Human Rights the Bahrain riot police are mainly Sunni Muslims from South Asian countries. “The Shias of Bahrain, on the other hand, are barred from employment in the security forces, as they are seen as not loyal enough to the Al Khalifa regime. One of the grievances of the mostly-Shia protesters in Bahrain is the naturalization of foreign Sunnis, a policy intended to skew the demographic balance against the Shia majority.”

The attacks on migrant workers especially from Pakistan are seen as an outcome of the government policies. During last year’s uprising in Bahrain, 2-8 Pakistani workers were killed by the protestors.

Pakistani government officially supported the monarchy during the crackdown on pro-democracy forces in 2011. President Zardari reassured Bahrain of Pakistan’s support during the visit by Bahrain’s foreign minister and promised him defense cooperation. This cooperation has a long history: Pakistan helped Bahrain built its naval force.

Iran factor:

“To eat Iranian kebabs is a crime,” says Zainab laughingly. “They don’t understand that Iran is a spiritual factor for us. Our loyalties are with Bahrain, obviously. You will not find any Shia Bahraini saying he is loyal towards Iran.”

Zainab’s father Abdulhadi AlKhawaja, a human rights defender is accused of his ties with Iranian-backed terrorist groups and incitement to violence against Bahrain’s government. He is serving a life sentence for expressing support for Bahrain becoming a republic. He has been fasting in jail for more than 70 days. International rights groups have called him a prisoner of conscience.

For the Bahrain authorities Zainab AlKhawaja is too loud and difficult to handle. 27 year old Zainab has been arrested many times, threatened to be raped by police and saw many dear and near ones killed and tortured by the authorities. But all this didn’t stop her to remain passionate for her cause. This time she went out to protest alone against the Formula 1 race hoping against hope that the world will hear her.

 This article was originally published in The Friday Times

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About QZ

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