By Asma Darwish, Head of Advocacy at Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), AAWE member and Head of Communication at FAWCO Refugee Network
*This has been written for and published by AAWE Paris, a series of 4 articles printed in its newsletter every trimester.
I was in the first batch of students enrolled in Bahrain Polytechnic in 2008. I was so happy to be accepted because the polytechnic was a new concept in Bahrain, and it succeeded in drawing the attention of many undergraduates, accepting just 180 from thousands of applicants! I established warm relationships with my fellow students and professors, some of whom I count as friends today.
I traveled alone for the first time in 2008, on an English and New Zealander studies scholarship at Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology. Oops, did I say summer? Of course, it was not summer on the other half of the world! It was winter, the season I was never used to and never shall be.
This trip was something I needed to see different horizons, grasp new concepts, and discover novel realities. It was the kickstart for who I have become today. New Zealand was really a hell of an experience and like, seriously, a piece of heaven on earth! I am still holding these kiwi memories close to my heart.
I continued my studies at Bahrain Polytechnic until early 2011, when I was kicked out for “organizing student protests”. They took me into an investigation room, where they had my Facebook activities printed on papers!
Yeah, 2011 was the shift not only for me, but a shift that changed Bahrain’s history forever and touched everyone profoundly.
Background on this little island in the Arabian Gulf
The Bahraini popular uprising demanding freedom, democracy, and social justice dates back to the 1920s, when citizens resisted injustice and called for independence from British colonization. Citizens were, and still are, demanding the establishment of a democratic state, in which equal citizenship is achieved through the participation of civil society organizations in political, economic, and social decision-making processes.
In the 1980s, the protests escalated. The government’s security agencies suppressed them through a wave of raids, mass arrests, assassinations, enforced disappearances, lethal torture, revocation of nationalities, as well as exiling families, attacks on religious rites, and defamation campaigns against dissidents. The security agencies killed many citizens in prison. My father could have been one of them!
In the mid-1990s, the number of political detainees held by the security agencies rose to more than 3,000 people. This iron grip continued to be dominant: expressing an opinion was considered a “terrorist act”, and due to torture and security behavior, a large number of victims were killed.
February 14, 2011
A date I will not forget. It is Valentine’s Day, true, but that’s not why. This date marked the first day of the popular movement, called by the protesters a “revolution”. I always kept myself out of politics, therefore it was unexpected for me to join the movement.
Bahrain is an archipelago of 33 islands sitting off the western shores of the Arabian Gulf and is nearly the size of Malta. Its citizens barely number 800,000; however, it is a significant island, regionally speaking, which definitely outweighs its small size. It is only minutes by car from Saudi Arabia, which, along with Iran, has made claims to the island dating back centuries.
Bahrain’s history of activism makes it one of the most politically vibrant countries in the region. Any changes on the island are seen as a threat to other Gulf Arab states. The Valentine’s Day revolution threatened the existence of six monarchies.
During the Arab Spring, Bahrain aspired to its own spring, not knowing that it would be nothing but a never-ending winter! Operating with impunity, state officers and agents used excessive force to respond to peaceful and popular protests. Many were killed, prisons were overcrowded, detainees were tortured, activists were exiled, and the nationality of hundreds of citizens was revoked.
Over the years, thousands of Bahrainis attended regular political rallies on issues ranging from unemployment to Palestinian solidarity. Today, you will end up in jail if you even think – while in your own bed – of protesting! The political regime’s illusion of a rich monarchial democracy is just that — an illusion.
So, February 14, 2011, was named the Day of Rage. Inspired by the successful uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, Bahraini youth organized into the “Coalition Youth of 14 Feb Revolution”. The Coalition was led by anonymous individuals unaffiliated with any political movement or organization, who rejected any “religious, sectarian, or ideological bases” for their demands, and who organized protests chiefly via new-media sites.
The youth appealed to the Bahraini people “to take to the streets on Monday, February 14 in a peaceful and orderly manner in order to rewrite the Constitution and to establish a body with a full popular mandate to investigate and hold to account economic, political, and social violations, … as well as institutional and economic corruption”. One of the main demands was the resignation of the King’s uncle, Prince Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa. Unelected since 1971, he was the world’s longest serving Prime Minister. He passed away this past November at the age of 84.
Thousands of Bahrainis participated in 55 peaceful marches in 25 locations. Security forces responded by firing tear gas, rubber bullets, stun grenades, and birdshots. More than 30 protesters were injured, and one was killed.
The next day, the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR) – the organization I work for – sent an open letter to the King urging him to avoid a “worst-case scenario” by “releasing more than 450 detainees and Bahraini human rights defenders, religious figures, and more than 110 children, and dissolving the security apparatus, and prosecuting its officials responsible for violations”. Protesters in Manamacamped for days at the Pearl Roundabout. After a month, the government of Bahrain requested troops and police aid from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Peninsula Shield. On March 14, 1,000 troops from Saudi Arabia and 500 troops from the UAE entered Bahrain and crushed the uprising. A day later, King Hamad declared martial law and a three-month State of Emergency. Pearl Roundabout was cleared of protesters, and the iconic statue at its center was demolished.
Since, I vowed to become the voice of the voiceless. Sometimes it worked, and sometimes it just didn’t. I kept going anyway. I am an advocate of justice and a human rights defender. I am also the proud 30-year-old woman from the little island called Bahrain. The precious “Pearl uprising” changed the course of my life forever.
To be continued….