A Striking Father: From Gandhi to Khawaja
I cannot teach you violence, as I do not myself believe in it. I can only teach you not to bow your heads before anyone even at the cost of your life.
A famous mind engraved into a spiritual body blossomed in the Indian struggle against South African discrimination in the early year of 1893. Once a young lawyer struggling to fit the narrative of a typical British business lifestyle, Mohandas Gandhi transformed into one of the most acknowledged leaders in world history. His controversial methods taught us one of the most valuable principles learned to woman and man; peace in the face of struggle.
An illustrious means used to bring end to British rule in India and an end to direct discrimination of Indians and black South Africans was that of a self inflicted hunger strike. A hunger strike was also the course Gandhi took in 1924 to reconcile warring factions of Hindus and Muslims that had grown apart when Gandhi was imprisoned. Of course Mohandas Gandhi is not the only famous face behind this painful method of protest. Thomas Ashe in 1916 combating British rule, Alice Paul in 1917 fighting for women’s right to vote in America and Marion Dunlop in 1909 disputing charges against her in Britain have all been behind this growing use of hunger as a weapon to bring about political change.
A small prison cell in the tiny Gulf kingdom of Bahrain holds bare, the body of a hunger stricken middle aged man baring the profound weight of Bahrain’s grievances on his back. Abdulhadi Al Khawaja was arrested on the 8th of April 2011 through a series of dawn raids that were carried out by security forces during a crackdown on popular protests demanding freedom and democracy. A detailed account of his arrest was produced by the Bahrain Commission of Inquiry (P426) which said: “Police and masked men in plain clothes came to the house at night. The detainee was thrown on the ground, rolled down stairs, kicked and beaten with sticks. His hands were cuffed behind his back and he was blindfolded. His son-in-law was also arrested. Immediately after the arrest, the detainee received a hard blow to the side of his face, which broke his jaw and knocked him to the ground”.
Even in hospital, Khawaja was blindfolded, faced sexual insults thrown at his wife and daughters. He went through nightly beatings after surgery and even had a stick forced into his anus.
Today he enters his 50th day of hunger strike fighting for his and Bahrain’s freedom, following a phone call from prison to his family members where he declared “freedom or death” and fears of his death are echoing around the world. The voice of Al Khawaja is a popular one in the Gulf as he continues to defy autocratic and tyrannical rule, calling for the respect of Bahrain’s human rights and an end to corruption and systematic torture.
Whilst in exile, Abdulhadi Al Khawaja started life in Denmark with his wife and four daughters between 1981 and 2001, and received training on human rights in the Danish Centre for Human Rights. Inspired by the social and political system of Denmark, Al Khawaja dedicated his life and aspirations to achieving democratic and social reform for Bahrain which, for two centuries, has had in place a ruling dynasty discriminating against a majority population. He is a member of Frontline Defenders and has helped in setting up the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights where he worked as the director. He is also the director of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights.
Al Khawaja’s strive for human rights has not ended, even behind bars Al Khawaja still spent time in educating the prisoners of their rights. His daughter, and also prominent rights activist Zainab Al Khawaja speaks that: “When his two-month solitary confinement came to an end, my father engaged in discussions in the prison, continuing to spread human rights education and the example of nonviolent protest. My father gave the other political prisoners a full course in human rights. He then asked the commander of the prison for paper so he could write certificates for his fellow inmates to document that they had completed a human rights education course”.
As communicated through a letter he sent from prison, Khawaja has paid a price for his continuing struggle for freedom, a price that he says, does not regret. He has been severely beaten throughout his years of activism, arrested in 2004, 2005 and 2006 for protesting, subjected to torture, travel bans, ‘continuous defamation campaigns’ and since being arrested during the current uprising, held behind bars. Khawaja speaks of the two months he was tortured, insulted and sexually abused, the horrific darkness of solitary confinement and the humiliation of being brought upon military trials. 48 Rights groups around the world, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have been calling for the immediate release of Al Khawaja.
Abdulhadi Al Khawaja is unique in stature; he now bares a weak body, yet remains strong in wisdom, heart and courage. He lays helpless in prison, a subject of cold-blooded torture which have led to substantial injuries, yet his voice and thoughts sing throughout the nation in inspiration. A stature that has forced me to compare his struggle and approaches towards freedom somewhat alike to that of Gandhi’s in the early 1900’s. The struggles, though different, hold similarities. Demands for the end of British rule in India coincide with demands for an end to the Khalifa grip on power in Bahrain with both these demands proving controversial at the time. What Gandhi was to India and the world, Khawaja is for Bahrain today; a leader, a hero, a father.
When I despair, I remember that all through history the ways of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants and murderers, and for time they can seem invincible, but in the end they will always fall. Think of it always.
Intern, HumanRights TV
30 March 2012