Exiled and 24: The Young Woman Fighting for Bahrain

Daughter to one of Bahrain's most prominent activists, Maryam al-Khawaja picks up the mission of her now-imprisoned father


Maryam in Manama before leaving the country / Twitter

When Maryam al-Khawaja and I first met in March, in a dingy hospital hallway in Manama, Bahrain's regime had just tear gassed hundreds of its staunchest detractors, shooting them with rubber bullets and live ammunition while they slept and prayed. The dead and wounded were brought to Salmaniya medical center, where their loved ones were met by an energetic girl in jeans and a head scarf, hopping from floor to floor directing foot traffic, doling out information to worried families, and escorting aid workers.

Around 3 a.m., with the screams of a grieving mother echoing down the corridor, Maryam delivered a denunciation indictment of the U.S.'s silence on what was going on around her, calling Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's criticism of the regime a mere wrist slap. By May, she had found a bigger audience, having left Bahrain for the U.S. and Europe, her anecdotes and big brown eyes humanizing Bahrain's faltering opposition for a West that did not fully understand it.

From Brown University to the Oslo Freedom Forum to Voice of America, she preached the gospel that had been violently muted on Manama's streets -- the regime, she repeated, was doing grievous things, and the U.S. and its allies needed to step up their rhetoric.

Last week, her work took on a new urgency, when father Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, the country's best-known opposition activist, was marched into a closed-door military tribunal and sentenced to life in prison for anti-government propaganda.

That a 24-year-old girl has become the face of one of the most repressed Arab Spring revolutions comes as a surprise only to those who don't know her lineage. Maryam's was born in Denmark to then-exiled Abdulhadi and his wife, Khadija, who had been banned from Bahrain in the mid-1980s. They lived in Denmark until returning to Manama in 2001, as soon as they were allowed re-entry. Maryam was 14.

Those who know Maryam say boundary-treading is in her DNA. "Let's face it -- she grew up in that milieu of human rights activism," said Joe Stork, the deputy director for Human Rights Watch in the Middle East, who has worked and traveled with Maryam in Washington and Geneva and been with her on panels and at conferences. "Abdulhadi is a very charismatic character, he's always been very courageous, very outspoken, and very much inclined to push the envelope. And that's her role model."

Maryam graduated from the University of Bahrain in 2009, then embarked on a Fulbright scholarship to Brown University in the U.S. Upon her return in the summer of 2010, she hoped to find work teaching or in public relations. But as the daughter of one of their most prominent foes, regime officials effectively blocked her ability to get hired. So she turned to the family business: the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, founded by her father. Now she runs the foreign relations office, serving as a deputy to its president, Nabeel Rajab, who appears regularly in the international press and is one of the few activists in Manama to have avoided arrest.

Her father's work "definitely influenced" her, she said when I reach her by phone for this story. She spoke from Copenhagen, her time there a brief respite from the nonstop travel schedule -- Oslo, Geneva, California, London -- she's been maintaining. "The job was there and the motivation was there, but [the government] pushed me into it full-time," she said of her decision to join the Center. Halfway through our conversation, and a testament to her work ethic, she revealed that it was her 24th birthday.

With Center president Rajab's scope limited -- he is not allowed to leave the country, and it remains difficult for media to get in -- and at least 500 top opposition members locked away, the activist's daughter is in a unique position. She was present during the demonstrations and, given her family's involvement, has a bird's-eye view of the politics behind the anti-government movement. She speaks fluent English and is well-connected abroad. With her family's consent, during the regime's crackdown, she boarded a flight from Manama, booked for talks at colleges and conferences, meeting with politicians in the U.K. As her public profile grew, it became apparent that she would risk arrest should she set foot back on Bahraini soil. "They're very cosmopolitan," Stork says of the al-Khawajas. "Maryam felt obliged to leave [Bahrain]. And she felt, or the Centre felt, that she should remain outside for her well- being."


Sister Zainab, still in Bahrain / AP

A girl from one of the country's most prominent families, she is now without them. Maryam doubts she'll be allowed back into the island Kingdom anytime soon, and her mother and sisters plan to stay put "as long as we have any family in jail." Her sister Zainab continues their father's work on the home front. In April, widely known by her Twitter moniker, AngryArabiya, Zainab staged a high-profile hunger strike after the arrests of Abdulhadi, her husband and brother-in-law.

Back in Copenhagen, or wandering Providence after a talk, the only danger sister Maryam faces is that of pro-regime trolls, mainly via internet portals like Twitter, on which she has more than 17,500 followers. People are upset about her rhetoric, her gender, her dad. "She obviously comes into a lot of harassment," Stork said. "In the very polarized situation that Bahrain has become, she's been something of a lightning rod." In a country whose male protesters formed human chains to prevent women from joining, the harassment is "owing as much to her last name as her first name, if you get what I mean."

The verbal attacks on Maryam can be brutal. While I wrote this story, she tweeted a message to families of prisoners at Bahrain's Al Qurrain prison, telling them to bring their loved ones money for food and drinks. A follower replied: "u should be raped by some indian priest that doesnt [sic] believe in bathing."

Now that she's become a thorn in its side, the regime makes a point of having an official at every event she attends. That official feeds what she says back to Manama, typically distorting her words to make it appear she's slandering the regime. Stork said pro-government Bahrainis often follow up by requesting meetings with government officials with whom she has met.

"People threaten my life or reputation," Maryam told me. "But a lot of people in Bahrain support me and support my work and say I'm a hero to them." As for her minders, "I haven't seen them in a bit -- the last time I saw one was in the U.S. Sometimes I don't know they're there." She recalled being surprised to learn an entire speech she'd delivered at Brown had been recorded and transmitted home. She doesn't look too hard for her government's representatives, she said, and isn't constrained when they're around. In a plush hotel lobby in Norway, after her appearance at the Oslo Freedom Forum, she casually pointed out what appeared to be a minder, watching discreetly from the front entrance -- then laughed, rolled her eyes and went back to her conversation. Over the course of that week she was equally comfortable in conversation with everyone from ProPublica editor and former Wall Street Journal chief Paul Steiger to young activists fresh off the plane from Asia and Africa.

But her spirits have faltered a bit. While in Europe between appearances, far from the adoring receptions and crowds of hundreds, she got the news that the al-Khawajas' famous patriarch, her father, was to spend the rest of his life staring at prison walls. She found out, she says, "in the most horrific way -- I was waiting for my sister to text me and instead I got a call from a journalist asking for my thoughts on my father being sentenced to life. I called my mother and she said it was true."

Her first response, quickly battened, was "to be emotional." Instead, like father, and for father, she began fighting for his appeal.