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.
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."
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.
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
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