In Bahrain, inspired by the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, protesters gathered for several weeks in the centre of the capital – Manama - to demand action to tackle economic hardship, the lack of political freedom and discrimination in jobs.
“Every single person on those streets who is risking everything and saying ‘I am worth more’ and ‘I know my rights’ and ‘I am willing to fight for them’ is a human rights defender,” says Maryam Al-Khawaja, referring to the thousands of demonstrators who took the streets in the Middle East and North Africa early in the year to demand freedom and a better life.
Al-Khawaja is a Bahraini human rights activist and the current head of the foreign relations office for the Bahrain Center for Human Rights.
“The turning point for me was to see how the revolution in Bahrain evolved,” she says. “It all started with a small group of people demanding change and political involvement. Then despite the killings, the torture, and the cases of imprisonment, more and more people joined the demonstrations: they are my inspiration,” Al-Khawaja says.
“There were people out there I would never dream to see in a protest. Everyone from Bahrain was in the streets and 50 per cent of them were women,” she adds.
Al-Khawaja remembers the amazing scene of a woman – wearing the traditional veil – who, during the protests, wrote on a wall that “if men decide to give up, women will continue with the revolution.” “What an inspiration!” she says.
Al-Khawaja’s commitment to the realization of human rights is deeply rooted in her family’s long standing involvement in the promotion and protection of human rights.
Her father, a prominent political opponent and human rights activist, played an important role in her life. He has been detained on a number of occasions and allegedly beaten and tortured. Al-Khawaja was born in Syria while in exile, after the continuous persecution of her father. At age two, she and her family were granted political asylum in Denmark, where she lived for 12 years before being allowed to return to Bahrain. Her father taught her what it means to fight for human rights and “to respect others even if you don’t agree with them.” Her mother –also an activist – is, for Al-Khawaja, a symbol of strength and courage.
As a human rights defender, Al-Khawaja’s biggest challenge was to learn to deal with personal cases “like they are not personal.” “I had to learn to separate my emotions from my work. I had to present cases of torture as if I had no relation to them. It was difficult. My dad, my uncle, my brother-in-law were tortured. But then I realized that there were hundreds of similar cases. And things became easier to handle. It is not just about my family, it is about all the people whose rights are not respected.”
“Every human rights defender recognizes that, as human beings, we are born equal in dignity and rights,” Al-Khawaja says. “But in some situations we are born in countries where we cannot realize those rights. That’s when we speak up and fight for them.”
Al-Khawaja, together with other human rights activists, attended a briefing session on human rights and the work of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Geneva.
This year, Human Rights Day celebrates the work of human rights defenders and focuses on their efforts to galvanize and inspire support and inspire support for change via social media. The UN Human Rights Office has launched a global social media campaign that will encourage people to commit to taking action for change by becoming human rights defenders. Join us to celebrate human rights!
21 November 2011