Day 5/16 of Activism Against Gender Violence: In Honor Of Our Sisters- Bahrain WHRD


This International Women Human Rights Defenders Day, we would like to celebrate the brave women of Bahrain, who combat all social and cultural barriers to defend their equal rights and work to achieve social justice and freedom. Bahraini WHRD impart valuable lessons in determination and resistance to their sisters worldwide.

Where does one begin when talking about Bahrain’s courageous women? It is difficult to decide where to start, and what to tell.

The history of Bahraini women activism dates years back. In the 1990s, women stood up to be counted and heard in the ‘Pride Uprising.’ Today the revolution, known as ‘February 14’, is ongoing. Contemporary revolutionaries are intentionally targeted by security forces. They are labelled whores and prostitutes by the media for their participation in public demonstrations and sit-ins. In a country where the population numbers only about one million, the number of women recently detained and tortured was approximately 300. The Bahrani Centre for Human Rights documented most of these cases.

We see these women in their black clothes that reflect the pain and sadness they are made to live out in their daily lives – simply on account of their demands for freedom and justice.

Who are these women? The Al-Khwaja sisters, Maryam and Zainab, and both Dhaif sisters, Lamees and Nada, continue to fight injustice and sectarianism in their small country. Together they have raised awareness of the Bahraini government’s violence against peaceful protestors.

These sisters have been targeted because they are women, for their professions, and for their activism. They write, talk and advocate in international meetings and in the UN Council for human rights. They use social media in both Arabic and English to let the world know what is happening in their country.

Lamees and Zahra

Activist Lamees Dhaif, a target for thugs and armed groups, appeared sixth on a list recommended for execution. “I am a journalist. I use my pen to defend the rights of my people even if the government stopped me from writing. I have thousands of followers on Twitter to read what I write.” Indeed, today she has over 100,000 followers.

Lamees uses her access to alternative forms of media to share the stories of other defiant women. She broke the story on Zahra El-Sheikh, the 23 year-old student who was arrested by security forces for taking photos of the police using force against a demonstration by the Al-Wifaq association. Police handcuffed Zahra and one attempted to grab her breasts – she bit him in response. While being interrogated, the interrogating officer ripped her clothes and beat her as she refused to sign their false allegations against Bahraini opposition leaders. Officers photographed her after she was stripped and threatened to blackmail her by releasing the photos if she resisted their demands.

The lines of the Zahra’s interview by Lamees express the pain of a young girl who attempted to block out the pain of her torture by focusing on her exams. After its release, both Lamees and Zahra were publicly criticized as ‘inappropriate’ since the interview did not shy away from describing the sexual violence the state inflicted on her. In response, Lamees critiques this idea of ‘morality’ that ignores violence against young girls and violations of their human rights. According to Zahra, many other women were subject to the same systematic torture in her prison.


Lamees has not been arrested, but her sister Nada was apprehended this past March 2011. Nada is a doctor, a wife, and mother to two girls. She was tortured and kept in solitary confinement for weeks because she treated injured protesters after they took to the streets on February 14th. Nada was one of ten other female doctors detained and tortured for treating protestors.

In her testimony for  Doctors in Chains, Nada describes her seven week long ordeal. Summoned to military court several times until she was acquitted of all charges in May, Nada’s torture began one night when security forces broke into her house. I met Nada in a conference in Morocco last September and I still remember her telling me how to this day she sometimes wakes up in the middle of the night to the sound of imagined blows on the door of her home. Yet, amazingly as she narrates this tale of torture and trauma, she then smiles and notes, “they fear me even while I am very small in size and short.”

The Al-Khawajas

Bahraini WHRDs are not only subject to torture, detention and harassment, but are subject to restrictions on their movement in and out of the state. They face vicious cyber-attacks that defame them and their families. While they are indomitable in their devotion to their cause, they fear always for their families and their loved ones. How can we forget the hunger strike of Abdel Hadi Al-Khawaja, father to Maryam and Zainab? During these painful moments, both daughters were forced away from their father as Maryam was advocating outside of Bahrain, and Zainab demonstrated alone in the streets of Manama, demanding freedom.

Bahraini Girls & Women and the State - Today

Official intimidation of these courageous activists continues. On the 23rd of  November, public prosecutors summoned the female lawyer Manar Maki and interrogated her on the basis of a statement regarding the torture of her detained client Adnan Almansi. Allegedly, he was subjected to invasive sexual assault while in custody. Merely for reporting his claim, she was charged for insults to judicial authority and defamation of members of the public prosecution.

In Bahrain today, young girls still bravely protest, while the state brutally confronts their resistance. Last October, Dana Jaffar, only 15 years of age, was arrested in Manama and taken to Al Hoora police station. She was then transferred to Isa Twon women’s prison, where adults are also detained. On 14 October 2012, she was ordered to a week’s detention for further questioning. Her lawyer’s request for her release was refused by the authorities.

The arrest of Dana

And so the stories of state violence and repression accumulate. Yet the struggle continues as these women human rights defenders keep up the fight for a country in which all citizens are equal, and justice and freedom is guaranteed for all Bahrainis.