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What the hell is going on in Bahrain?

Tuesday, May 7, 2013     6:30 pm

About “What the hell is going on in Bahrain?”

The New York Institute for the Humanities at NYU &
Center for Human Rights & Global Justice, NYU School of Law, present

And to what extent is the United States implicated?

TUESDAY MAY 7, at 6:30 PM
NYU’s Tishman Auditorium at Vanderbilt Hall
40 Washington Square South (Sullivan/MacDougal)
Free & Open to Public (photo id required)

On Tuesday May 7th at 6:30 pm the New York Institute for the Humanities and the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice will host an evening discussion with the remarkableMaryam al-Khawaja, just about the only member of her astonishing dissident human rights activist family not currently in prison for trying to bring a measure of democracy to the violently repressive autocratic monarchy in her island homeland off the Arabian peninsula (home to the US Fifth Fleet). The family has received several nominations for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, and both her father Abdulhadi and her sister Zainab regularly launch extended hunger strikes, protesting conditions of their incarceration.  Her interlocutors will include Aryeh Neier (President Emeritus of the Open Society Foundations), Ruth Wedgwood (Burling professor of international law and diplomacy, Johns Hopkins SAIS; former U.S. member, United Nations Human Rights Committee) and Sarah Leah Whitson (Director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch).

BAHRAIN BACKGROUND:  The tiny island kingdom of Bahrain has been ruled by a Sunni royal family, the al-Khalifas, for more than two centuries, about half of this time as a British protectorate.  Its first constitution when it gained independence in 1971 provided for a degree of democracy: a legislative assembly with both elected and appointed members. The monarch, however, dissolved the body in 1975. Over the next decades, any attempts to establish democratic institutions were usually met with repression. After the current monarch Sheikh Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa ascended to the throne in 1999, some political reforms were carried out, political prisoners were released and exiles were allowed to return. Yet by early 2011, at the time when much of the Arab world was undergoing a wave of political awakening, the less than a million Bahraini citizens were far from enjoying a democracy: in February, Bahraini activists organized initially small demonstrations to call for political reform and an end to sectarian discrimination against the majority Shiite population. The brutal police response spurred huge popular support for the protest movement, and tens of thousands of demonstrators soon gathered around the Pearl Roundabout in the capital Manama.  The short-lived Pearl Revolution was brutally quashed (with the assistance of nearby Saudi Arabian and UAE forces), and a prolonged crackdown, lasting until today, ensued. Even though the Bahraini monarchy’s handling of the unrest has been unusually brutal—including a high number of protestors killed (a number that in a country with Egypt’s population would mean over 10,000 dead), the sentencing to life in prison of several activists and lengthy prison terms for medical personnel who attended to those wounded by the police during the demonstrations—international condemnation has been muted.  Bahrain is strategically important to several Western democracies and is the home to the US Fifth Fleet.

AL-KHAWAJAS BACKGROUND:  Following primary and secondary education in Bahrain, Maryam’s father Abdulhadi al-Khawaja (born in 1961) traveled to the U.K. to continue his studies, becoming engaged in the pro-democracy activities of Bahraini students abroad.  When fellow students returning to Bahrain began being systematically detained and tortured and his own family home was searched and ransacked, Abdulhadi resolved to continue his activism from exile, being granted political asylum in Denmark in 1991. Returning to Bahrain with his family in 2001 in the wake of a short-lived democratic opening, Abdulhadi founded the Bahrain Center for Human Rights; but by 2005 the democratic opening had collapsed, and across the years that followed, Abdulhadi and his civil society activist colleagues (including two sons-in-law and presently two of his daughters, Zainab and Maryam) were subjected to ever more frequent arrests, beatings, and extended sentences.  All the while (and to this day) the al-Khawaja family hewed to the line of nonviolent resistance.  Following the suppression of the Pearl Revolution, Bahrain’s version of the Arab Spring, in 2011, police broke into the al-Khawaja home and administered Abdulhadi his most savage beating yet (breaking his jaw, banging his head along the stairs as they dragged him from the building, necessitating four hours of surgery for head injuries).  The regime then sentenced him and eight other activists to life imprisonment, a sentence to which he responded, in 2012, with a 110-day hunger strike (during which he almost died on several occasions, and toward the end of which he was repeatedly force-fed).  His daughter Zainab (born 1983), the mother of a three-year old toddler, led countless demonstrations in support of her father and the Bahraini movement generally and was herself arrested eight times and subjected to months in prison.  She and her father both had frequent recourse to further hunger strikes.  Meanwhile, Maryam, only 25 (born 1987), now the acting head of the organization her father had helped found, travels the world from her base in Copenhagen, highlighting the steadily deteriorating situation in her homeland.

For further information and all press inquiries, contact the New York Institute for the Humanities at 212.998.2101 or

The New York Institute for the Humanities (NYIH) at NYU was established in 1976 to promote the exchange of ideas between academics, professionals, politicians, diplomats, writers, journalists, musicians, painters, and other artists in New York City—and between all of them and the city.  It currently comprises 220 fellows.  Throughout the year, the NYIH organizes numerous free public programs, including conferences, symposia, readings, and performances.  For further information, visit or contact or 212.998.2101.

The Center for Human Rights and Global Justice (CHRGJ) was established in 2002 to bring together and expand the rich array of teaching, research, clinical, internship, and publishing activities undertaken at NYU School of Law.  Today the Center is the hub of human rights study at the law school—the top-ranked program for international law in the country and one of the premier law schools in the world.  Having built a reputation for its academic and clinical work on a broad array of human rights subjects—including counter-terrorism; corporate abuses; caste discrimination; gender-based violence; economic, social, and cultural rights; and extrajudicial executions—CHRGJ’s work is currently being guided by its 2012-14 Initiative on “Human Rights Fact-finding, Methods, and Evidence.”  To learn more about its work and mandate, please see:


For more on the situation in Bahrain, see:,,,,BHR,,5139c25d23,0.html

For more on Maryam al-Khawaja and her family, see Institute director Lawrence Weschler’s two recent pieces in Salon:

And for video of Maryam al-Khawaja in action, see her appearance over Huffington Post video, discussing Kim Kardashian’s recent PR deployment to Bahrain:

For Zainab al Khawaja’s recent Martin Luther King-inflected “Letter from the Isa Woman’s Prison,” in which, while continuing to advocate nonviolent struggle,  she quotes King quoting John F Kennedy’s observation that “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable,” see:

Check for program details and updates at

Tuesday, May 7, 2013
6:30 pm-8:30 pm
Event Category:
New York Institute for the Humanities


The Tishman Auditorium of Vanderbilt Hall at NYU
40 Washington Square South, New York, 10003 United States
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