Variety

Twitter-feed a revolt

COURTNEY C. RADSCH | Updated on March 12, 2018

Lamees Dhaif , Bahraini media personality and blogger.   -  WFS

Young Bahraini women who tweet to keep alive the flames of an uprising.

Ayat al-Gormez, Maryam al-Khawaja, Lamees Dhaif, Amira al-Husseini — four young women who are giving their name, face and voice to the revolutionary effort in Bahrain.

The most famous of them is Ayat, the 20-year-old poet who climbed on to the makeshift stage at Pearl Square in Manama — the nerve centre of demonstrations — and read her poem about a conversation between King Hamad bin Issa Al-Khalifa and Satan. She became a YouTube sensation, but was arrested in June and sentenced to a year's imprisonment only to be released unexpectedly in early July. While the regime may have silenced her temporarily, Ayat remains a significant revolutionary figure.

“One of the things I love about the Bahraini revolution is that you have a female who became a symbol for the revolution, and it's not only the girls that look up to her, it's the men as well,” said 24-year-old Maryam al-Khawaja, director of international advocacy for the non-profit Bahrain Human Rights Centre. “I love the fact that all my guy friends were talking about how much they look up to her and how she was like the icon of bravery to them.”

Bahrainis under 30 make up 65 per cent of the population and form the majority of the demonstrators. As men and boys were rounded up and arrested by the hundreds in the first wave of demonstrations in February, young women protestors have emerged more visibly, maintaining a cause that has left several peaceful protesters dead from police violence.

Maryam is one of the most prominent online activists. Before the massive February protests, she was not much of a Twitter user and had only about 30 followers. Now she has 19,000 followers and has sent more than 5,000 tweets, providing real-time coverage of various protests overlooked by many news agencies. As demonstrators flooded the streets, she stayed for days on end at the Pearl Square Roundabout, tweeting round the clock. In March, the government destroyed the famous statue at the centre of the roundabout — the one featured on its currency — in an effort to silence its citizens.

Bahrain is a relatively wealthy country and Internet connections and smart phones are widespread. Maryam and others are using these to oppose what they see as two major forces of silence.

Staying quiet

One is the mainstream Arab media, largely aligned with Saudi Arabia, the Sunni-ruled ally of Bahrain. Saudi media entities control about 70 per cent of the regional advertising market and that has helped silence reports of the uprising. Another silencer is the US, which has largely avoided criticising Bahrain, a regional ally that hosts the US Fifth Fleet.

Maryam says Bahraini authorities frequently hack into e-mail accounts and disrupt online critics. Her Twitter account had been hacked, blocking access to her account. “I feel like my life is empty!” she half-joked.

In March she left Bahrain for the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva to take part in a panel discussion on the human rights abuses occurring in her country. Since then she has been unable to return to Bahrain and now traverses the globe, raising awareness on the situation in her country.

Her sister Zainab, better know by her AngryArabiya Twitter handle, remains in Bahrain, leading protests, such as the hunger strike against the arrest of her father, husband and brother-in-law during a crackdown on human rights activists.

According to Maryam, she is constantly shadowed by pro-government minions who report on her activities and try to prevent her from making public appearances. In May, on a visit to the US, she gave a speech at Columbia University and congressional testimony about the serious human rights abuses occurring in Bahrain. She has countered Bahrain's characterisation of the protests as a primarily sectarian struggle against the Sunni-led government.

“According to the government of Bahrain, the protests were mainly Shia, but there has also been a targeting of Sunni people in these arrests and crackdowns,” she testified, adding that 1,176 had been arrested, with about 25 per cent of them aged under 18. “We have also heard several accounts in which 11- to 16-year-old girls were arrested from schools,” she told members of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Committee.

Regime supporters have mounted their own online efforts to discredit dissent. The government has launched Facebook and Twitter pages to push people to make loyalty pledges online. Several times a week Maryam sends an e-mail update on the situation on the ground, gathering information from an extensive network of trusted sources in Bahrain. She systematically documents arrests and allegations of torture and death by providing links to videos on YouTube or other documentation.

Doctors on Skype

Among the most egregious arrests are those of doctors who provided emergency care to protesters in the Pearl Roundabout. This has prompted activists and doctors to provide consultations via Skype to the injured protestors, who fear arrest if they go to a hospitalNahda Dhaif, a dental surgeon with two young children, was among the doctors arrested, and was reportedly tortured during the nearly two months of imprisonment. Her sister Lamees Dhaif, a prominent media personality and blogger, had grown increasingly critical of the Bahraini authorities and was warned to stop writing. “I can stand for myself to be targeted, but not my sister,” said Lamees when she was in Washington D.C. as part of a State Department international visitor programme.

In Bahrain Lamees lost her livelihood. Her home was attacked with a Molotov cocktail and she was targeted in a government smear campaign that included a Facebook videogame with her as one of the targets. Eventually, she fled to Dubai, where she is unable to find a journalism job owing to, what she believes, pressure from Bahrain on Arab news outlets. Her blog is now her main form of communication.

The regime also has sought to silence critics by threatening, firing and arresting journalists and bloggers. A censorial pall has driven many from the country. One of them is Amira al-Husseini, a prolific blogger and West Asian editor of Global Voices Online, a blog aggregator that has helped curate the “Arab Spring” revolutions. Her blog, Silly Bahraini Girl, was blocked in Bahrain earlier this year.

“What laws and regulations have I violated for my blog to be blocked? And how exactly can you block me? How do you intend to silence me?” she wrote in an angry post early January. “You can stop my readers from accessing my posts in Bahrain, but how would you shield the rest of the world from seeing the truth as it is, without censorship and repression?”

© WeNews/ Women's Feature Service

Published on September 15, 2011

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