Interviewer: Jillian York

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Maryam Al-Khawaja is a Bahraini Woman Human Rights Defender who works as a consultant and trainer on Human Rights. She is a leading voice for human rights and political reform in Bahrain and the Gulf region. She has been influential in shaping official responses to human rights atrocities in Bahrain and the Gulf region by leading campaigns and engaging with prominent policymakers around the world.

She played an instrumental role in the pro-democracy protests in Bahrain’s Pearl Roundabout in February 2011. These protests triggered a government response of widespread extra judicial killings, arrests, and torture, which she documented extensively over social media. Due to her human rights work, she was subjected to assault, threats, defamation campaigns, imprisonment and an unfair trial. She was arrested on illegitimate charges in 2014 and sentenced in absentia to one year in prison. She currently has an outstanding arrest warrant and four pending cases, one of which could carry a life sentence. She serves on the Boards of the International Service for Human Rights, Urgent Action Fund, CIVICUS and the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy. She also previously served as Co-Director at the Gulf Center for Human Rights and Acting President of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights.

York: Can you introduce yourself and tell us a little about your work? Maybe provide us a brief outline of your history as a free expression advocate going back as far as you’d like.

Maryam: Sure, so my name is Maryam Al-Khawaja. I’m a Bahraini-Danish human rights defender and advocate. I’ve worked in many different spaces around human rights and on many different thematic issues. Of course freedom of expression is an intricate part of nearly any kind of human rights advocacy work. And it’s one of the issues that is critical to the work that we do and critical to the civil society space because it not only affects people who live in dictatorships, but also people who live in democracies or pseudodemocracies. A lot of times there’s not necessarily an agreement around what freedom of expression is or a definition of what falls under the scope of freedom of expression. And also to who and how that applies. So while some things for some people might be considered free expression, for others it might be considered not as free expression and therefore it’s not protected. 

I think it’s something that I’ve both experienced having done the work and having taken part in the revolution in Bahrain and watching the difference between how we went from self-censorship prior to the uprising and then how people took to the streets and started saying whatever they wanted. That moment of just breaking down that wall and feeling almost like you could breathe again because you suddenly could express yourself. Not necessarily without fear – because the consequences were still there – but more so that you were doing it anyway, despite the fear. I think that’s one of the strongest memories I have of the importance of speech and that shift that happens even internally because, yes, there’s censorship in Bahrain, but censorship then creates self-censorship for protection and self preservation.

It’s interesting because I then left Bahrain and came to Denmark and I started seeing how, as a Brown, Muslim woman, my right to free expression doesn’t look the same as someone who is White living in Europe. So I also had to learn those intricacies and how that works and how we stand up to that or fight against that. It’s… been a long struggle, to keep it short. 

York: That’s a really strong answer and I want to come back to something you said, and that’s that censorship creates self-censorship. I think we both know the moment we’re living in right now, and I’m seeing a lot of self-censorship even from people who typically are very staunch in standing up for freedom of expression. I’m curious, in the past decade, how has the idea that censorship creates self-censorship impacted you and the people around you or the activists that you know? 

One part of it is when you’re an advocate and you look how I look – especially when I was wearing the headscarf – you learn very quickly that there are things that people find acceptable coming from you, and things they find not acceptable. There are judgements and stereotypes that are applied to you and therefore what you can and cannot say actually has to also be taken into that context. 

Like to give you a small example, one of the things that I faced a lot during my advocacy and my work on Bahrain was I was constantly put in a space where I had to explain or… not justify – because I don’t support the use of violence generally – but I was put in a defensive position of “Why are you as civil society not telling these youth not to use Molotov cocktails on the street of Bahrain?” And I would try to explain that while I don’t justify the use of violence generally, it’s important to understand the context. And to understand that a small group of youth in Bahrain started using Molotov cocktails as a way to defend themselves, to try and get the riot police out of their villages when the riot police would come in in the middle of the night and basically go on a rampage, break into people’s homes, beat people to a pulp, and then take people and disappear them or torture them and so on. And so one of the ways for them to try and fight back was to use Molotov cocktails to at least get the riot police to stop coming into their villages. Of course this was always taken as me justifying violence or me supporting terrorism. Unfortunately, it wasn’t surprising, but it was such a clarifying moment. Then I watched those very same people at the very same media outlets literally put out tutorials on how to make Molotov cocktails for people in Ukraine fighting back against Russia. It’s not surprising because I know that’s how the world works, I know that in the world that we live in and the societies that we live in, my life is not equal to that of others – specific others. I very quickly learned that my work as a person of color – and I don’t really like that term – but as a person of the global majority, it’s my proximity to whiteness that decides my value as a human being. Unfortunately. 

So that’s one layer of it. Another layer of it is here in Europe. I live in Copenhagen. I travel in the West quite often. I’ve also seen the difference of how we’re positioned as – especially Muslims with the incredible amounts of Islamophobia especially in Copenhagen – and seeing how politicians can come out and say incredibly Islamophobic and racist things and be written off as freedom of expression. But if someone of the global majority were to do that they would immediately be dubbed as extremist or a radical. 

There is this extreme double standard when it comes to what freedom of expression looks like and how it’s implemented. And I’ll end with this example, with the Charlie Hebdo example. There was such a huge international solidarity movement when the attack on Charlie Hebdo happened in France. And obviously the killing that happened, there doesn’t even need to be a conversation around that, of course everyone should condemn that. What I find lacking in the conversation around freedom of expression when it comes to Charlie Hebdo is that Charlie Hebdo targets Muslim minorities that are already under attack, that are already discriminated against, and, in my mind, it actually incites violence against them when it does so. Because they’re already so targeted, because they’re vilified already in the media by politicians and so on. So my approach isn’t to say, “we should start censoring these media publications” or “we should start censoring people from being able to say what they say.” I’m saying that when we’re going to implement rules or understandings around freedom of expression it needs to be implemented equally. It needs to be implemented without double standards. Without picking and choosing who gets to have freedom of expression versus who doesn’t. 

York: That’s such a great point. And I’m glad you brought up Charlie Hebdo. Coming back to that, it reminded me about the different governments that we saw, from my perspective, pretending to march for free expression when that happened. We saw a number of states that ranked fairly poorly on press freedom at the time. My recollection is we saw a number of countries that don’t have a great track record on freedom of expression, I think including Russia, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia, take a stance at that time. What that evokes for me is the hypocrisy of various states. We think about censorship as a potent tool for those in power to maintain power and then of course that sort of political posturing is also a very potent tool. So what are your thoughts on that? How does that inform your advocacy? 

Like I said, we’ve already seen it throughout Europe and throughout the United States. Right now with the Gaza situation we’re seeing this with even more clarity – and it’s not like it was hidden before, those of us that work in these spaces already knew this – but I think right now it’s just so in-your-face where people are literally getting fired from their jobs and called into HR for liking posts, for posting things basically standing against an ongoing genocide. And I think, again, it brings to the surface the double standard and the hypocrisy that exists within the spaces that talk about freedom of expression. France is actually a great example. Even when we’re talking about Charlie Hebdo; Charlie Hebdo did the cover of the magazine before they were attacked. It was mocking the Rabaa Massacre, which was one of the largest massacres to happen in Egypt in recent history. Regardless of what you think of the Muslim Brotherhood, that was a massacre, it was wrong, it should be condemned. And they poked fun at that. They had this man with a long beard who looked like the Muslim Brotherhood holding up a Quran with bullets going through the Quran and hitting him, saying, “your Quran won’t protect you.” This was considered freedom of expression even though it was mocking a literal massacre that happened in Egypt. Which, in my opinion, the Egyptian regime should be considered as committing terrorist acts for that massacre. And so in some ways that could be considered as supporting terrorism. Just like I consider what is happening to the Palestinians as a form of terrorism. The same thing with Syria and so on. 

But, unfortunately, it’s the people who own the discourse that get to decide what phrases and what terminologies can be applied and used where. But the point that I was making about Charlie Hebdo is that not much later after the attack on Charlie Hebdo, there was a 16 year old in France who made a cartoon cover where he mocks the attack on Charlie Hebdo. He basically used the exact same type of cartoon that they had used around the Rabaa massacre. Where there’s a guy from Charlie Hebdo holding up a copy of Charlie Hebdo and being struck by bullets and saying “your magazine doesn’t stop bullets.” And he was arrested! This 16 year old kid does this cartoon – exactly the same as the magazine had done after the massacre – and he was arrested and charged with advocating terrorism. And I think this is one of the clearest examples of how freedom of expression is not implemented on an equal level when it comes to who’s practicing it. 

I think it’s the same thing as what we’re seeing right now happening with Palestine. When you look at what’s happening in Germany with the amount of people being arrested [for unauthorized protests] and now we’re even hearing about raids on people’s homes. I’ve spoken to some of my friends in Germany who say that they’re literally trying to hide and get rid of any pro-Palestinian flyers or flags that they have just in case their home gets raided. It’s interesting because quite a few Arabs in Germany now are referring to Germany as Assad’s Germany. Because a lot of what’s happening in Germany right now, to them, is reminiscent of what it was like to live in Syria under Assad. I think that tells you almost everything you need to know about the double standards of how these things are implemented. I think this is where the problem comes in. 

You can not talk about free expression and freedom of speech without talking about how it’s related to colonialism. About how it’s related to movements for freedom. About how it’s related to the fact that much of our human rights movements in civil society are currently based on institutionalized human rights – and I’m talking specifically about the West, obviously, because there are a lot of grassroots movements in the global majority countries. But we can not talk about these things without talking about the need and importance of decolonizing our activism.

My thinking right now is very much inspired by Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, where he talks about how when colonizers colonized, they didn’t just colonize the country and the institutions and education and all these different things. They even colonized and decided for us and dictated for us how we’re allowed to fight back. How we’re allowed to resist. And I think that’s incredibly true. There’s a very rigid understanding of the space that you’re allowed to exist in or have to exist in to be regarded as a credible human rights activist. Whether it’s for free speech or for any other human right. And so, in my mind, what we need right now is to decolonize our activism. And to step away from that idea that it’s the West that decides for us what “appropriate” or “acceptable” activism actually looks like. And start deciding for ourselves what our activism needs to look like. Because we know now that none of these people that have supported the genocide in Gaza can in any way shape or form try to dictate what humans rights look like or what activism looks like. I’ve seen this over social media over the past period and people have been saying this over and over again that what died in Gaza is that pretense. That the West gets to tell the rest of us what human rights are and what freedoms are and how we should fight for them. 

York: Let’s change directions for a moment. What do you think of the control that corporations have over deciding what speech parameters look like right now? 

[Laughs] Where do I start? I think it’s a struggle for a lot of us.

I want to first acknowledge that I have a lot of privileges that other activists don’t. When I left Bahrain in 2011 I already had Danish citizenship. Which meant that I could travel. I already had a strong command of English. Which meant that I could do meetings without the need for a translator. That I could attend and be in certain spaces. And that’s not necessarily the case for so many other activists. And so I do have a lot of privileges that have put me in the position that I am in. And I believe that part of having privileges like that means that I need to use them to be also a loud speaker for others. And to try and make this world a better place, in whatever shape and form that I can. That being said, I think that for many of us even who have had privileges that other activists don’t, it’s been a real struggle to watch the mediums and tools that we have been using for the past, over a decade, as a means of raising pressure, communicating with the world, connecting, and so on, be taken away from us. In ways that we can’t control and in ways that we don’t have a say on. I think that for a lot of – and I know especially for myself – but I think for a lot of activists who really found their voices in 2011 as part of activism especially on platforms like Twitter. 

When Elon Musk bought Twitter and decided to remove the verification status from all of us activists who had that for a reason. I remember I received my verification status because of the amount of fake accounts that the Bahraini government was creating at that time to impersonate me to try to discredit me. And also because I was receiving death threats and rape threats and all kinds of threats, over and over again. I received that verification status as an acknowledgement that I need support against those attacks that I was being subjected to. And it was gone overnight. It’s not just about that blue tick. It’s that people don’t see my Tweets the way that they used to. It’s about the fact that my message can’t go as far as it used to go. It’s not just because we no longer show up in people’s feeds, but also because so many people have left the platform because of how problematic it’s become. 

In some ways I spent 13 years focused on Twitter, building a following—obviously, my work is so much more than Twitter—but Twitter has been a tool for the work that I do. And really building a following and making sure that people trusted me and the information that I shared and that I was a trusted and credible source of information. Not just on Bahrain, but on all of the different types of work that I do. And then suddenly overnight, at the age of 35, 36 having to recreate that all over again on Instagram. And on TikTok. And the thing is… we’re tired. We’re exhausted. We’re burnt out. We’re not doing well. Almost everyone I know is either depressed or sick or dealing with some form of health issue. Thirteen years after the uprisings we’re not doing well and we’re not okay. What’s happening with Gaza right now is hitting all of us. I think it’s incredibly triggering and hurtful. I think the idea that we now have to make that effort to rebuild platforms to be able to reach people, it’s not just “Oh my god, I don’t have the energy for it.” It’s like someone tore a limb from us and we have to try to regrow that limb. And how do you regrow a limb, right? It’s incredibly painful. 

Obviously, it’s nice to have a large following and for people to recognize you and know who you are and so on—and it’s hard work not letting that get to your head—but, for me, losing my voice is not about the follower count or how much people know who I am. It’s the fact that I can no longer get the same kind of attention for my father’s case. I can no longer get the same kind of attention for the hundreds of people who no one knows their names or their faces who are sitting in prison cells in Bahrain who are still being tortured. For the children who are still being arrested for protesting. For Palestine and Bahrain. I can no longer make sure that I’m a loudspeaker so that people know these things are happening.

A lot of people talked about and wrote about the damage that Elon Musk did to Twitter and to that “public square” that we have. Twitter has always had its problems. And Meta has always had its problems. But it was a problem where we at least had a voice. We weren’t always heard and we weren’t always able to influence things, but at least it felt like we had a voice. Now it doesn’t feel like we have a voice. There was a lot of conversation around this, around the taking away of the public square, but there are these intricacies and details that affect us on such a personal level that I don’t think people outside of these circles can really understand or even think about. And how it affects when I need to make noise because my father might die from a heart attack because they’re refusing to give him medical treatment. And I can’t get retweets or I can’t get people to re-post. Or only 100 people are seeing the videos I’m posting on Instagram. It’s not that I care about having that following, it’s about literally being able to save my father’s life. So it takes such a toll on you on a personal level as well. I think that’s the part of the conversation that I think is missing when we talk about these things.

I can’t imagine—but in some ways I can imagine—how it feels for Palestinians right now. To watch their family members, their people being subjected to an ongoing genocide and then have their voices taken away from them, to be subjected to shadowbans, to have their accounts shut down. It’s insult added to injury. You’re already hurting. You’re already in pain. You’re already not doing well. You’re already struggling just to survive another day and the only thing you have is your voice and then even that is taken away from you. I don’t think we can even begin to imagine the kind of damage on mental health and even physical health that that’s going to have in the coming years and in the coming generations because, of course, we pass down our trauma to the people around us as well. 

York: I’m going to take a slight step back and a slight segue because I want to be able to use this interview for you to talk about your father’s case as well. Can you tell us about your father’s case and where it stands today?

My father, Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, dedicated his entire life to human rights activism. Which is why he spent half his life, if not more than that, in exile. And it’s why he spent the last thirteen years in prison. My father is the only Danish prisoner of conscience in the world today. And I very strongly believe that if my father was not a Brown, Muslim man he would not have spent this long as an EU citizen in a prison cell based on freedom of expression charges. And this is one of those cases where you really get to recognize those double standards. Where Denmark prides itself on being one of the countries that is the biggest protector of freedom of expression. And yet the entire case against my father – and my father was one of the human rights leaders of the uprising in 2011 – and he led the protests and he talked about human rights and freedom and he talked about the importance of us doing things the right way. And I think that’s why he was seen as such a threat. 

One of his speeches was about how even if we are able to change the government in Bahrain, we are not going to torture. We’re not going to be like them. We’re going to make sure that people who were perpetrators receive due process and fair trials. He always focused on the importance of people fighting for justice and fighting for change to do things the right way and from a human rights framework. He was arrested very violently from my sister’s home in front of my friends and family. He was beaten unconscious in front of my family. And he repeatedly said as he was being beaten, “I can’t breathe.” And every time I think of what happened with my father I think of Eric Garner as well – where he said over and over again “I can’t breathe” when he was basically killed by the United States police. Then my father was taken away. 

Interestingly enough, especially because we’re talking about freedom of expression, my father was charged with terrorism. In Bahrain, the terrorism law is so vague that even the work of a human rights defender can be regarded as terrorism. So even criticizing the police for committing violations can be seen as inciting terrorism. So my father was arrested and tried under the terrorism law, and they said he was trying to overthrow the government. But Human Rights Watch actually dissected the case that was brought against my father and the “evidence” that he was of course forced to sign under torture. He was subjected to very severe psychological and sexual torture for over two months during which he was disappeared as well – held in incommunicado detention. When they did that dissection of the case they found that all of the charges against my father were based on freedom of expression issues. It was all based on things that he had said during the protests around calling for democracy, around calling for representative government, the right to self determination, and more. It’s very much a freedom of expression issue. 

What I find horrifying – but also it says a lot about the case against my father and why he’s in prison today – is that one of the first things they did to my dad was they hit him with a hard object on his jaw and they broke his jaw. Even my father says that he feels they did that on purpose because they were hoping that he would never be able to speak again. They broke his jaw in six different places, or four different places. He had to undergo a four hour surgery where they reattached his jaw. They had to use more than twenty metal plates and screws to put his jaw back together. And he, of course, still has chronic pain and issues because of what they did. He was subjected to so much else like electrocutions and more, but that was a very specific intentional first blow that he received when he was arrested. To the face and to the mouth. As punishment, as retaliation, for having used his right to free expression to speak up and criticize the government. I think this tells you pretty much everything you need to know about what the situation of freedom of expression is in Bahrain. But it should also tell you a lot about the EU and the West and how they regard the importance of freedom of expression when the fact that my father is an EU citizen has not actually protected him. And 13 years later he continues to sit in a prison cell serving a life sentence because he practiced his right to free expression and because he practiced his right to freedom of assembly. 

Last year, my father decided to do a one-person protest in the prison yard. Both in solidarity with Palestine, but also because of the consistent and systematic denial of adequate medical treatment to prisoners of conscience in Bahrain. Because of that, and because he was again using his right to free expression inside prison, he was denied medical treatment for over a year. And my father had developed a heart condition. So a few months ago his condition started to get really bad, the doctors told us he might have a heart attack or a stroke at any time given that he was being denied access to a cardiologist. So I had to put myself and my freedom at risk. I’m already sentenced to one year in prison in Bahrain, I have four pending cases – basically, going back to Bahrain means that I am very likely to spend the rest of my life in prison, if not be subjected to torture. Which I have been in the past as well. But I decided to try and go back to Bahrain because the Danish government was refusing to step up. The West was refusing to step up. I mean we were asking for the bare minimum, which was access to a cardiologist. So I had to put myself at risk to try and bring attention. 

I ended up being denied boarding because there was too much international attention around my trip. So they denied me boarding because they didn’t want international coverage around me being arrested at the Bahrain airport again. I managed to get several very high profile human rights personalities to go with me on the trip. Because of that, and because we were able to raise so much international attention around my dad’s case, they actually ended up taking him to the cardiologist and now he’s on heart medication. But he’s never out of the danger zone, with Bahrain being what it is and because he’s still sitting in a prison cell. We’re still working hard on getting him out, but I think for my dad it’s always about his principles and his values and his ethics. For him, being a human rights defender, being in prison doesn’t mean the end of his activism. And that’s why he’s gone on more than seven hunger strikes in prison, that’s why he’s done multiple one-person protests in the prison yard. For him, his activism is an ongoing thing even from inside his prison cell. 

York: That’s an incredible story and I appreciate you sharing it with our readers—your father is incredibly brave. Last question—who is your free speech hero? 

Of course my dad, for sure. He always taught us the importance of using our voice not just to speak up for ourselves but for others especially. There’s so many that I’m drawing a blank! I can tell you that my favorite quote is by Edward Snowden. “Saying that you don’t care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is like saying you don’t care about freedom of speech because you have nothing to say.” I think that really brings things to the point. 

There’s also an indigenous activist in the US who has been doing such a tremendous job using her voice to bring attention to what’s happening to the indigenous communities in the US. And I know it comes at a cost and it comes at great risk. There’s several Syrian activists and Palestinian activists. Motaz Azaiza and his reporting on what’s happening now in Gaza and the price that he’s paying for it, same thing with Bisan and Plestia. She’s also a Palestinian journalist who’s been reporting on Gaza. There’s just so many free expression heroes. People who have really excelled in understanding how to use their voice to make this world a better place. Those are my heroes. The everyday people who choose to do the right thing when it’s easier not to.