Zainab Alkhawaja: Let me first begin by saying what an honor it is for me to receive this award, and how humbled I am to have been chosen. The time I spent at Beloit College helped equip me with some of the very tools that I have been using in the uprising in Bahrain – in doing my part to fight for human rights and democracy in my country. Not only did my education in Beloit affect me, but throughout the revolution I would remember lessons and professors who left a great mark on how I worked or thought. Let me mention a few, although they all had their impact, and I am grateful to all for their efforts.
When I was on social media tweeting about protests, it was Shawn Gillen’s journalism classes that taught me how to express myself better. And when I was in a prison cell surrounded by my books, it was his deconstruction classes that made me consider through which lens I was reading each of them. It was Beth Dougherty’s classes that taught me to be more of a realist. I had been a pure idealist, and I think if I had not had all those lessons in history and human rights atrocities, I would have not been able to handle a lot of the things I was exposed to. The truth is Dougherty’s political science classes and Gillen’s guidance in my Arabic lit project also taught me so much about my own history and language. When my father was on his longest hunger strike, and we feared for his life, John Rosenwald’s poetry classes gave me the ability to express my feelings through poetry, which I now know is a way of survival, to be able to express oneself. Of course, some of the classes I took did not help improve my skills at all, to the disappointment of some of my professors, and I must admit I still have a big problem with run-on sentences.
And also despite taking public speaking classes at Beloit, I continue to not be a very powerful public speaker except when I feel the issue at hand is of great importance. While I spoke well on the quad about civilians killed in Iraq, I sure do hope my classmates don’t remember my speeches in class on Arabic dishes and pet peeves. I think I hid my hands so they wouldn’t see them shaking.
These past six years have not been easy. Putting what I have been through aside, I must say being a witness to the suffering of so many others has been very heartbreaking. Yes, I have been beaten and insulted, but I have documented hundreds of cases of other people who were tortured in ways that even hearing the details of was unbearably painful, and those included my father, uncle, and husband. Yes, I was imprisoned, but I have to live with the fact that I have been released while most of the people I know are still inside those prisons, with sentences that could keep them in prison for the rest of their lives. I have been injured, but I have also seen protesters shot in their eyes. I have seen the bodies of dead peaceful protesters. Bodies of children, as young as 14. Faces I cannot forget, and families I mourned with. And though we have fought long and hard, we the people of Bahrain are living in a worse situation today than when this revolution started. It is very frustrating to realize that not only monarchies are allied against us, but also democratic governments who feel being friends with dictators is more beneficial to them.
While it is fun to listen to Colbert and others and laugh at the expense of Trump, it is not as funny when you know a few words from this man have gotten people killed in my country. Several days after Trump assured the king of Bahrain that there would no longer be any “strain” in the relationship between the two countries, the regime attacked a peaceful sit-in, killing five people. The only non-governmental newspaper was shutdown, the last remaining political society has been closed down, and the few remaining activists on the ground were tortured severely and told that nobody in the world cares about them now. But it wouldn’t be fair to speak only of Trump.
Generation after generation in Bahrain have faced extrajudicial killings, systematic torture, arbitrary arrests, and the use of excessive force amongst other tools of repression. What has always been very obvious to the Bahraini people though is that the oppressive regime in Bahrain would not have been able to survive the way it has, had it not been for the support it receives from its western allies. Under all U.S. administrations, Democrats or Republicans, Bahrain has received arms sales and economic deals, and has avoided international accountability. Very simply put, the U.S. administration has played a very big role in keeping the dictatorship strong, powerful, and armed in my country. And I believe Americans who truly believe in human rights and democracy have the responsibility to make sure the government that supposedly represents them is not involved in helping dictators repress pro-democracy movements.
I hope that all of you, my fellow alumni, listening to this today, will use your privilege as eligible voters in your countries, and influence in your professions, to stand in solidarity with the people of Bahrain. I hope that that you will call your representatives in Congress, as well as the White House and State Department, to demand that they have a better stand on human rights in Bahrain. I also hope that you will raise awareness about the situation in Bahrain with all those around you.
Even if it’s not Bahrain, I hope each of us is always fighting for a just cause. It is those difficult issues that give our lives a meaning that is larger than us. And it is those difficult struggles that speak of our lives even after our death. Finally, it is easy for us to talk about how great Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Nelson Mandela were. It’s easy for us to say that we would have stood by them and supported them in their struggles had we had the opportunity. But there are tens if not hundreds of Gandhi’s, MLK’s and Mandela’s sitting in prison cells right now around the world. Choose to support them, choose to stand by them. If not for their sake, then for the sake of your own humanity.