Nawal is a young female activist and very talented photographer. We met in a cafe in the middle of Manama. Her mother is what, in Bahraini slang, is called “Sushi” (a child from mixed Shia and Sunni Muslim parents). Nawal is not the first person I’ve met here from a mixed Shia and Sunni family, but until now I haven’t really had time to do a proper interview with anyone about the issue before. The reason I even consider this an issue important enough to write about is that the government claims that the pro-democracy uprising is “Shia-founded terrorism,” and in general has been presenting it as a problem of sectarianism. During my time here I have been trying to meet with Bahrainis from as many different parts of society as possible. Of course, since I face the risk of arrest and deportation as an international observer, researching and writing about what I see here (as happened to Witness Bahrain volunteers before me), it has so far been impossible to meet with committed pro-government people. Despite this I already have a very wide spectrum of contacts. Until now no one has expressed any sort of hatred or even dislike for someone based on religion or race. Not a single person, which I think is worth contemplating.
Nawal has been active since the beginning of the revolution, taking photos and documenting the situation for the international community. Her family is not only a mixture of Sunni and Shia but also of politically aware and active people and those who really don’t seem to care. The whole family meets every week at her Sunni maternal grandmother’s house for lunch or dinner. Before February 24th 2011 she really enjoyed sharing thoughts about politics with her family at these gatherings, but since the revolution things have changed.
Nawal’s uncle (her aunt’s husband) holds a very high position in the Bahrain military. Soon after protests at the Pearl Roundabout began last year, pictures of King Hamed suddenly began adorning the walls in her aunt’s house and the family spoke a lot about how Shia Muslims did things wrong and how bad for the country the protesters were. This was the first time in Nawal’s life she ever felt any difference between the Shia and the Sunni part of her family. She and the rest of the Shia part of the family slowly began to feel less welcome in her aunt’s house, she told me with a bit of frustration in her big brown eyes. The family gatherings still continued but things became even more complicated.
One of Nawal’s cousins started spreading rumors about her and threatening her on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. The more “rational people” of the family, as she called them, tried to calm things down but he was so hostile towards her because of her enthusiasm regarding the revolution that he would not let it go at first. He published her full name and a lot of personal information about her such as her address and photos to identify her. He also threatened her by reminding her how much he knew about her. “I even know the size of your clothes – don’t forget,” was one of the things he wrote to her. She had to close the accounts in her original name to end the harassment from him and open new accounts using an alias.
The weekly family gatherings have changed a lot now. They’re not something she looks forward to at all as before. The cousin who was harassing her has stopped his direct offensive behavior but he ignores her. No one talks about politics anymore and the atmosphere is very tense. Nawal considers politics a very important topic for discussion especially
because of what is currently going on in Bahrain, and it is very unnatural to her that they can’t talk about these things at family gatherings anymore. “I don’t think things will ever be the same again in my family” she said sadly taking a deep breath. “It’s so obvious to me. Anyone should be able to understand that what the government is doing to people is wrong”. She completely disagrees with the government’s official analysis stating that the uprising has to do with religious indifferences between Sunni and Shia. “The first one who was arrested in relation to this revolution was a Sunni Member of the Parliament. His name is Mohamed Albuflasa (click for more information). He was pro-democracy and put to prison. Claiming that this has anything to do with Sunni and Shia conflicts is just ridiculous,” she said breathing heavily as if just the thought of that argument exhausted her.
Nawal tells me that the government has such an intense control on people that one can be fired for disseminating news unfavorable to the government’s views on social media. In her own case there is a little less to worry about in terms of
losing her job because she works at an international bank, which would not accept having to fire people for their political opinion. In fact, one of her colleagues had made a list of people in the company who he thought supported the revolution, calling them traitors, in order to spread it and cause them negative repercussions; when the head of the company found out, it was the guy that was immediately fired. For this reason Nawal feels safe in her current job, but unfortunately she has to look for another one due to the international economic crisis. She was offered another place in the same company but that involved some changes to her position in addition to having to move out of the country. Nawal turned it down and will now be unemployed when her contract expires.
”Getting a job, especially as a Shia Muslim, is not easy these days” she said. “The current government won’t permit Shia Muslims to have a good career and most companies prefer hiring someone from outside than a Shia Muslim so as to not have problems with the system here.”
Despite the fact that her economic security is uncertain and that the political situation is not in her favor, Nawal looked positively towards the future. “We will keep fighting for our rights until we get them. And one day those who have mistreated us will claim that they agreed with us all along, only not with our methods,” she said referring to the pro-government camp who she was convinced would eventually turn around and support a government chosen by the people. “As long as the government is chosen by the people they can be Sunni or Shia, black or white we don’t care.”