This is the second of two posts by Farida Ghulam, joined by her daughter Yara and son Sharif, describing the impact the Bahraini government’s crackdown on freedom of expression has had on the family. Ghulam is an advocate for freedom of speech, human rights and democracy. She has campaigned for women’s rights and is currently active in the push for democratic reforms in Bahrain. Her husband, Ebrahim Sharif, who is a former Secretary General of the National Democratic Action Society (WAAD), is currently in detention awaiting trial on charges of inciting hatred and sectarianism and calling for violence against the regime. In 2011, Ebrahim Sharif was arrested as Bahrain’s government moved to suffocate calls for democratic reforms during the Arab Spring. He was released by a royal pardon in June 2015 and rearrested three weeks later. He faces 10 years for expressing opinions in a speech marking the memory of a 16-year-old killed while protesting against Bahrain’s government. Part one: Freedom in Bahrain: “It’s like a dream, isn’t it?”
My husband’s first and second arrests, in 2011 and 2015 respectively, have inflicted painful changes on our lives as a family. Since then most of our conversations have revolved around visit schedules, notifications, updates, mistreatment or exaggerated body searches.
We wait anxiously for these visits only to feel that nothing was said because there wasn’t enough time. Not only is time scarce, but visits are always monitored by policewomen. There is no sense of privacy and the speed that one has to speak with to cover most news makes it like “quick reporting”. Cameras are always filming and must not be blocked by our seating. Phone calls are always monitored and have been cut many times because of a word or a piece of unwanted news. This leaves us with zero privacy.
After the second arrest, a video recorder became compulsory in the visitation room at all times, and it is turned on right before the visit starts. Additionally, prison guards physically monitor us by being present inside and outside of the room for the entire duration of the visit. Although the visiting arrangements and procedures are tight and irritating, we insist on using that precious time with Ebrahim because it is part of his stolen freedom.
In addition to the frustration we feel due to Ebrahim’s freedom being stolen by arresting him on false charges related to his freedom of expression, we are further irritated with the fact that our rights to privacy and freedom of expression are tied down during these visits and phone calls. They have stolen many years of Ebrahim’s life, our lives, and our time together.
Although we do not know when this cycle of government-induced revenge will end, we are all stronger and more determined than ever. We will never accept injustice and will continue fighting for Ebrahim’s freedom, for our rights, and the rights of the people of Bahrain.
Yara Ebrahim Sharif
Daughter of Farida Ghulam and Ebrahim Sharif
I was a normal 20-year-old college student at the University of Washington in Seattle. I had just completed my exams and spring break was a few days away. While meeting a friend for coffee, I received a call that would change my life forever: “Yara, was your father arrested? It’s all over Twitter!”
I immediately called my mother to confirm, but she didn’t answer, so I called my sister, Aseel, who works abroad. She picked up the phone half asleep as it was 3am there and had no clue what I was talking about. I called my mother back and, luckily, she picked up. As soon as she confirmed the arrest and detailed the manner in which my father, Ebrahim Sharif, was arrested, I told her to slow down so that I could write all the details down on my laptop to publish online.
I recorded how masked men with guns came over our fence at 2am on 17 March 2011, arrested my father without a warrant, mocked my mother and left no contact information with our family. I didn’t know if my writing would gain any traction online or if anyone would read it because I had about 50 followers on Twitter at that time. Overnight, the followers jumped to over 3,000, and that’s when it all began.
I had hoped that it would all pass by and my father would be released soon. A month went by, and we still had no idea where he was, who he was with or if he had been tortured or not. I was instructed to stay in the US by my family and advising professors, so I took the quarter off and spent it in a bubble of depression, only responding to reporters who contacted me for statements, but for the most part, it was just a never ending gut-wrenching feeling.
My hope of my father being released in a few weeks never came true. I came back to see him after his unjustified sentence during visitation hours. Things continued like this for more than four years. I graduated from university while my father was in prison. I moved back to Bahrain in 2013, started part-time work and moved abroad a year later for an exciting job. I had hoped my father would be there for these moments, for him to fly with and help me choose an apartment, help set up some IKEA tables just as we had with my sister when she moved for work.
I had hoped to make and enjoy breakfast in my new apartment with my family, just as we had done five years earlier for my sister. None of these things happened. I had to inform my dad about everything either over the phone or on steel chairs during monitored visits where he was separated from us behind an open window.
There were no real-time updates — the kind of updates children like to give their parents in person, the kind of updates any child would want to celebrate with their parents. There was no flying to Bahrain to surprise my parents at home. Instead, I was flying to Bahrain to visit my father during scheduled hours after being frisked by policewomen.
The biggest personal impact of having my father arrested was that he never got to see me grow up. I was studying for my bachelor’s degree between the ages of 18 to 21. My father was arrested when I was 20. I am 25 now. My father won’t recognise the person I have grown to be, and I can only blame the government of Bahrain.
He doesn’t know who I was during those years, and who I am becoming. He doesn’t know the real growth I’ve experienced because a one hour monitored visit with eight other family members surrounding you gives you no chance to really connect for more than a few minutes. My relationship with my father was stolen from me; I was robbed from sharing important milestones with him and I can’t wait for the day to share my life with him, to update him on all the years gone by.
It has not been an easy road for me, or for any of my family members. My sister is still waiting on her wedding day, despite being married for four years now. She refuses to have a wedding without a father to dance with. My brother has graduated and moved abroad as well, with my father missing those milestones too. My mother continues to fight for his right to be free and for the freedom of the many people of Bahrain that share the same fate behind bars. Despite these being difficult times, we know that our father’s conscience is clear. He is in jail because he stands on the right side of history — because he defends the less fortunate and speaks the truth. He is a man of courage and conviction, and we can learn a lot from him.
As my father said in his hearing in the Higher Court of Appeals on 5 June 2015: “They may imprison our bodies, but they will not be able to imprison our dream… a dream of freedom and dignity for our people.”
Sharif Ebrahim Sharif
Son of Farida Ghulam and Ebrahim Sharif
No one should ever wake up to a call in the middle of the night to hear that something terrible has happened to a loved one, but that’s exactly what I went through in my sophomore year of college when my father was arrested in Bahrain for daring to speak his mind.
A friend of mine at the University of Michigan woke me up with his call, and sounded a little tense and upset as he asked me if I had heard the news and if I was OK. I had no idea what he was talking about, and that’s when he told me my father had been arrested and no one knew where he was. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I felt like the walls were closing in on me, I couldn’t breathe, my heart was racing as I sat there in my dark dorm room, thousands of miles away from home, completely powerless to help.
My family was kept in the dark about my dad’s whereabouts for quite a while afterward. Occasionally there would be rumors that he had been spotted at some hospital or other receiving treatment, but that was all we had to go on. The feeling that my life was crashing down around me was with me every day, made worse by the fact that I still had lectures to attend, tests to take, projects to work on. I had to go about my life while my dad was missing. It was a soul crushing experience, having to force myself to put aside my fears and my worries and my sadness and work on that next calculus set or programming assignment. Over time, we got more details as to my dad’s whereabouts, and eventually he was allowed to call us; just hearing his voice was an incredible relief because it meant that he was alive.
My dad has been forced to miss the entirety of my adult life. I’m a very different person now than I was when I got that call all those years ago, and I’ve had to go through the process of becoming an adult with only infrequent windows of contact with him, usually lasting no more than 10 minutes every other week at most. He couldn’t even attend my graduation. With every major life event I went through I had to wait a week or more before I could tell him about it. Even when we did get to talk, I had to condense topics and prioritise because there just wasn’t enough time. Even then we were censored as there were topics we weren’t allowed to discuss over the phone, especially politics. Until his temporary release that lasted all of three weeks, the extent of my interactions with my dad as an adult were all through these little 10 minute windows, and occasionally longer visits when I was back home, where everything we said was being monitored. Not being allowed to even have a private conversation is insidiously oppressing — everything I say has to pass through a filter: “Can I say this? Will the monitors cut the call off? Am I OK with the Bahraini government knowing this?”
I am glad at the very least that my dad got to see my sisters and I as we are now, without any surveillance or prison walls separating us, for those three weeks that he was free. I want my dad back more than anything and am hopeful that he will be a full part of our lives again soon.