The Body Politic: The Enduring Power of the Hunger Strike

By Simanowitz, Stefan | Contemporary Review, Autumn 2010 | Go to article overview

The Body Politic: The Enduring Power of the Hunger Strike


Simanowitz, Stefan, Contemporary Review


He has chosen death:
'Refusing to eat or drink, that he may bring
Disgrace upon me; for there is a custom,
An old and foolish custom; that if a man
Be wronged, or think that he is wronged,
And starve upon another's threshold till he die,
The Common People, for all time to come,
Will raise a heavy cry against that threshold,
Even though it be the King's.'

From The King's Threshold, a play by W.B. Yeats

IN the early hours of Thursday 17th December 2009, Aminatou Haidar, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee 32 days into a hunger strike, asked to be taken to hospital following a bout of severe abdominal pain. Doctors who examined the delicate 42-year-old mother of two, listed her symptoms as hypotension, nausea, anaemia, muscular-skeletal atrophy and gastric haemorrhaging. They warned that she could be nearing an irreversible deterioration that could result in her death even if she were to abandon the hunger strike. But abandoning her strike was not something Haidar, a human rights activist known as 'the African Gandhi', would countenance unless her single demand - to be allowed to return to her native Western Sahara - was met.

Haidar had staged her hunger-strike very publicly in Lanzarote airport terminal in protest at her deportation from Western Sahara after she had refused to write her nationality as Moroccan on a landing card when returning from a trip abroad. The Moroccans were insisting that before she could be readmitted, Haidar recognise the sovereignty of Morocco over Western Sahara and apologise for having questioned it. In the 35-year history of their unlawful occupation of the territory Morocco has always taken very firm action against Saharawis who have stood up for the right of self-determination for their country. And yet remarkably on the same day that Haidar was hospitalised, news came through that the Moroccans had ceded to her demands allowing her to return home without having to make any concessions.

The victory of Haidar's hunger strike is a demonstration of the enduring power of this most ancient form of protest. Whilst most people think of the hunger strike as a twentieth-century phenomenon - employed most famously in the struggles for women's suffrage and the Irish and Indian independence movements - the practice is in fact rooted far further back in history. Hunger strikes were practiced in medieval Ireland, ancient India and by the Romans. Even the young Tiberius staged a hunger strike to persuade his father, Augustus Caesar, to allow him to travel to Rhodes. Tiberius only fasted for four days but in AD 25, in protest at the curtailment of freedom of speech, a Roman called Cremutius Cordus fasted to death.

The hunger strike has traditionally been used as a means of passive resistance to perceived injustices when few other political opportunities exist, its power lying in the striker's preparedness to die for their cause. Indeed as we go to press, it was announced on 31 August that Franklin Brito, a Venezuelan farmer, had died after his latest hunger strike against the land nationalisation policy of the Chavez government which had seized Brito's land. His family said: 'Franklin Brito's body became a symbol for all struck by the arrogance of power, for those offended by the arrogance of the rulers'. The world's most famous exponent of the hunger strike, Mahatma Gandhi, wrote in his Letters to a Disciple, that '[u]nder certain circumstances, fasting is the one weapon God has given us for use in times of utter helplessness'. Through the politicisation of their body the hunger striker who is often without a voice is able to convey a message and influence the powerful. Indeed the eloquence of the hunger strike lies in its ability to reconfigure the power dynamic between the powerless and the powerful. By starving themselves slowly the hunger striker makes public the very private act of dying and their suffering becomes a source of power eliciting strong emotions in supporters as well as observers. …

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