By Aoife O’Leary-McNiece
Hunger Strikes are anomalous in that they are often acts of desperation, yet they usually yield great power to those going hungry. One need only look in the news of late and chart the growing momentum behind the group of inmates currently on hunger strike in Guantanamo Bay, or Maria Alyokhina in Russia, a member of the punk band “Pussy Riot” who has been jailed for two years for a breach of public order. Indeed, hunger strikes experienced a renaissance at the beginning of the 20th century and have accompanied many major conflicts in history since.
Charting the rise of the hunger strike from the Suffragettes of the early 20th century up to the Guantanamo Detainees is fascinating. The different strikes vary to a huge degree, reflecting the differences between the conflicts to which they relate. However, what they do have in common is the paradoxical empowerment of the strikers caused by physical weakness.
The history of protest fasting can be traced back to Celtic Ireland and Wales. Fasters would lie at the door step of the person they believed had done them wrong in some way; it was extremely shameful to have a person die, or starve at one’s doorstep due to the emphasis placed upon hospitality in these cultures. In ancient India, Dharma fasts were also practiced in order to protest injury and injustice. In both ancient societies, fasting was a powerful mechanism to rectify a personal injustice, and perhaps the strong tradition of hunger strikes in contemporary Irish and Indian culture may be traced back to these early roots.
That said, it is the English Suffragettes of the early 20th century who are popularly attributed with the modern revival of Hunger Strike as a form of political protest. In her book Hunger Sharman Apt Russell argues that the growth of hunger strikes in the 20th and 21st centuries may be attributed to the rise of popular media, such as newspapers and, more recently, the internet. The first strike lasted ninety-one hours and was undertaken by a woman who had been arrested for graffiti. She demanded to be treated as a political prisoner but was released soon after going on hunger strike. The practice soon spread to other suffragettes. The government’s problematic responses faced by this issue are strikingly similar to those currently faced by the US government.
Initially the women were force fed. Notably, Sylvia Pankhurst wrote about being force fed through a metal tube; one woman almost died after a tube was incorrectly inserted into her trachea and food was pumped into her lungs. This treatment led to one hundred doctors signing a letter to the Prime Minister condemning the force-feeding, one doctor advocating, “I consider forcible feeding by the method employed an act of brutality beyond common endurance.”
The House of Commons also discussed the possibility of allowing one hunger striker to die as a deterrent to others, however, they feared that this would simply have the opposite effect and turn the deceased into a martyr. Indeed, this is the case with many hunger strikes that took place later. The full effect of the suffragette hunger strikes was curtailed by the outbreak of the First World War, however, the news coverage, public interest and the government’s difficulty in handling the hunger strike is a harbinger of what followed later in the century.
Mahatma Ghandi, the iconic Indian leader who spearheaded the non-violent independence movement, also underwent political hunger fasting. However, his was of a different nature, having its origins in ancient India rather than Celtic Europe. Religious fasting was something Ghandi had grown up with and he underwent many private fasts in order to spiritually cleanse himself or others. His first public fast was during a worker’s textile strike in 1918. The fast was actually held against the workers, who he feared would resort to violence in their impatience for a successful outcome. However, the fast succeeded in putting pressure on the factory owners, despite Ghandi’s intentions, they made a deal with the workers within three days of his fast, leading to its completion.
Ghandi’s fasting was an extremely potent politically; he used it against the British government several times whilst in prison and was usually released as a result. However, what makes Ghandi’s brand of fasting unique was his use of it against his followers; he said himself that he used the fast “to reform those who loved me.” He held several Hindu-Muslim friendship fasts, attempting to peacefully wield his power as a means of obtaining religious and social equality in his country. As well as campaigning for friendship between Muslims and Hindus, Ghandi also fasted against the tiered nature of traditional Hinduism and the classing of people as “untouchable.” Ghandi’s fasting is somewhat unusual in that it was not out of desperation that he fasted but largely in an attempt to peacefully influence his followers or his antagonists. Nonetheless, his utilization of the hunger strike is an example of how one can utilize great power by physically disempowering oneself.
Religious fasting also has strong roots in Irish Catholicism; fasting during lent was common practice, as is fasting during pilgrimage and as a form of penance and self-sacrifice. As mentioned, hunger strikes also have roots in ancient Irish society. When one couples the tradition of the hunger strike with the idea of personal blood sacrifice held by some Irish Nationalists—a very different genre of hunger strike than Ghandi’s emerges. The first modern utilization of the Hunger Strike in Ireland was during the War of Independence against Britain in the 1920’s. Many members of Sinn Féin and the IRA were arrested and went on hunger strike; the most famous example being the Lord Mayor of Cork Terence MacSwiney, who died in 1920 after not eating for seventy four days. He viewed his death as a sacrifice to the cause of Ireland, famously saying, “It is not those who inflict the most, but those who will suffer the most who will conquer.”
The militant nature of this quote is something Ghandi would have found unattractive, and the nature of MacSwiney’s hunger strike was undoubtedly different to the Indian leaders. MacSwiney’s death also revealed the House of Common’s concern over the potential deaths of suffragettes on hunger strike to be prophetic. He was made a martyr for the nationalist cause, and, furthermore, his death made the Irish conflict international news. Moreover, later hunger strikes were reported and followed all over Europe and the United States. This placed the pressure of public opinion upon the British government.
The tradition of hunger strike was propagated later in the century by republican paramilitaries during the period of The Troubles in Northern Ireland. Ten hunger strikers died in all; they were protesting their right to be treated as political prisoners rather than criminals despite the fact that all men had been associated with the terrorist group the IRA and some had even admitted to planting bombs. The display began as a “dirty protest.” The prisoners refused to wear clothes and smeared faeces on the walls of their cells. They became known as “blanket men” because all they wore were the blankets they were given for bedding. These protestors also underwent force-feeding.
The strike was entirely different to Ghandi’s peaceful fasting against those he loved, rather it was seeped in hatred and fuelled the violence and antagonism under which Northern Ireland was struggling. Indeed, sixty one people were killed in sectarian violence during the 217 days of the protest. Hundreds of people attended the funeral of Parliament member, Bobby Sands, the first to die in hunger strike. Although the strike was eventually called off and the prisoners’ demands were not met, the strike caused a huge media stir and many republicans viewed it as a public relations success. To this day, the strike is an extremely contentious issue in Northern Ireland. Recent attempts to convert the Maze Prison—the location of the strike—into a museum have been met with protest in the fear that the area might turn into a place of pilgrimage for the republican paramilitaries who died there.
One could draw analogies between Guantanamo and the Maze, however, it would be unwise to do so. Both prisons are controversial and iconic but for different reasons. The Guantanamo strikers appear to have most in common with the suffragettes and Ghandi in that they have managed to place the government in an ethical strait jacket, whilst at the same time garnering international media attention. Guantanamo is an excellent example of hunger being wielded as a weapon by those who have nothing left to use but their own bodies. According to the report of the Constitution Project’s Task Force on Detainee Treatment, hunger strikes were employed in Guantanamo intermittently before 2005, largely to protest disrespectful treatment of the Koran. The first major hunger strike took place in 2005, when two hundred prisoners refused to eat, protesting their living conditions, treatment at the hands of guards and indefinite detention. Since then, hunger strikes have been relatively common in Guantanamo. Some inmates have been striking on and off since 2007.
There are currently at lest one hundred hunger strikes currently protesting their imprisonment at Guantanamo. Eighty-six inmates have been cleared for release. The dilemma the hunger strikes present to the government is remarkably similar to those faced by the House of Commons in the beginning of the 20th century Force-feeding is practiced in Guantanamo, despite the fact that the World Medical association prohibits it as an act of torture. Indeed, Jeremy A. Lazarus, President of the AMA, wrote to the secretary of state protesting the force-feeding. President Obama has defended force feeding, saying “I don’t want these individuals to die.” However, Obama may also fear the public backlash should an inmate to die on hunger strike.
Although their contexts, aims and political agendas could not be more different, the Suffragettes of the 1910’s, different generations of Irish republicans, Ghandi, and the current inmates of Guantanamo Bay all demonstrate the political power one may yield by physically weakening oneself. Although we do not yet know what the fate of the current hunger strikers will be, the detainees have already experienced the success of gaining international media attention, putting pressure on the government and gaining popular support. Indeed, since its modern inception at the beginning of the century, the hunger strike as a means of protest has lost none of its potency or momentum. It is an example of the great power people can wield when they seem most powerless.
Thumbnail Photo by Aslan Media
Title Photo by Leonard Bently
Photo of Bobby Sands by PPCC Antifa
Photo of Ghandi by the second fiddle