Nada Dhaif

Ashoka Fellow
This description of Nada Dhaif's work was prepared when Nada Dhaif was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2015 .


Nada is creating a movement that encourages citizens in the Arab Gulf region to stand up for human rights, provide support to victims of torture and violence, and seek peaceful avenues through which to hold those responsible for torture accountable.

The New Idea

Using a contextualized and culturally sensitive approach, Nada is catalyzing a grassroots movement to socially reintegrate victims of state torture and violence. Starting in Bahrain, Nada empowers citizens in the Arab Gulf region to understand their civil rights, stand up against human rights violations, and transform the nature of the citizen-government relationship. In region governed by monarchy and often repression, Nada is initiating the first movement of its kind to combat low levels of political participation by empowering citizens to hold governments accountable.

Nada uses a two-pronged approach to engage victims of violence, as well as their families, the broader community, the media and international actors within the field of human rights to place pressure on the government and put power in the hands of people. First, Nada creates community volunteer ambassadors that rehabilitate and socially re-integrate psychologically traumatized victims of torture, their families and surrounding communities. Nada has designed both physical and online programs in order to work a culture that stigmatizes the pursuit of psychological support, even in cases of trauma.

Secondly, in addition to the work done with victims themselves, Nada develops tools that allow the victims and the community to hold their torturers accountable in a peaceful manner. She achieves this through a research, advocacy and a media arm that medico legally documents cases of torture, publishes studies on state violations and disperses results that call for action from citizens and the international society through scientific symposiums, publications and an online TV show that highlights citizens of the Gulf.

Nada is breaking a vicious cycle of violence and shifting the experience of individuals and communities subjected to human rights violations from victimhood to changemaker. In doing so, Nada helps them move away from potential negative consequences – becoming apathetic, suicidal or even expressing their anger through violent extremism – to a place in which they cn fully function within society again. She ensures that they are empowered with the knowledge and tools needed to use peaceful avenues to stand up for their rights. Moreover, Nada breaks cultural taboos that bind victims of torture and describe them as “weak” if they seek psychological and social support after being subjected to a traumatic torture experience.

In the long run, Nada envisions that this bottom-up movement will lead to greater citizen contribution to public life as well as changes within legislation with respect to citizen-government relationships in the Gulf, especially as it pertains to civil rights and freedoms. Nada’s idea is also replicable in countries where repression, conflict and war have prevailed for years with broken support networks and structures.

The Problem

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is composed of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, with a total population of about 51, 495,857 people. All six countries are monarchical and are categorized as “Authoritarian Regimes” according to The Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2014 Democracy Index. This index also reveals that GCC countries rank in the bottom 30 percent of all 167 countries included, in terms of the political participation of their citizens. Reporters Without Borders has ranked GCC countries among the bottom half of the 180 countries included in their 2015 World Press Freedom Index; Bahrain and Saudi Arabia reached the bottom ten percent of countries ranked. TIn practice, this means that citizens have no freedom of expression or any venues through which to demand democratic and political rights or change. Attempts to express dissent are usually countered with oppression and torture. An Amnesty International’s 2014/2015 report described the criminalization of protests and arrests as measures taken against freedom of assembly in Bahrain, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Cases of torture in Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates were also reported. Informal statistics according to Nada and her network indicate that there are an estimated 4,000 political detainees in Bahrain (including women and children, with 20 percent of those under eighteen who are put in adult detention centers.

The consequences of torture reach far beyond immediate pain. Many victims suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).. Torture victims often feel guilt and shame, triggered by the humiliation they have endured. In some instances, entire societies can be traumatized where torture has been used in a systematic and widespread manner. After being exposed to traumatic torture experiences, citizens in Arab Gulf countries frequently find it socially and culturally unacceptable to seek psychological support that can allow them to heal from the collective trauma. This is the result of a highly-patriarchal culture that regards people who can’t tolerate trauma as “weak” or “not-manly enough.” Hence, a vicious cycle ensues wherein individuals who were subjected to human rights violations and their surrounding communities are either transformed into apathetic citizens or latent bombs that join extremist movements seeking revenge for the torture they faced – both of which are highly unfavorable scenarios for any community.

There are a limited number of organizations in the Gulf region that work within the field of Human Rights to address issues of torture, violence and rights violations. Such organizations are mostly branches of international entities that provide support (legal and social) to torture victims and/or human rights activists in a service-oriented manner, working on a case by case basis. Alternatively, such organizations focus on the documentation of mass atrocities advocate for policy change in a top-down approach using traditional lobbying techniques. There are no organizations that have emerged from the local community in the Gulf region to address the problem of human rights violations in a holistic, socially-contextualized manner while putting the citizens and the victims of torture themselves at the center of the solution.

The Strategy

Less than a year after her own experience with torture in Bahraini prisons in the aftermath of the 2011 protests, Nada established the Bahrain Rehabilitation and Anti-Violence Organization (BRAVO) in 2012 to be the first organization established by a local to stand against torture and human rights violations in the monarchical context of the Arab Gulf region.

Rather than focusing on advocacy or psychological rehabilitation, Nada addresses human rights violations through a holistic approach that combines both of these elements while placing citizens at the center of the movement, ensuring victims are socially reintegrated, and able to hold their torturers accountable, so as to avoid the negative consequences of recurring violence.

Nada’s approach is two-pronged. First, she started the first ever social, physical and psychological rehabilitation center for victims of torture and violence and their families within the Arab Gulf States. Nada first created a network of 50 doctors, health care providers, psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, documentation team members and lawyers. With the help of organizations like Doctors Without Borders and the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT), Nada travelled to get the necessary education and then returned to build the capacity of her team on issues like psychological therapies and social re-integration. Nada diversified her approach to rehabilitation in order to a) ensure its relevance to the culture and social context; b) cater to different types of people and their respective responses to healing techniques; and c) mobilize different segments of society to guarantee scalability. In order to achieve the above, Nada used online virtual distance therapy so patients don’t have to leave their homes or be stigmatized by their surrounding community. There is also an offline physical rehabilitation approach that includes traditional and non-traditional psycho-social support and rehabilitation techniques. In addition she continues to build the capacities of an in-house network of 50 doctors and therapists as well as a network of community volunteers that Nada calls anti-violence ambassadors. These ambassadors perform outreach, document cases, and psychologically treat the victims of torture and their families. The ambassadors can be any community members but usually it is the family members of victims that show great interest in joining. Besides focusing on torture victims, her rehabilitation and psycho-social and legal efforts include, but are not limited to, self-expression rehabilitation for torture survivors under 18 years of age, individuals who witnessed the detention or abuse of a close family member, mothers and wives of victims who died during the 2011 unrest, as well as women who spontaneously miscarried due to the excessive use of tear gas in areas subjected to collective punishment by the state. Nada’s rehabilitation efforts are complemented by linking victims of violence and torture to tailor-designed opportunities (both educational and professional) to help them move on with their lives and re-integrate into society. Nada works for roughly one year with the victims and their families. Besides using basic medical parameters, Nada measures her impact by assessing the retention-rates of victims in their designed rehabilitation program; their social re-integration; the resumption of careers or education; their families’ feedback about their levels of social interaction; how many other victims they bring along to rehabilitation; and lastly, how many victims go on to help others.

Second, Nada couples her grassroots efforts with regional and international research, advocacy and media components. Nada introduced the second arm of her approach after nearly a year of focusing solely on psychological rehabilitation and social re-integration of victims of torture. However, realized that it was not enough to psychologically heal victims and socially re-integrate them to prevent the recurrence of violence, Nada needed to empower people with tools to hold their torturers accountable and stand up for the rights of victims and against the practice of violence.

In her work with the media, Nada proactively reaches out to the community via social media and an online TV show to address cultural taboo issues in areas related to seeking psychological support for post-traumatic-experiences. She also initiates dialogue among citizens of the Arab Gulf States about their political and civic rights within the state and raises the awareness of citizens as to how victims subjected to trauma and oppression can heal and go on with their lives. Nada was inspired to develop her strategy with the media after she witnessed recurring incidents of extreme violence and suicide as a result of trauma. It was then that she realized that due to the cultural taboos of adhering to unattainable masculine traits of strength, the majority of victims and their families would not seek help to heal from their trauma and would have preferred revenge or suicide, instead.

Through her research arm, Nada, with her team of activists, human rights monitors, ambassadors and the victims and families produces knowledge to understand state practices in different areas that are relevant to human rights. Nada understands that mobilizing citizens to claim their rights and pressure the government requires knowledge and awareness in a state where access to information is very rare. Thus, Nada creates data systems on particular issues through studies, surveys, interviews with victims of torture, and by encouraging the citizens to report cases of torture online and monitoring legal or policy responses. Some of these issue areas have included the torture of detainees, the absence of medical neutrality, freedom of expression and assembly, the excessive use of force and methods of suppression used against protestors and human rights defenders . With one of these studies (the Implications of the Use of Tear Gas – a study in which Nada collaborated with Trinity College of Ireland), Nada and her team analyzed samples of Tear Gas canisters used against protesters in Bahrain as a form of collective and arbitrary police intervention. With the results, Nada and her team are lobbying with the Chemical Weapons Conventions to rule the Tear Gas used by the Bahraini government as lethal. As a result, victims of torture will be able to peacefully and legally demand their rights from the government through a court case. Nada also uses this data to organize scientific forums to create a space for academics, activists and politicians to come together to discuss the effects of political turmoil on victims and ways to address it.

Through her advocacy efforts, on the other hand, Nada has mobilized and garnered the support of international human rights actors, like Human Rights Watch, the United Nations Security Council, the International Chemical Weapons Convention and the World Health Organization. She collaborates with them to ensure compliance with international standards, and showcase torture, violence and illegal state acts against citizens to pressure the government to release illegally detained citizens or legally redress victims. Similar to the way she developed her psychological rehabilitation and social re-integration component, Nada strengthened both her own capacity and that of her team by traveling with a network of human rights activists to learn about various topics such as, best practices in documentation, medico-legal documentation, building trust, interviewing victims of torture, universal human rights values, categories of human rights violations, monitoring mechanisms, reporting, forensic examination of victims, and the Istanbul Protocol.

Back in her community, Nada and the other trained activists have transferred these concepts to community members who act as Nada’s ambassadors and who develop monthly reports on a full spectrum of human rights violations in their areas including those committed by law enforcement, the security apparatus, judicial institutions, and government officers. In this domain, Nada has 5 trainers and 45 trainees (community members who monitor).

With Nada’s research, media and advocacy components that equip citizens with the knowledge and awareness needed to pressure the government, there have been a number of reported cases of the release of detained women and minors.

Since 2012, Nada’s organization and her team of psychologists, psychiatrists, healers, and lawyers, as well as her network of community anti-violence ambassadors and human rights monitors, have rehabilitated 450 victims of torture and violence and their families in a culture that is averse to seeking post-traumatic support. Nada’s work has made it acceptable for these members of society to re-integrate into their communities peacefully. Through her online outreach and education efforts, Nada has reached more than a 100,000 people in the Arab Gulf and engaged 20,000 people across the Arab region through her on-the-ground awareness campaigns and classes.

Although locally designed and operated, Nada decided to register her organization as an international one (in the UK) in order to have the freedom and independence of operations outside the framework of the severely restricting NGO laws in Bahrain as well as, to ensure all the data and documentations of victims and torture cases are kept safely. This step has also allowed Nada to receive funds to help sustain her organization and manage them transparently. In her longer term plan, Nada envisions expanding into all Arab Gulf countries and other places emerging from war, and conflict on a collective level to create community movements that spread her model. Additionally, she plans to partner with other citizen sector organizations to push for the introduction of human rights curricula in the formal education system to ensure a shift in the way citizens view their relationship with the government.

In order to engage a wider segment of people who were subjected to torture and violence and de-stigmatize them, Nada introduced a new way to bring together individual healing from both torture and other types of violence. She is also extending her approach in an inclusive manner to victims of torture regardless of political affiliations or religion.

The Person

A dentist by profession, Nada was born in Bahrain to a mother who had strongly-held beliefs on the importance of empathy, and engaged her children in social and philanthropic activities from a young age. During her time at school, Nada won several cultural and literary contests and was honored by the Head of State in Bahrain on several occasions.

Inspired by what came to be known as the Arab Spring, Bahraini citizens broke out in protest in February 2011. These protests were faced by repressive measures that resulted in mass injury and death. Being a doctor, Nada mobilized a network of 50 other doctors along with funds and medical supplies to set-up the first field hospital. For volunteering to treat protestors, Nada was arrested alongside 20 other medical professionals. They were tortured, and sentenced to long prison terms (15 years) following a military trial that came to be very well known as the case for the Doctors of Bahrain. The case drew the attention of international media, human rights organizations and several state figures, including president Obama. The pressure placed by all of these actors led the Bahraini government to order a retrial which ultimately led to their release.

After her release, Nada felt that she needed psychological support to go on with her life. She was surprised to find no avenues across the Arab Gulf region through which to seek support with healing her traumatic life experience. To her additional amazement, none of the doctors who were convicted with her sought this type of healing after their release. Despite their education, they all shied away from it, and Nada had to travel for a year to complete her own psychological rehabilitation.

A year after her personal torture experience, Nada launched her initiative. The experience prompted her to seek the necessary education and learn how to establish an organization, mobilize partners, funding, and local and global support. She learnt everything by herself while in parallel putting her idea into reality. In 2012 Nada received intensive training on documentation and monitoring human rights abuses; she attended several educational programs on forensic examinations and the Istanbul Protocol documentation. In 2013, she joined a fellowship on the Rule of Law at the John Smith Trust Foundation as well as other programs that are related to psychological therapy and rehabilitation with the Helen Bamber Foundation; and she qualified as a master trainer in newer healing techniques like Mind Body healing.

Ultimately, Nada started her social movement against human rights violations and torture out of a belief that psychosocial rehabilitation and redress to survivors of torture and trauma can help reconstruct broken societies. She has the continued goal of playing a key role in promoting co-existence and respect for human rights and to act as a symbol of triumph over the manmade terror of torture which can hold back the development of entire societies.