Blogs > Cliopatria > When did people start going on hunger strikes?

Jul 31, 2006 3:13 pm

When did people start going on hunger strikes?

... The feudal, pre-Christian Irish were perhaps the first to successfully starve against injustice. Fasting on the doorstep of a lord often embarrassed the powerful into action, according to David Beresford’s book, “Ten Men Dead,” which tells the story of Bobby Sands and nine other Irish nationalists who died from hunger strikes in 1981. India once maintained a similar tradition, called dharna, which typically used public fasting to collect unpaid debts.

British suffragists before World War I “launched the hunger strike on its 20th-century career,” said Walter Russell Mead, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Journalists swarmed when several women began the fast. After the authorities forcibly fed them in 1910 to prevent the spectacle of death, they only became more famous.

“The force-feeding was as shocking as the starving,” Mr. Mead said. “They basically jammed food down the throats of the women, wedging their mouths open. It was an act of extraordinary brutality.”

Several of the protesters were killed in the process. But after British women won the right to vote, hunger strikes became a popular form of anticolonial resistance. Gandhi’s succession of fasts before and after Indian independence led others to follow, including Iraqi leftists in the 1950’s, Ms. Al-Attiya said.

Bernard Haykel, the author of “Revival and Reform in Islam,” said that for Muslims, hunger strikes are a cultural import.

“A hunger strike is something that clearly resonates with Westerners, and it’s a tactic that is used mainly for that purpose,” he said. “Before the West showed up, no one went on hunger strikes.”

Now, nearly every region of the world has witnessed someone starving for a cause, from Mr. Sands’s 66-day march to martyrdom to Nelson Mandela’s fast in opposition to apartheid.

In Turkey, dozens died in 2001 after fasting for as long as 300 days to protest newly restrictive prisons.

In the Mideast, a starvation campaign in 1980 by Palestinians held in an Israeli prison led to force-feeding and the death of two prisoners. In addition to the hunger strikes by as many as 131 detainees in the American military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, there have been strikes by free-speech activists in Iran and Kuwait.

Other denials of sustenance have amounted to short-term diets. Several hunger strikes announced with great fanfare by the Rev. Jesse Jackson turned out to be team efforts requiring little sacrifice. On July 10, six days into Cindy Sheehan’s liquid-only fast to protest the Iraq war, she wrote in her blog that “the closest thing I could find to a smoothie to get a little protein was a coffee with vanilla ice cream in it.” Conservative pundits were moved to ask whether she was trying to gain weight....

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