“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."
- The King's Threshold by W.B. Yeats
In 2009, some friends came up with a campaigning idea so terrifying that we immediately put it on a shelf where it remained for a decade gathering dust. The idea was to use digital tools and social media to harness the power of the hunger strike on a massive scale. “If used effectively,” I wrote at the time, “it could be used to stop an illegal war or bring pressure to bear on governments to take action on a pressing issue such as climate change.” But if used effectively, it could cost lives.
Ten years on, it seems that this potentially deadly idea might be getting a test drive. This week, Extinction Rebellion (‘XR’) announced that more than 200 people in at least 27 countries have begun hunger strikes to demand their governments act on the climate and ecological emergency that is – they argue – threatening the very future survival of humanity.
Whilst many of them will only be fasting for a week, the group says others may go without food for longer. Four of the XR climate activists on hunger strike have now entered their second week without food.
According to the Independent: “More than 520 people in 28 countries, from Barcelona to Stockholm, joined Extinction Rebellion’s global hunger strike a week ago. Most of them – including at least 260 in the UK – signed up to go without food for seven days, but four of those in London say they intend to continue. In the UK, protesters camped outside the headquarters of the main political parties, including 83-year-old Ursula Pethick.”
So far largely unnoticed by the media, this latest campaign strategy by XR is tapping into one of most the enduring, ancient and effective forms of protest.
Whilst most people think of the hunger strike as a twentieth century phenomena - employed most famously in the struggles for women’s suffrage and the Irish and Indian independence movements - the practice is in fact rooted much 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, Roman emperor Augustus Caesar, to allow him to travel to Rhodes. Tiberius only fasted for four days but it in 25AD, in protest at the curtailment of freedom of speech, another 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 strikers’ preparedness to die for their cause. 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 strength eliciting strong emotions in supporters as well as observers.
A hunger strike is defined as the voluntary refusal of food and/or fluids. The length of time a hunger strike can last will depend on faster's body fat, physical health and striking strategy. If the striker refuses fluids, they will not survive for much more than a week. If they take fluids, sugar and/or salt, they can prolong their hunger strike for much longer. Bobby Sands, a fit 27 year-old survived for 66 days while Gandhi fasted for 21 days whilst in his 70s and with hardly any body fat. The longest recorded sugared-water hunger strike before death was 94 days by an Irish Republican in the 1920s. If the striker takes vitamins as well as sugar and salt, like some of the recent prison hunger strikers in Turkey, death can take an agonising 300 days.
Anyone who has seen Hunger, Alexander McQueen's 2008 film about the Maze prison hunger strike, will have some idea of just how horrific is starvation as a way to die. The body literally consumes itself. After about three days the liver starts to break down body fat in a process called ketosis. The body slows its metabolism to compensate but after about three weeks starts to 'mine' its muscles and vital organs for energy. The skin becomes waxy, the body exudes off a sour odour and breath takes on a sweet smell like pears. Ketosis results in the production of toxic ketone bodies which can be excreted through urine, oxidised by the brain or even expelled through the lungs but ultimately cause a potentially lethal condition called ketoacidosis. Death comes by dehydration, atrophication and the painful failure of internal organs, chiefly kidneys and liver.
Hunger striking is traditionally seen as at tactic involving a small number of people for a short amount of time. But although it is almost by definition an unsustainable form of resistance, recent tactics have seen hunger strikes evolve into larger and more on-going forms of protest. Indeed, with the growth of online social networking, there are possibilities of turning this ancient form protest into a global tool for political change.
The exact origin of the hunger strike is unclear but it has been used a political tactic around the world for many centuries. In medieval Ireland, where hunger strikes were actually encoded in civic law, it was common practice for people to fast on the doorstep of someone they felt had committed them an injustice. If the hunger striker was permitted to die, the person on whose doorstep the faster had died would be held responsible for the death and liable to compensate the deceased's family.
Hunger strikes were also practised by many members of the clergy and according to legend, even Ireland's patron saint, St Patrick, went on a hunger strike against God. After forty-five days, so the story goes, God eventually backed down. In ancient India, hunger protests were also staged outside the doors of those who strikers felt had committed an offence against them, typically debtors. The practice known as “sitting dharna”, dates back to at least 400 - 750 BC where it appears in the ancient Sanskrit epic the Ramayana, and was only abolished by law in 1861.
These ancient Irish and Indian hunger striking traditions had their modern-day apotheoses in the Irish Republican movement and the Indian struggle for independence. In Ireland, the tactic exploded in popularity after the 1916 Easter Rising. In 1917, Thomas Ash, an Irish Republican prisoner calling for political prisoner status, died after being force fed. In 1920, the hunger strike of the Lord Mayor of Cork, Terence MacSwiney attracted worldwide interest. When he died after 73 days without food, 40,000 people turned out to watch his funeral cortege and even the Pope sent a blessing. After the end of the Irish Civil War in 1923, over 8,000 IRA prisoners opposed to the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty went on hunger strike. In the 1940s, hundreds of hunger strikes took place and in the 1970s, the Provisional IRA revived the tactic. But it was the Maze Prison strike of 1981, in which Bobby Sands and nine other inmates fasted to death, that stands out in the memory.
Sands and the Blanketmen as they were known went on hunger strike after the British government had reneged on a deal to restore their political prisoner status. Rather than many prisoners striking at the same time, the strike was run on a rolling basis, each hunger striker starting his fast a week after the other in order in order to maximise publicity. Four days after Sands, the leader of the strike, had first refused food, the local MP for Fermanagh & South Tyrone died forcing a bye-election. Sinn Fein nominated Sands for the seat and his victory drew world-wide attention. Despite his death, Sands became a powerful symbolic figure in the struggle for a united Ireland and at the time, the New York Times recorded that Sands had "bested an implacable British Prime Minister [Margaret Thatcher]."
In India, Mahatma Gandhi staged seventeen hunger strikes in the 1920s, 30s and 40s. Whilst most of these were directed against British colonial rule, his 1948 hunger strike aimed at stopping the bloody inter-religious violence that followed partition. Announcing that he would not eat until the violence stopped, he is largely credited for ending the fighting. Gandhi was imprisoned by the British in 1922, 1930, 1933 and in 1942 and on each occasion, he staged a hunger strike. Gandhi's 1932 fast calling for the improvement of the lives of the Dalits (Untouchables) resulted in meaningful policy changes after just six days of fasting. Although the British Government ceded to many of his demands, records declassified in 2006 show that Winston Churchill had opposed these concessions and favoured a strategy of letting Gandhi die in prison.
Both the Irish Republicans and Gandhi took much inspiration from the Suffragettes who, in the early 20th century, used hunger strikes as part of their struggle for female suffrage. From 1905 until the outbreak of the First World War, around 1,000 Suffragettes were sent to prison. The first hunger strike was staged by Marion Dunlop who in 1909 was sentenced to jail for printing an extract from the Bill of Rights on the wall of the Houses of Parliament. She went on hunger strike demanding recognition of her status as a political prisoner and was released after three-and-a-half days of fasting.
Emboldened by her victory other Suffragettes in prison also took to hunger striking and, fearful of losing control, prison authorities introduced a brutal system of force feeding. Force feeding involved inserting a rubber tube up the nose or down the throat and into the stomach. For the latter method, a steel hoop was pushed into the mouth and screwed open as wide as possible. If the tube was accidentally inserted into the windpipe, food would enter the lungs and could be fatal. Indeed, several women died as a result of force-feeding and Sylvia Pankhurst describing the aftermath of oral forced feeding wrote that her gums were, "always sore and bleeding, with bits of loose, jagged flesh." Where a woman was too weak to take food through her mouth or nose, women were sometimes fed rectally or vaginally often with used or unclean tubing.
In 1913, the passing of the Prisoner Temporary Discharge of Ill Health Act - nicknamed the "Cat and Mouse Act" - meant that hunger strikers were released when they became sick and rearrested as soon as they had recovered sufficiently. This process often extended the period of the sentence and some women were force fed more than 200 times as a result. American suffragettes also used hunger strikes and, as in Britain, they were subjected to brutal treatment while in prison, including force feeding. On both sides of the Atlantic, the Suffragettes were ultimately successful in their campaigns, with hunger striking being a key tactic in their success.
The power of the hunger strike
In order to understand what makes a hunger strike successful, the examples provided by Gandhi, the Suffragettes and Sands are instructive. Whilst all involve determined participants driven by an unshakeable belief in a powerful cause, they also have another key element in common: that of successfully attracting massive publicity. Without the oxygen of publicity, hunger strikes will not elicit public concern or sympathy and have limited success.
The image of Gandhi, old and frail, taking on the might of the British Empire was a compelling one. His political activities had already made him world-famous which ensured that his hunger strikes were included in newsreels and newspapers across the world, further augmenting his celebrity.
By employing dramatic, sometimes fatal, publicity stunts the Suffragettes ensured that their public profile was high and that their hunger strikes hit the headlines. Whilst the Maze prison strikes would undoubtedly have received some publicity, it was the chance death of the sitting MP and Sands' successful election to Parliament that propelled him worldwide fame.
Hunger strikes staged in prisons are often more difficult to get publicity for, particularly if they are in remote places or in countries with repressive regimes. The world's longest and deadliest hunger strike began almost two decades ago but is not that internationally known. It started in Turkey in 2000 involving political prisoners across the country and lasted for over two years, resulting in over 100 deaths and around 400 unrecoverable diseases. Taking their inspiration from the Maze hunger strikers, the Turkish hunger strikers used a collective system of rolling hunger strike that bases its power on numbers of participants rather than length of a single individual’s fast.
The hunger strikes by the 'unlawful combatants' in Guantánamo Bay detention camp have received more attention, but due to restricted media access, the coverage has been patchy and the details unclear. In 2005, there were two hunger strikes in the detention centre. US Army officials claim that 50 detainees were involved in the first hunger strike, and 76 detainees involved in the second. However, human rights activists estimate the numbers to be closer to 150 and 200 participants.
Despite the fact that the Declaration of Tokyo explicitly forbids force feeding where the subject as “unimpaired and rational judgment,” and Declaration of Malta equates force feeding to a form of "inhuman and degrading treatment," these treaties and are therefore not legally binding. In Guantánamo, force feeding has been standard practice with hunger striking prisoners strapped into chairs while nasogastric tubing with a diameter of 12 millimetres is inserted through their nostrils.
The future of the hunger strike
Over the centuries, the hunger strike has evolved from a method for individuals to highlight claims against each other, to an effective means of political and social change. The hunger strike reached its apogee in the twentieth century, helping to conquer age-old prejudices, expose injustices and even and overcome mighty empires.
The Internet age provides huge opportunities for the scope and impact of the hunger strike both in terms of mobilising supporters as well as raising awareness for a cause. Extinction Rebellion is a new movement, but as their founder Roger Hallam admits, nothing they are doing is new. “Extinction Rebellion is humbly following in the tradition of Gandhi and Martin Luther King. We are simply rediscovering what people do when they have had enough of failure and really want to make a difference,” he writes.
The hunger strike is one of those rediscoveries. A dedicated group of hunger-strikers, starving themselves for a powerful cause has the potential of 'going global'. Anyone in any nation could join in and the longer they go without food, the more attention they will attract and more pressure they will bring to bear. But it is vital to remember that the hunger strike is a weapon of last resort, a weapon that can inflict irreparable damage or even death to those that employ it.
- Stefan Simanowitz is a journalist, writer and campaigner.
[A version of this article first appeared in The Contemporary Review in 2009]
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