Various forms of non-violent protests have existed for centuries. Demonstrations, marches, and sit-ins have been employed against the unfair government and business practices and to fight for civil rights, women’s rights, and LGBTQ+ rights. Dr. Martin Luther King was a major advocate of the peaceful protest as was Mahatma Gandi. The latter employed a form of protest known as the hunger strike. In this situation, the protester fasts, refusing to take any food until the situation being protested against is rectified. It can be an effective means of forcing change and has been used by many people over the years.
Human rights defender Mohamed Soltan engaged in a 489-day hunger strike to protest his unfair imprisonment in Egypt. This was just one of the more recent examples of the practice. In the early 20th Century, British suffragettes who were imprisoned commonly went on hunger strikes to protest their situation. Marion Dunlap was the first. Her 1909 hunger strike resulted in her release as authorities did not want her to be seen as a martyr. Many other suffragettes also engaged in hunger strikes and the prisons started the practice of force-feeding them. This was seen by the suffragettes as a form of torture and many did experience health problems and even death. Prisons started to release hunger-striking women when they became ill and had them finish their sentences after recovering.
Like their British counterparts, many American women fasted in order to win the right to vote. This was one of the primary political weapons used before the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, giving women the vote. They too were frequently force-fed. In one of the more famous instances, Alice Paul, a suffragette incarcerated at the Occoquan Workhouse in Virginia led a group of fellow protesters in a hunger strike that resulted in a massive program of force-feeding.
Perhaps the most famous hunger strikes in history were those engaged in by Indian political ethicist Mahatma Gandhi. When India was under British rule, Gandhi was imprisoned four times, in 1922, 1930, 1933, and 1942. Protesting against the British rule of India, Gandhi fasted numerous times. With his tremendous worldwide stature, the British feared allowing him to die while in custody. His hunger strikes proved quite effective.
In 1975, the World Medical Association met in Tokyo and declared that physicians were not allowed to force-feed anyone involved in a hunger strike. The prisoner’s wishes are to be respected and it is recommended that there is a second opinion to ensure that the prisoner fully understands the implications and risks of their actions. The American Medical Association is a member of the WMA and fully supports its stand on hunger strikes and force-feeding. It has written numerous letters to the federal government opposing the practice of force-feeding.
Protests can bring about needed change. It is usually best for a statement to be made without violence. A hunger strike is a form of peaceful protest that has caused controversy and also effectively helped make strong statements that resulted in change.