Hunger Strikes

views updated Jun 11 2018


HUNGER STRIKES. The hunger strike is a type of political resistance notable for deploying deliberate self-starvation to protest alleged injustice and abuses of power. Food plays a central and paradoxical role in these acts by virtue of its conspicuous literal absence, yet compelling figurative presence. Hereby, the substantive rejection of material food comprises the main tactical strategy of hunger strikes, while the evocative symbolisms of food and food denial inscribe the moral messages conveyed by proactive martyrdom for a cause.

History and Political Agendas

Although the origins of hunger striking are obscure and its venerable history sketchy, it is known from diverse cultures and varying historical epochs dating back to antiquity. Hunger strikes were described in the lore of ancient India, and were well-established practices in medieval Celtic societies. In the early decades of the twentieth century, British suffragettes deployed hunger strikes to gain women's right to vote; and in the closing decades, hunger-striking Chinese students in Tiananmen Square petitioned for democratic reforms, and Tibetan monks staged public fasts outside the United Nations to spotlight their struggles for self-determination. The hunger strikes of Mahatma Gandhi in British-occupied India, Andrei Sakharov in the Soviet Union, Nelson Mandela in apartheid South Africa, and Bobby Sands of the Irish Republican Army, made these individuals renowned in their respective days. In modern times starvation rebellions have been geographically widespread and have championed numerous political causes, ranging from wholesale indictments of totalitarian power to more localized claims for citizens' entitlements within late capitalist democracies.

Instances from the 1980s and 1990s include Chinese women seeking asylum in the United States on the grounds that the one-child policy (and consequent forced abortions) are a form of political persecution, Iranian refugees resisting deportation from France, Kurdish fasters in Turkish jails petitioning to be accorded political-prisoner status, Israeli physicians on hunger strike for better wages, and American activists lobbying to abolish homelessness. Hunger strikes have been directed against nuclear proliferation, unjust imprisonment, immigration policies, and military actions; and they have been undertaken to champion political sovereignty, environmental protection, education reform, animal welfare, and the rights of workers, farmers, and minorities.

Common Characteristics

As their mode of operation, all hunger strikes share in common the principles of nonviolence, a claim to martyrdom for a cause, and an appeal to a universalized ethics that aims to indict by shaming the opponent. Modern applications are further framed by their appropriation of democratic and human rights discourses, and by their potential to capitalize on the vast and rapid circulation of sensational spectacles in a global media network.

In general the issues that incite hunger strikes have either been failed by, or fall outside the purview of, official legislation. By necessity, then, these strategies are designed to circumvent conventional systems of jurisprudence. Nonetheless, in dramatizing an interrogation via a tacit appeal to a public "jury," the hunger strike is structurally analogous to courtroom trials, such that it can be said to function as a kind of "meta-juridical trial." This trial is launched when the hunger-striking protagonist declares self-starvation, and thereby extends his quest for justice in the vulnerability of existence. Such deliberate martyrdom puts the body in an escalating "state of emergency" that graphically tests the resolve of the activist while simultaneously attesting to the depth of commitment. Taking oneself hostage to endorse a political agenda in effect constitutes the initial accusation, or "prosecutorial gesture," whereby the characteristically private act of not eating paradoxically transforms into a public indictment of an (allegedly) unjust system and its overseers. Under conventional trials, languagein the form of law codes and legal argumentsis the established tool of power and order. Yet, in the meta-juridical trials set in motion by hunger strikes, the authority of language is symbolically displaced, to be superseded by food as an alternative medium of communication. In other words, food provides a symbolic vocabulary in the political resistance movement that makes starvation (nonfood) a weapon of social reform.

Food as Symbol

The meaning-making enterprise of hunger strikes strategically exploits the complex and contradictory significance of food, which has been ambivalently endowed with both positive and negative associations in numerous cultures throughout history. Complementary to its role as vital nourishment, food characteristically betokens hospitality and charity, commands an exalted status at major life events, and is a special marker of ideology and identity. Food's beneficence is encoded in language: for example, "com-pan-ionship" in English means "the sharing of bread," thereby etymologically connecting friendship to a fundamental staple of Western cuisine. In its constructive essence, then, food is a preeminent material catalyst of human sociality and a signifier of shared community. Given its multifaceted centrality in human relations, the repudiation of food by hunger strikers can be read as an analogical rejection of community. In the manner that putrid food is inedible and can provide no nutritional sustenance, an unjust society is deemed uninhabitable and can offer no political-moral integrity. This leads to the self-exile of the faster, voluntarily removed from the (allegedly) corrupt circle of sociality.

The refusal of food engenders moralistic messages. For, despite its widely celebrated virtues, it is the intentional abstinence from food that has long been considered a ritual of purification in many religious traditions. Moreover, such self-disciplining still sends ethical (as well as aesthetic) messages in contemporary popular culture. According to Judeo-Christian teachings, the transgression of eating the forbidden fruit launched humankind's original fall from paradise; and gluttony was considered foremost among the seven deadly medieval sins. Abstinence from food provided one escape from these beastly temptations of the flesh, and accorded a path to greater spirituality that placed fasters outside the inherently violent food chain of consumption. It is upon this pious path of nonconsumption that hunger strikers embark, seeking some claim to moral righteousness by virtue of their excess asceticism. The faster's refusal to incorporate food asserts the individual body as sacrosanct and autonomous, and (through the symbolic substitution of food for community) safeguards the boundaries of the self against infiltration by a demoralized system. Importantly, in the striker's brief moment in the public limelight, self-starvation functions as an emphatic character sketch that stages a contest of willpower and suffering in order to prove dedication. By association, these performances strive to pair the political faster with the moral connotations that underlie willingness to sacrifice oneself for one's beliefs.

By ransoming the body as the battleground of resistance, the hunger strike seeks to redefine political issues as existential matters, and replace abstract rules with an impending crisis of life or death. Whether its diplomacy is better characterized as "nonviolent penetration of the heart" (to quote Gandhi) or as "political blackmail" (to cite his opponent, Viceroy Linlithgow), the act is one of keen, if nonetheless desperate, negotiation. Hereby, the violence fasters inflict on their own bodies (which are literally consumed by starvation) symbolically parallels the violence they contend power has inflicted on them (which "consumes" their moral integrity). The striker's purposeful hunger for food thus makes concrete an unfulfilled hunger for justice that can only be satisfied by a reformation of the political-moral order.

Communal Bond

In the iconoclastic logic of the goal-oriented fast, such reformation begins with the private suffering of the martyr put forth as a call to collective action. Just as trespasses of justice are deemed to be public concerns, the individual in need (and in pain) is deemed to be a matter of collective accountability. The individual's need for food invokes a primary interrelationship, based on food sharing as an archetype of caretaking. Insofar as premeditated self-starvation delves into the corporeal conditions of existence, it attempts to forge the commonality of hunger (an experience, to some degree, familiar to all) into an elementary, alimentary bond between striker and spectator. This bond is offered as the foundation for a code of ethics that seeks to mobilize righteousness from mutual responsibility for one another's physical and moral well-being. To ignore a cry for justice (and/or food) is tantamount to a shameful rejection of human mutual dependency.

Hence, in mirroring the violence of power and challenging its humanity, political martyrs endeavor to shame the (proclaimed) perpetrators of injustice. Reliant on its audience, the hunger performance summons civil witnesses to participate in this shaming and speak out against abuses of power. Through this unconventional diplomacy, hunger strikers appoint themselves scapegoats who map the ethical trespasses of an errant society onto their sacrificial bodies (a move which provocatively advertises sociopolitical inequities as undeniably bodily concerns). Here, food symbolismwith its mercurial naturereemerges. For the messages underlying these political rituals of transformation are consonant with the healing and nurturing significance of food, which, when blessed and shared (witness consumption of the scapegoat, the totem, the transubstantiated bread of communion) can be sustaining, as can society, when purged of corruption. An end to the political fast, and the striker's consequent return to the community of food sharing, symbolizes redemption of the collective moral good.

See also Consumer Protests ; Food as a Weapon of War ; Symbol, Food as .


Bell, Rudolph M., and William N. Davis. Holy Anorexia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Beresford, David. Ten Men Dead: The Story of the 1981 Irish Hunger Strike. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1987.

Collins, T. The Irish Hunger Strike. Dublin and Belfast: White Island Book Company, 1986.

Ellman, Maude. The Hunger Artists: Starving, Writing, and Imprisonment. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993.

Green, Barbara. Spectacular Confessions: Autobiography, Performative Activism and the Sites of Suffrage 1905-1938. London: MacMillan, 1997.

Harbury, Jennifer K. Searching for Everardo: A Story of Love, War and the CIA in Guatemala. New York: Warner, 2000.

Harpham, Geoffrey Galt. The Ascetic Imperative in Culture and Criticism. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Landzelius, Kyra. "Hunger Strikes: The Dramaturgy of Starvation Politics," in Einstein Meets Magritte: Science, Nature, Human Action and Society, Volume VIII: Man and NatureA World in Transition, edited by Diederik Aerts, pp. 8390. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1999.

Landzelius, Kyra. "Back to the Garden: The Primordial Hunger Strike." Proceedings of the Semiotic Society of America, 1997, pp. 161168.

Kyra Landzelius

Hunger Strikes

views updated May 14 2018

Hunger Strikes

Hunger striking was not purely a phenomenon of the early 1980s in Northern Ireland. After a visit to fasting republican prisoners in 1978, the primate of all-Ireland, Cardinal Ó Fiaich, commented that "they prefer to face death rather than submit to be classed as criminals. . . . Anyone with the least knowledge of Irish history knows how deeply rooted this attitude is in our country's past." The cardinal recognized the two essential elements of hunger strikes: historical resonance and contemporaneous grievances. A sense of continuity and symbolism was important to republicans. Already, twelve republicans had starved to death for their beliefs in the twentieth century, most recently Michael Gaughan (1974) and Frank Stagg (1976). Gaughan's coffin was draped with the same tricolor flag that had been placed on the coffin of the legendary hunger striker Terence MacSwiney in 1920. Hunger striking, a practice that flourished in pre-Christian times in Ireland, derives from the ancient Brehon (Gaelic Irish) laws that recognized and strove to regulate the rite of "fasting against a person of exalted state in order to enforce a claim against him." The debtor had three options: to concede the claim, to mount a counterfast, or to let the hunger striker starve himself to death. None of these are congenial, as events in 1980 and 1981 were to demonstrate.

The Strikers' Campaign

The contemporaneous grievance centered on prison status. Republicans believed that their struggle was political, not criminal. In an effort to bring them into the political process the British authorities granted them special-category status in 1972. This enabled them to run their own regime and strengthen their organization inside the prison to such an extent that there were fears that the prisons were being used as extensions of the militant republican campaign. Concerned that political violence was not being contained and that political concessions had not weaned republicanism away from violence, the British secretary of state, Merlyn Rees, reverted to a policy of "criminalization" in March 1976. Essentially it meant that there was no distinction between those imprisoned for "normal" crime and those fighting for a nonexistent republic. When they lost their special-category status, the prisoners embarked on a blanket and no-wash protest in which they refused to wear prison clothing or to clean out their cells. Only when these tactics failed did they resort to the ultimate protest—the hunger strike.

Criminalization was a serious political error for three reasons. In the first place, it denied republicans the respectability they felt they had earned in a legitimate and heroic struggle for Irish freedom. They had been practicing a form of social republicanism inside the ghettos whereby they had appropriated the role of the guardians of the law. In those circumstances, they asked rhetorically, how could they be criminals?

Secondly, the prisoners distinguished the sacrificial ideology of their campaign from the revolutionary ideology of the military campaign, linking themselves to the 1916 rebels who had risen not to win but to die. And their campaign was steeped in martyrology and religious symbolism, demonstrated in the grafitto in west Belfast of a dying hunger striker comforted by the Virgin Mary that bore the caption "Blessed are those who hunger for justice." The hunger strikers were portrayed in crucified postures, with the barbed wire of the prisons transformed into Jesus's crown of thorns, and the H-Block blanket (their only piece of "clothing") into a burial shroud. These religious motifs tied them into the heart of the Catholic psyche and broadened the dimensions of the campaign.

Thirdly, the campaign both diluted and strengthened the republican leadership. The decision to hunger strike had been made by the prisoners alone, against the advice of the outside leadership, who felt that it was distracting attention from the "war." But it brought on-board another layer of support. Some of the prisoners' relatives had formed a Relatives' Action Committee (RAC). Over the next few years the RACs, distributed across Northern Ireland and often independent of Sinn Féin, developed a mass movement that offered an alternative to a seemingly pointless military campaign. The strength of that movement is illustrated by comparing the numbers who protested when the first hunger striker, Bobby Sands, began his fast (about 4,000) and those who attended his funeral march (approximately 70,000). It could be seen too in the results of Northern Ireland's local government elections of May 1981 (following Sands's death). If all candidates identifying with the hunger strikes had joined together in one group, they could have become the fifth-largest party. There was a constituency to be nurtured, a fact acknowledged in an editorial in the newspaper Republican News in September 1982: "While not everyone can plant a bomb, everyone can plant a vote."

The first hunger strikes began on 27 October 1980 in protest against prison conditions and status. The second group began on 1 March 1981. In both instances seven volunteers were selected initially. The timing and the numbers were significant: The first strike was to culminate at Christmas (though it was called off on 18 December because the prisoners believed, wrongly, that they had extracted the necessary concessions), and the second at Easter. The seven strikers corresponded to the number of signatories to the 1916 proclamation. They believed themselves to be the revolutionary vanguard and sacred keepers of the nation's history. Bobby Sands, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) leader imprisoned in the Maze, was the first to die on 5 May 1981. By 20 August another nine republican prisoners were dead, and the rest ended their protest on 3 October. The whole business polarized the community as never before. It threatened to make constitutional nationalism redundant inside Northern Ireland; it deprived Fianna Fáil of victory in the Republic's 1981 general election when two hunger strikers were elected to the Dáil; it caused tremendous tension between the British and Irish governments; and it aroused an inordinate amount of international attention, much of it embarrassing to the British government.

International Reaction

The hunger strikes above all gave republicans what they wanted by making politics a straightforward confrontation between them and the British government in which every other party was rendered irrelevant or powerless. There is no doubt that the strikes discommoded the political and religious establishment. A survey of sixty-four newspapers in twenty-five countries conducted by the Sunday Times (31 May 1981) concluded that world opinion had begun to shift away from the British government and in favor of the IRA. In the United States, the home of so many descendents of the Great Famine Irish, the Irish Northern Aid Committee (NORAID), a U.S. support organization for the republican cause, raised $250,000 in the first half of 1981 (compared with an average of $110,000 every half-year for the previous seven years). In short, the hunger strikes contributed to a fundamental reevaluation of the conflict: Republicans moved into political mode while retaining the armed struggle, and the British and Irish governments, with the active support of the Reagan administration, embarked on much closer political and security cooperation that culminated in the Anglo-Irish Agreement in November 1985.

SEE ALSO Irish Republican Army (IRA); Loyalist Paramilitaries after 1965; Politics: Impact of the Northern Ireland Crisis on Southern Politics; Ulster Politics under Direct Rule


Arthur, Paul. "'Reading' Violence: Ireland." In The Legitimization of Violence, edited by David E. Apter. 1997.

Clarke, Liam. Broadening the Battlefield: The H-Blocks and the Rise of Sinn Fein. 1987.

O'Malley, Padraig. Biting at the Grave: The Irish Hunger Strikes and the Politics of Despair. 1990.

Paul Arthur

Hunger Strikes

views updated Jun 08 2018

Hunger Strikes

Hunger strikes as a means of protest have been traced to the pre-Christian era in Rome. They were revived in the early twentieth century in England by women suffragists. A global phenomenon, hunger strikes have been reported from Ireland to Beijing, Istanbul to New Delhi and the United States. Purportedly the longest hunger strike continued for seventy-four days, ending in the death of a Sinn Fein political party member in the 1920s. Ireland was also the scene of the largest reported hunger strike, involving 8,000 political prisoners and internees in 1923.

A true hunger strike represents a competent individual's intentional refusal to eat and or drink for some specific purpose. Definitions vary, however, in the specificity of both fluid intake and the time interval required to certify such an act as a hunger strike. Occasionally hunger striking is an indication of mental illness that is tantamount to actual or attempted suicide. William Butler Yeats captured in verse what may be the primary aim of hunger striking, that is to "shame" those in authority to right a "wrong" or injustice. "Persuade him to eat or drink? / While he is lying there. Perishing there, my good name in the world / Is perishing also. I cannot give way, / Because I am king, because if I give way, / My nobles would call me a weakling, and, it may be, / the very throne be shaken." Most often it entails acts of nonviolent protest to prompt redress of structural or human rights violations, whether unjust imprisonment, objectionable living conditions for prisoners, or struggles against oppression by groups such as the United Farm Workers in California or the people of Tibet.

Prisoners, priests, students, suffragists, nationalists, pacifists, and activists have been emboldened to use fasting and hunger strikes to publicize and underscore their personal and political agendas. Mohandas Gandhi resorted to fasting at least fourteen times, but never for longer than twentyone days. In 1981 Irish republicans initiated hunger strikes to demand status as political detainees, asserting the political nature of their claims. For the Irish, particularly northern Catholics, hunger strikes have both historical and mythological precedents. They are viewed symbolically as acts of religiopolitical martyrdom, linking the protagonist to the pantheon of Irish heroes and the cult of sacrifice, whose most notable exemplar was Jesus Christ.

The ability to accurately document and enumerate the incidence of hunger strikes, along with statistics on morbidity or mortality, is severely hampered by a lack of any systematic surveillance, so the reporting of such incidents remain haphazard. In 1991 the World Medical Association issued guidelines for physicians who treat hunger strikers; a key point of the paper is that care should not be contingent on the suspension of the strike but must be based on clear communication between patient and provider in a context of respect, beneficence, and autonomy.

Hunger striking as a political tool has had mixed success. Court-mandated forced feeding, a controversial precedent set in the early suffragist movement in England, has since been used by governments to stifle or terminate hunger strikes, as in the case of Red Army Faction prisoners in Germany in the 1970s and 1980s. There have been several notable negotiated settlements of strikes; for example, the Bulgarian strikes of 19251929, which resulted in a partial amnesty for political prisoners. The 1978 hunger strike in Bolivia led to the downfall of the military regime. In some cases where demands have been ignored, the prolongation of the hunger strikes have led to the death of some strikers, as in the Irish strikes of 1981 and in Turkey in 1996.

In the case of Bobby Sands and the nine other Irish prisoners who died, world opinion seemed to support the British government's position during the strike. After the fatalities, however, mass sentiment began to shift in favor of the Irish Republican movement, whose candidates went on to win several seats in Irish and British parliamentary elections of 1983. In Turkey, the 1996 hunger strike of hundreds of political prisoners resulted in at least twelve deaths, and many surviving prisoners had residual neurologic and psychiatric effects. The death toll from the Turkish strike of 2001 stands at twenty and prompted the government to initiate some of the reforms in prisoner treatment sought by human rights groups.

While reports of hunger strikes reach far back into antiquity, the dawn of a new millennium brings evidence of their ongoing use. It appears that hunger striking will continue to represent a powerful form of protest as long as there remain the oppressive political and social conditions that seem to give rise to them.

See also: Causes of Death; Famine; Social Functions of Death


Peel, Michael. "Hunger Strikes." British Medical Journal 315 (1997):829830.

World Medical Association. World Medical Association Declaration on Hunger Strikers. 43rd World Medical Assembly. Malta, November 1991.