Billy Briggs meets the young women breaking new human rights ground in a conflict-plagued region
It’s a cold morning in the village of Shah Mansoor, Pakistan. Wearing a black burqa, through which only her brown eyes are visible, a young woman addresses a group in the courtyard of her family home. “I am a daughter of your village,” she says softly to her audience of 30 older men, who sit on rows of white plastic chairs. “I am really glad you came today.”
She is 18-year-old Bakhtawar Khalid, and the men listen in silence as she continues. “Women are often limited to the home, but there is nothing wrong if a woman goes outside. I would like all of you to support women, to educate women and to encourage them to take part in politics,” Khalid says.
This is a closed meeting and the invitees were chosen from the local area after being identified as liberal-minded. She speaks to them with conviction and courage, aiming to challenge entrenched views, but to do so sensitively. A young woman addressing men about women’s rights in this fashion would be unheard of in most parts of this province, where conservative Islam prevails. Indeed, locals tell us the village is a Taliban stronghold, with two extremist madrasas (colleges for Islamic instruction) nearby. But Khalid is unfazed.
As Khalid speaks in Pashto, her words are translated into English for me by Gulalai Ismail, who organised our trip to Shah Mansoor. Ismail runs an organisation called Aware Girls, which is based in Peshawar, about 70 miles away. She co-founded it in 2002 with her sister, Saba, when they were 16 and 15 years old. They were driven by the suffering of women that they witnessed around them; from rape to slavery, acid attacks, murder and the lack of access to the justice system.
PEACE IN THE FACE OF TERRORISM
In the last decade, Aware Girls has grown from a small women’s rights group into an internationally renowned organisation that promotes human rights across Pakistan and beyond. Last year, they helped 851 women participate in sessions in which they were informed of potential routes into politics. They have also organised monitoring of polling stations to encourage women to go out and vote without fear.
Khalid, the young woman addressing the men in the courtyard of her home in Shah Mansoor, is part of the organisation’s flagship project, the Youth Peace Network (YPN). As part of its work, the network’s members try to stop their peers being radicalised by extremists, as terrorism has affected parts of Pakistan for many years.
Peshawar is especially fraught with danger. The district’s 3.5 million inhabitants have lived with the threat of terrorism for years and the city often makes the headlines for all the wrong reasons. The brutal school attack in December 2014, when 134 children and 17 adults were killed by the radical group Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, was the deadliest the country had seen.
Aware Girls has researched the trauma faced by thousands of people in Peshawar. It found a deep impact upon children, who often drop out of school because of fear of suicide bombers. Domestic abuse of women and girls increased as a result of fathers’ unemployment and the risk of becoming homeless.
WORKING WITH MALALA
Aware Girls estimates that since 2010 around 4,000 people in the province have been murdered or maimed by terrorists, so the organisation operates in the face of severe violence, not least because it is run mainly by women. Eighteen-year-old Nobel peace prize winner Malala Yousafzai was among the organisation’s early members. Her brave campaign for girls’ education became known to the world only after she survived a Taliban bullet to the head.
Malala is now a symbol of honour for Aware Girls and someone the Ismail sisters counts as a friend. “Violent attacks are happening to many women in Pakistan, so I was happy Malala was able to highlight the issue,” says Gulalai Ismail, who has not been immune to the issues she works to fight. She suffers frequent death threats, has been falsely denounced on television as a CIA spy, and in spring 2014 only just escaped death when a group of gunmen threatened her family at home. She was not in, and the men eventually left. Her family fled their home and have not been able to return.
Undaunted and defiant, the sisters continue their work. Since 2010, Aware Girls has focused on growing the education-focused YPN. The programme now stretches out from its Peshawar base to rural Taliban strongholds such as Shah Mansoor, and even as far as Afghanistan. In 2014, more than 220 YPN activists engaged with around 4,000 ‘at risk’ young people via study circles, book groups, film screenings, sermons and presentations through mosques, and interactive discussions around the teachings of Islam on peace and pluralism.
Just how difficult and dangerous the work is becomes clear when we join a group of YPN members at a secretly held seminar in a Peshawar hotel. Gulalai Ismail has changed for the occasion, swapping her burqa for a leather jacket. She addresses the group of 30, many of whom travelled vast distances to take part in the undercover session. The topic is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the participants share their concerns about violations they have witnessed.
I learned about human rights and how to convey peace
Grassroots solutions also form part of the discussions; from a student campaign to be allowed to wear more colourful headscarves, to an attempt to ban toy guns from local shops. Young people – both male and female – play crucial parts in rolling out such initiatives. Jawad Ullahkhan got in touch with Aware Girls when he was just 19.
“I was inspired by Gulalai”, he explains. “I learned about human rights and how to convey peace. We started up our own network with about 12 to 15 guys called the Optimistic Youth Network. We try to bridge the gap between youths in madrasas and school youth by organising discussions. We also use theatre and drama, working with children from 12 years old.”
Militants sometimes come to Ullahkhan’s meetings, “to see if we say anything bad about them”. He says some of his people have been attacked and he is aware of the dangers of engaging in activism. “At least one person a month is killed, usually peace activists or journalists. And the army kills as many people as the militants these days.”
It can be perilous work, but Ullahkhan is committed to working for peace. As is Khalid, back in Shah Mansoor. Standing before the men in the courtyard of her home, she finishes addressing them by quoting from the religious scriptures all too often misused to justify gender violence: “Muhammad always said that women had equal wisdom, and that he trusted women”, she concludes. The men respond with loud applause.
Photography by Angela Catlin
“WE NEED TO LIFT OUR VOICES”
It is not just in Pakistan that women are proving they can lead, as their power as allies against radicalisation is being recognised worldwide. In Nigeria, one mother is setting an example
When Boko Haram gunmen attacked the public minibus she was riding on, Nigerian mother-of-two Hafsat Mohammed survived by playing dead. That day spurred the 33-year-old to dedicate her life to reconciliation between religions. She challenges extremist narratives in town markets, schools and through her own NGO – via an unshakeable belief in the power of positive alternatives.
“We have to make sure that our voice is lifted in such a way that we counter those violent messages and ideologies,” she told Al Jazeera.
They don’t talk about terrorism, about war. They talk about education, about being who they want to be
Just reminding young people to talk about the future can help, she has found. Ambitions can form a buffer to anger, discontent and anything else that renders a young person vulnerable to radicalisation or violence.
“They don’t talk about terrorism, about war,” she says of those she has reached out to. “They talk about education, about being who they want to be. They talk about in the future having a family.”
Since December 2012, Mohammed has worked at the community-led Interfaith Mediation Centre, founded by a Muslim imam and a Christian pastor to address inter-religious violence. She visits classrooms where the wounds of division are already painfully evident, recounting playground games in which children say to each other: “I’m a Christian, you’re a Muslim,” and mimic guns with their fingers: “Ta-ta-ta-ta, you’re dead!”
Mohammed has also faced anger from some men. “Some felt I was being disrespectful, that I should be at home, married, having babies like a baby factory, but that wasn’t what I was created for.
“I am confident, I am strong, I am a Muslim, I am an anti-violent-extremism activist. People say, ‘You’re a woman, you don’t need to talk.’ And I say, ‘Yes, I will talk.’ ”
AN UNTAPPED RESOURCE FOR PEACE
“Women are often the first to recognise fear, resignation, frustration, and anger in their adolescent children. Mothers can reach the young before they become entangled in the highly emotional appeals of ideologies.” – Edit Schlaffer, founder of Women without Borders
“Women can, uniquely, help build the social cohesion, sense of belonging, and self-esteem that youth might need to resist the appeal of a violent group.” – Georgia Holmer, US Institute of Peace’s Rule of Law Center
“Governments should encourage women’s participation in the police and in special anti-terrorist units. Women often notice smaller details and may be more intuitive.” – Anneli Botha, senior researcher, Institute for Security Studies, Pretoria
“Women are well placed to develop credible counter narratives that debunk the twisted recruitment messages of false hope and hate used by violent extremists.” – Alistair Millar, founder of the Global Center on Cooperative Security