Against All Odds in Pakistan: Women Combatting Radicalization

Meridian Senior Vice President and Deputy Director Ambassador Sharon Wilkinson with IIS Chair Ambassador Swanee Hunt

Popular perceptions of Pakistan would lead many people to think that the country might be one of the least likely places to find women speaking out against injustice. The society is often painted as patriarchal and under the influence of radical Muslim clerics who see no place for women’s participation in the public sphere. However, a group of Pakistani women from different walks of life who are part of the Amn-o-Nisa Coalition, are challenging this perception through bold efforts in their country to counteract radicalization among young men. On April 25th, Meridian International Center and the Institute for Inclusive Security co-hosted a delegation of twelve members of the Amn-o-Nisa Coalition for a panel discussion on their critical work in providing alternatives to radicalization in Pakistani society.

The panel was opened by Meridian Senior Vice President and Deputy Ambassador Sharon Wilkinson who welcomed the delegation and participants. Ambassador Wilkinson provided context for the visit, saying that it was first group to participate in a series of 10 programs that will be designed and implemented by Meridian over the next two years, with support from the Office of Community Engagement with the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad. This office provides support for programs that connect Pakistani community leaders working to address a wide range of issues — human rights, women’s rights, and violent extremism — with professional peers in the U.S. who are dealing with similar issues in their communities.

Ambassador Wilkinson also introduced the Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM) from Pakistan to the United States, Dr. Asad Majeed Khan, who spoke about great contributions of Pakistani women from all socio-economic levels to society. DCM Dr. Khan talked about a growing awareness in Pakistan about women as agents of change, whether in combatting natural or man-made crises in the country, and how their experience of marginalization provides an invaluable perspective on how to take the nation forward.

The Chair of the Institute for Inclusive Security Ambassador Swanee Hunt provided an overview of the challenges and risks faced by the members of the delegation in their work. She introduced the delegation and invited three of its members to share with the audience their specific areas of activism and what motivated them to become engaged in this important cause. The three members of the delegation who participated in the panel exchange were: Mossarat Qadeem, Executive Director of the PAIMAN Alumni Trust, an organization she founded that is dedicated to combating radicalization by working directly with the mothers of at-risk youth and providing job training and education as alternatives to radicalization; Huma Chugtai, a freelance consultant and a trainer for the PAIMAN Alumni Trust, who uses her considerable knowledge of Sharia Law to educate on the peaceful elements of Islam in order to counter radical arguments that fuel extremism; and Bushra Hyder, Founder and Director of the Qadims Lumiere School and College, an institution that has created a “peace education” curriculum that teaches high school students about other cultures and religions and promotes compassion, tolerance, and understanding.

The delegates provided insights on what motivated them to work with radicalized or at-risk youth and what methods they found most effective in reaching these groups. Ms. Qadeem talked about her work with mothers, as the gateways to families. She explained that by educating these women about non-violent interpretations of the Koran and the alternatives to radicalization, one could often reach their sons. Her work has transformed not just the lives of 79 youth to date, but also of their families. She also spoke about the importance of women sharing this message with other women because of the trust that exists among women in society. While reintegration into society remains the greatest challenge, PAIMAN has made great inroads.

Ms. Hyder provided a poignant perspective on what motivated her activism in her community. Living in Peshawar, she witnessed first-hand the profound effect the frequent bomb blasts and terrorist activity were having on youth and children and decided that something had to be done to address the culture of aggression and intolerance that was becoming the norm. She established the Qadims Lumiere School and College to provide children and youth with a peace education curriculum that was consistent with the cultural context. Currently she has 1,000 youth in her school and has seen a noticeable reduction in the aggression that was so rampant among youth in her community. She also works with a group of mothers of her students, who have been traumatized by the death of another child and require emotional support so that they can return to being the bedrocks of their families.

Ms. Chugtai illustrated for the audience some of the practical realities that exclude women from public life and thus contribute to extremism in Pakistani society. In her view, women’s integration into public life is essential as a method for counteracting the influence of extremists in society. Women are woefully under-represented in security, policing, and peacekeeping roles but their perspective could add great value to balancing these discussions. The work of the coalition shows that women can provide an alternative interpretation and response to the violence in society and serve to prevent youth from allying with extremists and developing a hatred of government and foreign assistance. She implored donor nations like the U.S. to view the situation in Pakistan strategically and comprehensively and look at ways to address the causes of extremism instead of just the symptoms and to realize the real human cost that Pakistan is paying. The panel was followed by a reception where the audience had an opportunity to meet with and learn more about the delegation’s work. The women will spend three weeks total in the U.S. — one week in Washington and then an additional two weeks in cities around the U.S. including New York, Chicago, San Diego and Los Angeles, where they will exchange best practices and experiences and gain new knowledge and skills to strengthen their work and efforts upon returning to Pakistan.

News coverage:
Pakistani Peace Activist Interviewed on NPR’s Morning Edition
Pakistani Peace Activists Interviewed on PBS Newshour