Tag Archives: Pakistani women

Young women fight the ‘Talibanisation’ of rural Pakistan

Much attention has been focused on the process of radicalisation of young men in the areas of Pakistan that border Afghanistan. Peshawar, the town near the border between the two countries, is infamous for being the centre of a vibrant industry and trade in homemade guns. For more than two decades, violence has become the dominant currency of almost every aspect of life in this area of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, once known as the North West Frontier Province.

So it takes remarkable courage for a 16-year-old girl to decide to challenge how this culture of violence was reinforcing and strengthening the oppression of women. Eight years on, Gulalai Ismail, now a poised 24-year-old, is running two programmes of work – one on gender empowerment and the other on peacebuilding – from her home in Peshawar, where she grew up. Brought to London by Peace Direct, Ismail was talking to youngsters about her work.

“I set up Aware Girls when I was 16 because all around me I saw girls being treated differently to boys. My girl cousin was 15 when her marriage was arranged to someone twice her age; she couldn’t finish her education while my boy cousins were [doing so]. This was considered normal. Girls have internalised all this discrimination – a woman who suffers violence but doesn’t say anything is much admired in the village as a role model. A good woman submits to her husband or father.

“Aware Girls raised awareness of equal status. We did training that women have human rights, and taught leadership skills and how to negotiate within their families and with their parents to get education and to have control over their own lives.”

Ismail is well aware of how the position of women has deteriorated over the course of her life. “Peshawar used to be very progressive, but after “Talibanisation” it became much more conservative and life is more difficult for my younger sister than it was for me. Just going out to the market is difficult because of the sexual harassment.”

That kind of harassment makes organising training for young women particularly difficult. Ismail and her staff have to strive very hard with communities in the villages where they work to build trust that if daughters attend the training they will be safe. Parents worry that their daughters will be “westernised” and forget their “cultural values”. For a recent training course on political leadership to help boost the participation of women in politics, Aware Girls had to organise 20 local community meetings to identify the 30 girls who eventually went on the course. Working in remote rural areas requires considerable patience and time, but Ismail is not interested in the easier option of working only in urban areas.

It was the gender work that came first, but Ismail soon realised the close relationship between gender and peace. “In training, a woman told the story of how her 12-year-old son was taken away to Afghanistan by the militants, and 10 months later he was dead. That made me think that we must stop these young people joining the militants.”

The result was the Seeds of Peace network, which Ismail set up last year and which has trained 25 young people. They, in turn, will train another 20, to slowly expand a network across 10 districts of the province. She believes each person can reach 500 young people to promote tolerance and challenge extremism.

“They identify young people in the community who might be vulnerable to militants and they organise study circles to discuss the causes and consequences of conflict and the history of Talibanisation. We talk about tolerance for people of other faiths,” says Ismail.

Almost every aspect of children’s upbringing is affected by extremism. Even the school textbooks urge children to be ready for jihad, says Ismail, and all around are songs and films that glorify war, martyrdom and violence.

“Seeds of Peace aims to give another perspective by getting people to think about human rights. Peace is not just the absence of war, it is about respect and tolerance – and women have an important role in educating their children.”

Ismail is well aware that her work challenges the Taliban’s power, and that brings dangers. She is also aware that there are huge political issues involved in the radicalisation of the region where she lives, but believes that a grassroots community challenge to a culture of extremist intolerance is also a crucial part of the search for peace. Both high-level political negotiation and community participation are required in conflict resolution.

Peace Direct’s Ruairi Nolan backs up Ismail’s analysis of a peace process, using the analogy of political negotiation as the bricks and community engagement as the cement that hold the bricks together. Pointing to Northern Ireland’s experience, he suggests that several decades of community peacebuilding was a crucial precondition to the success of the political process that culminated in the Northern Ireland agreement.

At international conferences, Ismail has met counterparts from Uganda, Sri Lanka and many other parts of the world. Despite the very different forms of conflict, she can see plenty of similarities in the work they are doing – and she says that gives her hope.

Women’s Rights in Pakistan: Descending into Darkness

mukhtar_mai Mukhtar Mai, a leading Pakistani women’s rights advocate, gained fame for the way she courageously stood up to traditions that violated her human rights. Online, one can find plenty of information about her – her gang rape, her recent marriage, her strides for women’s rights and education, and the harassment that she has faced from Pakistani government officials. While her past is now known around the globe, her future, in light of the Multan Electric Power Company’s June 11 raid on the Mukhtar Women’s Welfare Organization, remains uncertain. With the exception of coverage by Nicholas Kristof’s blog (“A Hero’s Ordeal in Pakistan“), Ms. Mai’s current dire situation in Pakistan is not well-known. The latest harassment towards Ms. Mai, which within the context of previous incidents was obviously not an isolated event, must mobilize the public to demand action from the Pakistani government.

On June 11, 2009, the Multan Electric Power Company raided the MMWWO in Meerwala, Pakistan, and disconnected all electricity to the grounds, falsely accusing the organization of stealing electricity despite records proving they have paid all bills in full. MMWWO and hundreds of families in the surrounding area were without power for several days. Today, while the power to the surrounding area has been restored, the MMWWO grounds, which house the Mukhtar Mai Girls Model School, Women’s Resource Centre, and Shelter Home for battered women (whose premises was raided despite the fact that men are strictly prohibited), are still enduring blistering temperatures. According to MMWWWO employees who were witnesses, the power company officials claimed that the raid was ordered by Abdul Qayyum Jatoi, the Federal Minister for Defense Production. This raid has significantly hindered the ability of Ms. Mai’s organization to carry out its important human rights work, providing services for vulnerable women, girls and boys.

In 2002, Mukhtar Mai was gang-raped on orders of a traditional village council as punishment for acts allegedly committed by her younger brother. Instead of suffering in silence, Ms. Mai fought back and testified in a rape case against her attackers and is now a leading Pakistani women’s rights activist. The case is now before the Supreme Court after a lower court granted the convicted men’s appeal. Hearings for the supreme Court case have repeatedly been delayed, but her attackers remain imprisoned and her case is pending.

The June 11 incident is only the latest in a series of harassing incidents carried out by government officials to dissuade Ms. Mai from seeking accountability for past crimes and carrying out her work. Throughout the court proceedings, Ms. Mai has faced harassment by government officials, most notably by Minister Jatoi. In 2006, he visited Ms. Mai to ask her to reach a compromise with her attackers. In 2008, he again pressured Ms. Mai to drop the charges against her attackers, allegedly insisting that if she proceeded with the case, he would ensure a verdict in favor of her attackers. Most recently, in February 2009, Minister Jatoi’s associates engaged in a media campaign against Ms. Mai, stating that her attackers are innocent and that the entire case is a “fraud” and a “western agenda.”

Since 2002, Ms. Mai’s record of promoting human rights has put her in danger. To date, no government action has been taken to ensure Ms. Mai’s safety and ability to continue her advocacy. She and her colleagues bravely continue their work, in the darkness and sweltering heat, but the government of Pakistan must step up its commitment to her organization and to the Pakistani women for whom they demand rights. Today, Human Rights First joins other non-governmental organizations in demanding an end to the Pakistani Government’s harassment of Mukhtar Mai. You can find out more and take action here.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/human-rights-first/mukhtar-mai-pakistani-wom_b_219553.html