Women's Participation in Transforming Conflict and Violent Extremism

 

Few countries in the world match Pakistan in its political, social or economic complexities and security­related challenges. It is a country of nearly 200 million people, from over a dozen ethnic and minority groups, and myriad tribes who have coexisted peacefully for decades. It is the same country, however, that has been grappling with violent extremism in different shapes and forms for the past 15 years. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), violent extremism is most acute, and women are on the front lines of warfare. They are the widows, victims and survivors of the suicide bomb blasts, the displaced and the traumatized. Their male relatives are either fighting or gone, and therefore many women are de facto household heads, shouldering the responsibility for feeding, nursing and sheltering the old, the young and the injured.1 Yet their mobility, access to education and health facilities, and ability to fully care for their families are severely impacted. Extremists have exploited women in the name of religion, forcing them to raise funds and send their own sons and those of other members of their families and communities to work with and for extremists, particularly in the Swat District. Often women have supported extremists in their own ways by stitching suicide jackets, collecting gold and money, serving as informants and providing shelter.

For those women whose sons serve in the militias, the suffering is profound. They worry for their children's lives, yet live in communities that may shun, isolate and even attack them for their familial associations. They have little or no recourse to protection from anywhere.

"Talking to my son about extremism and extremists is impossible for me," said Zargula, in response to our conversation about engaging her radicalized son in a dialogue. 

It was in 2008 when the PAIMAN Alumni Trust (PAIMAN) embarked upon the "Let's Live in Peace" initiative. One important aspect of this programme was to empower mothers of extremists and other women in the community to help in the prevention of radicalization.

FROM UNTHINKABLE TO THINKABLE

The situational analysis led us to focus upon the most challenging and unthinkable solution to address this menace by engaging mothers. PAIMAN realized that it is the innocent mother who needs to be sensitized and educated to counter the extremist ideology. We developed our strategy of engaging mothers with the belief that they shape the morals and values of their children and instil a sense of responsibility for creating positive human relationships within the family and community. It was a gigantic task to coax women and mothers out of their homes and involve them in our initiative countering violent extremism. We started building relationships with mothers in each community and invited them to learn livelihood skills in order to start earning some money for their families. At the same time we held dialogues and built trust with community elders and influential male relatives, paving the way for them to come out of their houses. It was successful.

Focusing on the concepts of self-confidence, competence and empowerment, we started our ambitious programmes of engaging mothers in two phases.

In the first phase we gave them marketable livelihood skills as per their aptitude because they needed to establish a position of authority within their families. A child only respects the mother when her position is not challenged by her husband, friends or society as a whole. This also helped in contributing to their family's income within a short time and infused confidence in these mothers.

In the second phase we equipped them with the necessary knowledge and self-confidence to become active players in their family and community. We built their capacity for critical thinking, allowing them to recognize indicators of violent extremism in an individual and in their communities, and to find ways to address these early warning signs by promoting dialogue and community peacebuilding. We made women aware of their potential in influencing and guiding their children's lives, and in preventing them from engaging in extremist activities. In almost all cases the extremists used the text of the Quran to attract youth and communities towards the concept of violent jihad or convince them to act in an extremist fashion. We used the Quranic verses in their appropriate context to help transform the mindset of these mothers. Our transformative methodology is based on the Quran and Sunnah, as Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) insists that a mother's role is vital in the upbringing of her children in accordance with the values of true Islamic teaching, which does not preach hatred or violence.

Generally, the transformation process was slow, but steady and firm. The newly gained knowledge and economic empowerment gave them the confidence to communicate openly with their sons and to help foster deeper mother-son relationships. Through these transformed mothers, PAIMAN approaches their sons who are then encouraged to join the PAIMAN deradicalization programme.

The metamorphosis of mothers from ones celebrating their sons' martyrdom in suicidal attacks into agents of positive change in the community was a tedious and uphill process. It was extremely difficult for mothers in a patriarchal and conservative society to convince others to embrace their approach amidst the negative impact of violent extremism or exploitation by certain groups in the name of religion. Following PAIMAN training, these women became members of PAIMAN mothers' peace groups called Mothers TOLANA ("together" in Pashto) and started reaching out to other mothers. To date, PAIMAN has trained 745 mothers, who have formed 30 TOLANA in KP and FATA.

Today, Mothers TOLANA hold sessions with other mothers in their respective communities and teach and preach non­violent ways of addressing the menace of extremism.

Mothers TOLANA, along with Youth TOLANA, are instrumental in identifying vulnerable and extremist youth for PAIMAN's positive youth engagement and deradicalization programme. They are actively involved in the challenging task of reintegration of extremist youth transformed by PAIMAN. They hold sessions within their communities, stressing the importance of preventing violent extremism and emphasizing the positive impact of the community's attitude towards reintegration of transformed youth. Today, it is these Mothers TOLANA who are bringing their communities together, while encouraging reconciliation through community networks by building connections and sharing information. They have educated and sensitized 15,000 female community members of KP and FATA, who ultimately realized that they have a role to play in the prevention of radicalization and countering violent extremism in their area, thus sustaining the whole process of community peacebuilding.

Mothers TOLANA keep an eye on their surroundings, staying alert for early signs of violent extremism within the family and in the community. One such story of exemplary courage involved PAIMAN Mother TOLANA member, Sheeba. She noticed that her younger brother, Gul Zareef, was coming home late and had grown very quiet. She inquired repeatedly about his recent schedule and noticeable silence, but he refused to respond. Recalling early warning signs of behavioural changes in youth from her PAIMAN training, she started observing his movements and behaviour more closely. One night she followed him and found he was visiting a house in a nearby street. She discussed the situation with other women and Youth TOLANA. Some members of Youth TOLANA started visiting the same house and found out about strangers who were coming and delivering lectures, luring youth to join them in their mission. Sheeba, along with other Mothers TOLANA, reported this to the local police, who then raided the house, seized extremist propaganda material and arrested three strangers who had already lured five young men from that community. This early warning by a women community peace group helped in saving many local boys from falling prey to an extremist group.

WOMEN'S ROLE IN INTERFAITH HARMONY

In Pakistan, the leaders of mosques, churches, temples, and other religious establishments, which play a powerful role in shaping attitudes, opinions and behaviours, are dominated by men. In the same context, female madrassa teachers, political and religious female leaders and non-Muslim activists have a large constituency of women and female youth. They also have outreach networks and are credible to their constituents, but they remain largely unnoticed.

Building on the notion that women have the ability to reach across lines of difference in tense environments, lead non-violent protests, and mobilize communities, as well as the ability to engage with the theological aspects of gender roles in peace, holds the promise to change discourse and preconceptions about how women of faith can be involved in establishing social cohesion across religious divides.

PAIMAN built the capacity of madrassa teachers, women activists of other faiths and female leaders of religious political parties, and formed a coalition known as "Women of faith building social cohesion in Pakistan". Through this platform women of different faiths overcame three major obstacles to their participation in interfaith dialogue: the lack of access to education in non-Islamic religious faiths; their inadequate representation and poor communication. Through sharing and discussion, they discovered similarities and differences in their respective positions as women and as believers. Today, the members of the coalition are working together to promote inclusion, equality and interfaith dialogue in their communities, providing a platform for all voices to be heard, regardless of personal religious belief. They celebrate one another's religious festivals, and support each other in cases of violent acts in their different communities.

Zareen, a member of the PAIMAN Interfaith group, has a son, Adil, who would always be involved in extremist acts against the Shia procession in Peshawar during the month of Muharram. Committed to transforming her son's behaviour, Zareen, along with other group members, guarded the annual Shia procession so as to avert the attack planned by her son and his friends. Upon seeing their mothers, they left the area without harming anyone. Later, mothers carried out dialogues with their sons and helped them in overcoming their prejudices against Shia. Adil is now one of the most active members of Youth TOLANA and leads the campaign for interfaith and intersectarian harmony, tolerance and social cohesion in Peshawar.

To build influence at the national level, PAIMAN organizes women to conduct advocacy activities such as peace rallies, appear on radio and television talk shows, participate in round-table discussions, and produce and disseminate publications on the impact of violent extremism on women, and on women’s role in addressing it.

RECOGNITION FOR WOMEN'S ROLE IN MITIGATING CONFLICT AND PREVENTING VIOLENT EXTREMISM

The lesson learned is that women can be very effective in transforming conflict and addressing issues of violent extremism, provided that they are economically empowered, are knowledgeable about the issues and have the necessary discussion and negotiation skills.

Women's peace groups such as TOLANA act as agents of change by raising awareness, preventing radicalization, supporting other women, and speaking out and lobbying for the inclusion of women in key peace and security structures and committees, including those that influence laws and policies.

PAIMAN mothers' peace groups contribute immensely to community reconciliation, trauma healing and stabilization during these most difficult and uncertain times in the area because of the trust that they build within their communities. They work with school management committees, teachers and parents in disseminating peace messages and organizing student peace groups in madrassas and schools. 

Notes

1 Bushra Khaliq, "Rising extremism, war on terrorism and women's lives in Pakistan", International Viewpoint, (February 2010).