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Pakistani Women Unite to Battle Religious Extremism

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Sameena Imtiaz, a soft-spoken, educated Pakistani social worker, operates in the midst of U.S. drone strikes and Taliban suicide bombings. She regularly travels to remote parts of her country in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province, infamously known for the safe Al-Qadea and Taliban sanctuaries, to promote peace education among the radicalized young seminary students.

While getting inside the obscure world of Pakistan's vast network of religious schools, Sameena meets with young students and engages them into peace conversations and deradicalization endeavors. Hers was a long and tiring struggle to assure the conservative school administrators that she was not an "enemy" but an agent of peace. Soon after acquiring access to the religious schools, Sameena found that many of these schools actually served as the best marketplace for the jihadist organizations to recruit innocent teenagers for suicide bombings.

Children in Pakistan have emerged as an extremely vulnerable target of religious radicalization since the rise of new indigenous extremist groups in the tribal region in the aftermath of the invasion of neighboring Afghanistan in October 2001. While terrorists have trained and used teenagers as suicide bombers, many other students have been exposed to hateful and violent literature. In public schools, where majority of students belong to middle class families, textbooks, prepared under the government's supervision, further poison the minds of adolescents by glorifying war and bloodshed.

"At school, our children are not taught about religions other than Islam. Students study only one chapter about Buddhism in their entire 10-year academic life while there is no description of Hinduism or Christianity at all. We have a lot of stereotyping of other religions and intolerance toward various cultures in the textbooks," informs Sameena. "Several chapters in history and literature books narrate war stories and depict warriors as role models and heroes. This is a very concerning state of affairs for our youth in Pakistan."

Textbooks in Pakistan began to indoctrinate school kids with a radical version of Islam during the time of General Zia-ul-Haq, a military dictator with ultraconservative Islamic beliefs who ruled Pakistan from 1977 to 1988.

After 9/11, she says, the youth in Pakistan remained under tremendous pressure. On the one hand, they and their country and religion were being blamed for terrorism across the world and, on the other hand, extremist groups were voraciously eyeing the youth as a potential subscriber to their terrorist agenda.

"My goal was to engage the Pakistani youth in counter-extremism dialogue and also to reach out to the rest of the world telling them that everyone in Pakistan was not a terrorist," she recalls.

In 2002, Sameena developed a peace education curriculum which introduced inter-faith material and contents that promoted tolerance, coexistence and respect for other religions and cultures.

"At the outset, religious groups termed us as 'western agents' while the decision-makers in the government even did not take us very seriously," she says.

Sameena's campaign eventually compelled the regional government in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province to initiate a review of the textbooks. Nonetheless, the goal is still not fully attained yet. She has to regularly meet with the officials at the Education Department to check the pace of government's progress in the adoption of the peace curriculum.

"We have suggested the government to either introduce the peace curriculum as a separate subject or integrate its contents into the existing course books of social studies, literature and Islamic studies."

Sameena is not a lone woman out to fight religious extremism in her country. She was in fact joined by around 20 educated Pakistani women from assorted fields of life in April 2011 to form a unique anti-extremism coalition called Amn-o-Nisa (Women and Peace). These women work together to moderate extremism in their country.

"Women are a powerful agent of change. During war and conflict, they open the doors of dialogue and peace," says Mossarat Qadeem, the national coordinator of Amn-o-Nisa.

Mossarat, a former instructor at the University of Peshawar, has helped hundreds of extremists, including some potential suicide bombers, reintegrate into the society. She founded and now runs Pakistan's first center for conflict transformation and peace building which has remarkably helped thousands of women and children in her native KP province and the tribal areas.

"Our country changed significantly after 9/11," she says, "people stopped going out to public places because of the widespread fear of suicide bombings. Too much bloodshed has plunged our children into a state of trauma and fear."

Mossarat chose a unique method of normalizing potential suicide bombers: She reached out to their mothers and requested them to arrange meetings with their children who had joined extremist groups.

"Mothers serve as the entry point to the radicalized youth. They are also instrumental in initiating a process of negotiations and transformation with their children," she says.

Mothers of radicalized young boys helped Mossarat to meet their children. She held extensive, and oftentimes exhaustive, sessions with them to learn what motivated them to join extremist outfits. She also found ways to bring them back to normal life.

"In the Pakhtun society, mothers normally do not have the power to stop their children from getting recruited by radical groups but they enjoy overwhelming respect which truly helps in bringing their children back to normal life. A radical boy will only listen to his mother no matter how deeply inclined he is toward violence."

Mossarat's counter-extremism efforts have brought hundreds of youths to normal life. The journey is not over.

In April, the Institute for Inclusive Security brought powerful Pakistani change-makers like Sameena and Mossarat to the United States to engage them with American policy-makers and the media to share their work and experiences.

Miki Jacevic, Vice Chair of the Institute for Inclusive Security, says people in the United States barely hear the tales of these Pakistani women who strive for a change in their country by battling extremism in their daily lives.

"In the U.S. mainstream media, Pakistan is normally portrayed as a troublemaker or in negative terms," he admits, but he emphasizes the significance of the work done by moderate Pakistani women, "engaging 79 men in peace conversation may sound a small number but it simply means averting 79 more suicide bombings."

The alliance of the educated Pakistani women against religious extremism is an extraordinary and heartening development in a country where women face stringent restrictions and enjoy minimal freedom of choice.

Sameena Imtiaz, who developed the peace education curriculum, says Pakistan's problems are internal and the government and the people of her country should understand that no country, including the United States, can change Pakistan but the people of Pakistan themselves.

"Reforming Pakistan is not America's problem but ours. We have to take ownership and responsibility to change our country."

The views expressed in his article are personal and do not reflect the policy of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) where the writer is currently a Regan-Fascell Democracy Fellow.