Much to My Surprise, a Warm Welcome for Pakistani Women Moderating Extremism

   •    May 14, 2012

A group of Pakistani women sitting around a table

Sarah Chatellier (sitting in the back right-hand corner) observing the delegation’s meeting with Sen. Barbara Boxer. (Inclusive Security / Swanee Hunt)

During the weeks I spent preparing to bring a delegation of 12 women from Pakistan to the US to talk about one of Washington’s hottest issues—extremism—I couldn’t help but be filled with a slight sense of dread.

Let’s be frank; relations between the US and Pakistan are far from ideal.

Gallup survey done last year shows America’s perception of Pakistan has sunk to a new low. Bellicose Congressional rhetoric has called for the cutting off of all aid to a country still very much in need of development assistance over concerns about its willingness and ability to combat terrorism.

While the US has provided some $13.3 billion in security assistance and $6.5 billion in economic aid to Pakistan [PDF] over the past decade, recent developments in our relations have many Americans—especially those in Washington with control of the purse strings—wondering where and how this money is being spent, and to what end.

However, because US media coverage of Pakistan overwhelmingly focuses on the country’s links to terrorists, most Western audiences have little understanding of and empathy for the majority of Pakistan’s vastly moderate populace whose lives, homes, and communities have been disrupted or destroyed by extremist violence.

Rarely do stories highlight how deeply most Pakistanis want peace for themselves and others and how much they are striving to secure it. So why not bring women on the front lines of Pakistan’s conflicts to Washington, DC, to share their stories, bridge divides, and begin to rebuild our fragile relationship? With support from the US Embassy in Islamabad and Meridian International Center, we did.

But, how would US officials engage with Pakistanis around an issue that has caused the near collapse of our increasingly fraught alliance? Given the current state of affairs, I envisioned confrontation and hostility rather than constructive dialogue.

[See also: 12 Influential Pakistani Women Leaders You Should Know]

Rep. Schakowsky meets with Pakistani Women

Behind the scenes at a meeting with Rep. Jan Schakowsky and women from the Pakistan delegation. This was one of 15 meetings we arranged between the women and US policymakers. (Inclusive Security / Travis Wheeler)

In April, I had the privilege of spending a whirlwind week with 12 members of Amn-o-Nisa, a coalition of women leaders who are mobilizing against extremism in Pakistan, as they painted the town red. Over the course of five days, the group of journalists, educators, lawyers, and civil society activists had 15 meetings at the State Dept., USAID, and Congress (including with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Leader Nancy Pelosi) and two large-scale events, where they sat face to face with prominent DC policymakers to talk about efforts they’re undertaking to moderate extremism in their communities and propose solutions for how the US can better support and implement initiatives to counter radicalization in Pakistan.

As Bushra Hyder, a peace educator who founded her own school in the conflict-riddled region of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa explained: “Most Pakistanis are like you and me. We want our children to be able to walk to school and go to the market without fear of bomb blasts…The extremists are a very small group of people; most Pakistanis want peace. But, we need to change how we are doing things to stop the growing trend of extremism. If nothing changes, it will only get worse.”

To my pleasant surprise, the exchanges were anything but confrontational. The delegation was resoundingly met with enthusiasm and even awe. (Their jam-packed schedule was an indication in and of itself of how thirsty US policymakers are for new solutions to countering violent extremism.) Not once did Osama bin Laden come up; on the few occasions when delegates mentioned drones, I saw officials nod empathetically. Better yet, virtually every official acknowledged the women’s courage and touted the importance of supporting their efforts and policy recommendations. Not only were they seen, they were heard.

Qamar-ul Huda, senior program officer in the Religion and Peacemaking Center at USIP, hailed them as “powerful women doing powerful stuff,” noting their unique ability to “creatively rethink relationships” in order to pave a new path for Pakistan’s future. Secretary Clinton noted that Pakistani women are key to building a safe future for their country.

[See also: Pakistani Women Leaders Propose Solutions for US Foreign Policy to Help End Extremist Violence]

In the upcoming weeks and months, Inclusive Security will continue to work with Amn-o-Nisa and the offices they met with to ensure the delegation’s recommendations are implemented. In the meantime, I hope those they encountered will remember the human side of Pakistan’s conflicts.

Despite what we see in the news, Pakistani women and men are daily risking their lives to promote peace and make their country a safer place for their children and generations to come. But, they can only do so with our continued support, encouragement, and allegiance.

Sarah Chatellier is a program associate and researcher at The Institute for Inclusive Security. She helps coordinate Amn-o-Nisa, a coalition of women leaders working to moderate extremism in Pakistan.

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