It all started last spring, when a group of Tolana Mothers—community peace groups trained by a local organization called PAIMAN—were doing community work in Pakistan. They were raising awareness about violent extremism, its indicators and impact, when they were discreetly told to meet a certain woman. No further information was given. They went to the woman’s house and they found out she was stitching something that looked quite strange: a waist coat with many pockets. After pressing the matter with her, they learned that she gets orders to stitch such jackets from another woman.
The Tolana Mothers told her that these pockets are used to put explosives in—that these are suicide bombers jackets, that her work was basically helping to kill people. “I don’t mind,” the woman told them, “as I am being paid for it and have nothing to do what they are used for.” The peace group was unable to dissuade her, but they got some information on who places the orders and collects the jackets—and found out that there were 30 other women in the village doing the same work.
The group went on to meet the woman supplying the jackets to the extremist group. They asked her whether she knew what they were used for. “Of course I know,” she told them. “We are all engaged in a jihad. I haven’t told the other women who sew the jackets, but they must know. What other use can these strange jackets be for? I know whom I am supplying, I know what they are being used for and I am putting my bit in the jihad that is being carried out against the infidels.”
That small village, known for its poetry, beauty and progressive ideas, had become a place where voices of violent extremism found resonance. “It was a shock for us,” Mossarat Qadeem, PAIMAN’s director, told Ms., “to know that this particular area could be home to violent extremism ideas.” Qadeem, who had met women in this same line of business before—and managed to work with them until they became members of a Tolana peace group—decided to meet with one of the women who stitched the jackets.
“I invited her and we had a discussion,” Qadeem remembered. “I asked her how much she is being paid for this one jacket. She said a 100 rupees, less than one dollar, so if she stitches five per week, she gets around five dollars, sometimes she would get a little more, and she said that that is enough for her to buy groceries or clothes. So I said, well you are only earning 1,500 rupees per month. Le’s start working on your stitching skills and use it in a positive way. You can still earn money but you won’t live with the regret of using your skill to kill people. You can instead use it to help and support other women, by stitching their dresses, and you will earn even more money. And then we came to the discussion of jihad.”
In Pakistan, the religious texts being used are selective and taken out of context, specifically about jihad. Extremists exploit the fact that Arabic is not the language of the region, and that people are thus left at the mercy of those interpreting the Quran. “Even though we have developed a counter-narrative based on our knowledge of Islam and the prophet’s life, it is very hard to change the common thinking being preached by those who people view as religious scholars or mullahs,” Qadeem explained. “People have internalized these teachings of extremism for a long time.”
There is an additional hurdle: The interpretation of religion is perceived to be the domain of men. “It all gets very complicated,” Qadeem told Ms. “Women do not have an authority on religion, so we use other methods to convince them. Most of all, we use the socio-cultural aspect of Do No Harm, which is inherent in the code of Pashtunwali—the traditional set of ethics governing the Pashtun.”
During this encounter, Qadeem and the Tolana Mothers managed to convince 13 of 30 women stitching suicide bombing jackets to stop. They provided the women with alternative sources of livelihood. They explained to them that going to heaven can be done in many other ways—without being part of a group that kills people. The work is ongoing with the other women.
It was the PAIMAN trained Tolana peace keepers of the community that found these tailors. “They are our eyes and ears in the community,” Qadeem explains, “and without them it would be very difficult to engage more women in our peace programs.”
The impact of engaging women is these areas is huge. “The average family is nine to 10 people,” Qadeem continued, “and when women are educated in peace and have some form of economic empowerment, their entire families are transformed.” The work is also cost effective: For just $2,000 a month, PAIMAN can engage, educate and provide livelihood skills for over 60 women, who will in turn take something home to their families and communities.
“What we do is prevention,” Qadeem said. “Violent extremism has become a way of thinking, a normal way of life. Creating awareness, sensitizing these communities, engaging these women so that they themselves spread the message and take ownership, is essential for preventing violent extremism. It is these women with knowledge and skill that can influence the thinking of their family and community.”