Pakistani Women Work for Peace
By Mona Shadia
Last week in Irvine, I met real-life superwomen.
They manage to stay under the radar of extremists and have found a magical way to moderate, even eliminate, radicalism in some parts of their communities.
Amn-O-Nisa , or Women for Peace, is an organization made up of professional Pakistani women — lawyers, journalists, teachers — who come from different regions and are working to chip away at radicalism from its roots.
Eleven of the women were in Irvine last week at the home of Anila Ali, founder of the American Muslim Women's Empowerment Council, as part of a tour sponsored by the US Embassy in Pakistan . The women were invited to Irvine by the council and the Irvine Pakistani Parents Assn.
Ali invited me to meet the women after I spoke at the council's second annual conference in Buena Park last month.
The women's visit to the United States included face time with members of Congress and officials from Homeland Security, with whom they shared their mission and expressed dissent for drone attacks — a tactic they said increases radicalism and in turn makes their job more difficult, according to Chairwoman Mossarat Qadeem.
"There was silence and nodding" to the group's concerns about drone attacks, Qadeem said.
Before the group moved on from Washington, DC , to continue its tour, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton requested a meet-and-greet with the members.
Clinton expressed her support and respect for the group's work and mission, Qadeem said.
"Hillary Clinton said, 'I wanted to tell you in person I'm impressed by your mission,'" Qadeem said. "For us, it was quite encouraging."
But it is how they fight radicalism that is truly impressive.
The women use the Qur’an and the Prophet Muhammad's prophetic traditions, called Hadith, to reshape people's understanding of Islam.
They do it by getting the most important figures in the Middle East on their side: the mothers.
Qadeem said the mothers are the ones who suffer the most, and they're the ones who first notice signs of changes in their sons.
"We use the same Qur’anic verses, but with the true interpretation to sensitize them," she said.
It's difficult for some to imagine how the Qur’an and the Hadith can be used to de-radicalize extremists, so I asked the women to give me concrete examples.
"It's simple," Qadeem said. "The first word of the Qur’an is Iqra, meaning 'read.'"
There's also a Hadith where the Prophet commands Muslims, men and women, to seek knowledge and education wherever they are, she said.
It comes down to education and educating young Muslims about the facts of Islam.
"When you look at the Prophet's life, I don't know what has gone wrong with those people who commit violence in the name of Islam," Qadeem said.
The goal is to create a society that's intolerant to violence, a society where an extremist has no harbor.
Qadeem said they keep a low profile and are always careful about their word choice. The women, for example, never use the word peace, but the word tolerance.
Qadeem said a lot of people there don't recognize that extremism is not a normal situation. When you say peace, she said, they tell you they're peaceful.
I was so impressed by the women. I spoke with Huma Chughtai, a lawyer by training, and Naziha Syed Ali, a journalist who produced a documentary on education in the classroom.
Ali said textbooks are often riddled with inaccurate information about Islam in relation to the two other Abrahamic faiths.
It seems like a long road ahead, but to me they are real-life super heroes. Draped in their saris and traditional Pakistani costumes, they walked together with a sense of confidence and humbleness.
This is how a real difference is made — not by force, but by true leaders who are selfless, who are willing to put their lives in danger for the sake of humanity and for the sake of peace.
I was inspired by them, and I couldn't help but feel compelled to always work toward making a positive difference in my community and society. After all, it is what Islam teaches. And I felt proud to be a woman.
(Mona Shadia is a reporter for Times Community News. An Egyptian American, she was born and raised in Cairo and now lives in Orange County. Her column includes various questions and issues facing Muslims in America)