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PAKISTAN: Women Shield Children From Extremism

Mehru Jaffer

VIENNA, Jun 13 2011 (IPS) - When Farah’s 16-year-old son began to disappear for several nights a week without saying where he went, she was naturally worried. After he returned one day and shattered the television screen in their Peshawar home, the mother of three decided it was time to quit her job as a teacher and to find out what was making her youngest child so angry.

To her horror, the schoolteacher – who requested that her real name not be published – discovered that her son was spending time in the company of people belonging to terrorist groups in Pakistan’s Swat Valley where Farah’s family originally comes from. The boy’s newly found friends were teaching him that it is a sin for his mother to leave home to work everyday and for his sister, a medical student, to talk to friends on the phone.

The teenager, whose name is also withheld for security reasons, was made to believe that it is a sin for good Muslims to watch television as it can distort their way of life and religion. He was being groomed to protect Islam – even if it meant with his life.

“This happened two years ago and I still don’t have the entire story from him,” Farah told IPS. Farah was here along with six other mothers from Egypt, Yemen, Nigeria, Israel and Palestine to participate in Mothers MOVE (Mothers Oppose Violent Extremism), a panel presentation hosted by the Vienna-based Women Without Borders (WWB).

“Farah is a perfect example of how educated mothers can act as an early-warning signal to stop radicalisation in its tracks,” Edit Schlaffer, founder and head of WWB told IPS.

Farah agrees that more women must be educated to ensure that they are able to creatively guide their children away from dangerous influences. At present the literacy rate of women in Pakistan is 45 percent, in comparison to 69 percent amongst the male population of the country.

Farah appeared at the open house panel presentation in a veil that revealed little else but her eyes, and she told the audience that she would not reveal her real name as she does not want to attract the attention of those she has successfully stopped from brainwashing her son.

What is common amongst Farah and the other women who also shared their experiences with terrorism is the conviction that the personal is political, and that peace starts at home.

“These women are a glowing example of the potential of mothers to counteract the allure of violent extremism in the family. It is the right and the duty of us women, of us mothers, to be engaged actively in the public arena to ensure the security of the future generation,” Schlaffer said.

Farah was able to save her child by taking the change in his personality seriously – early enough. Her son had turned aggressive and secretive and she wanted to know why. Farah feels that because she is a teacher, because she is an educated mother, she was perhaps better equipped to deal with the problem.

“He fought with me and his sister for not veiling ourselves and for driving a car,” Farah explained. “He objected to us talking to anyone except to female members of the family.”

After discussing with her husband, a medical doctor, both decided to resign from their respective jobs in Peshawar. Their neighbours and friends were told that they were moving abroad.

Farah then moved with her family to another part of the city. Farah and her husband devoted a year to spend time with the teenager – explaining to him what they knew about Islam.

They checked his mobile and discovered that he was called from countless different numbers – when they dialled those same numbers there was no response. To this day the parents don’t know where the child had gone and whom he had met.

Farah told IPS that each time she tries to find out the names of the people he had met and the place he had visited, her son tells her that it is all over, and in the past. He has made it clear to Farah that he does not want to talk about the incident.

After having missed a year of school he is now back in college. That is the good news. The bad news is that he is now introverted and often depressed.

“He likes to write and I encourage him to do so. But he writes the most heart breaking verses that are full of pain and pessimism,” says Farah who prays that like her son has been returned to her, happiness too will return to him one day.

According to the U.N., an estimated 103 million Pakistanis, or 63 percent of the population, are under the age of 25. However due to difficult economic conditions the future of the majority of youth in Pakistan seems bleak.

In Swat the Pakistan Army and Taliban have been fighting for control for over a decade. Militants are forever on the lookout to recruit youngsters like Farah’s son to train them to become suicide bombers.

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