As Mossarat Qadeem tells the story, the big clue came from a simple source: a young woman who noticed her brother spending time with strangers.
It was about one year ago in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, formerly called the North-West Frontier province, when the 25-year-old woman noticed a group of men she did not recognize meeting in the evenings in a house on her street. Several young men from her area were attending these meetings, including her 18-year-old brother. Yet her brother wouldn’t tell her what it was all about. His secrecy sparked her suspicion, said Qadeem, founder and executive director of PAIMAN Alumni Trust, an Islamabad-based non-profit that, among other initiatives, works with mothers in some of the country’s most conflict-ridden areas to de-radicalize their sons. Thus far, she said, her organization has turned 455 individuals away from militancy.
The young woman, a member of a local peace group created by PAIMAN called TOLANA, which means “together” in Pashto, asked her male colleagues to investigate. They went to the meetings themselves and learned that the strangers were trying to lure local boys out of the city and into their radical group. TOLANA members then informed the sister and her parents who took the boy to stay with an aunt who lived elsewhere. Their response prevented him from joining the violent ranks of militants wreaking havoc across Pakistan. All because his sister saw some strangers.
“So it was like an early warning for the community that something strange is taking place here,” said Qadeem, who calls her organization’s model of countering extremism an indigenous one, rooted in the local culture and religious traditions. “They all gathered because of the warning of just one woman.”
Qadeem told her story recently while in Washington, D.C. as part of a four-woman delegation from Pakistan here to seek support from U.S. policymakers for their efforts to increase the role of women in initiatives to counter violent extremism. Joining Qadeem were Huma Chughtai, a gender and police reform specialist, Shaista Pervaiz, who represents Punjab province as a member of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz in the National Assembly and is the general secretary of the Women’s Parliamentary Caucus, and Nuzhat Sadiq, a senator in the Pakistani parliament who also represents Punjab province as a member of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz.
The delegates explained that women are critical in fighting extremism precisely because of Pakistan’s conservative social norms and religious customs. These traditions mean that the genders are often segregated and thus women have access to other women in ways that men do not, like being able to enter private homes where females are present. Women are also often the first to see behavioral changes that can be signs of growing militancy in their family members, male and female alike, and women can be particularly effective in building trust between communities and law enforcement.
Strategically, this focus on women makes perfect sense, said Hedieh Mirahmadi, president of The World Organization for Resource Development and Education and a visiting fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Mirahmadi testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee recently on the topic of women’s role in preventing radicalism.
“They are the first line of defense,” she said, noting that women can help disengage relatives from violence or, through their influence within the family, thwart their descent into violence in the first place. “Countering violent extremism, we believe, it’s a prevention framework. So it’s not just the capture-or-kill focus of counter-terrorism. It’s supposed to be a prevention model. So they are part of that early prevention process.”
In conversations with policymakers including Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the Democratic leader in the House, other members of Congress, and officials from the State Department, the Pentagon, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and the National Security Council, the delegates stressed that they were not asking for money. Rather, they said they wanted to see some of the millions in aid Congress has appropriated for Pakistan allocated specifically to improving women’s roles in the struggle against radicalism. Since 2002, the appropriations have totaled more than $800 million for law enforcement and counter-narcotics alone, according to the Congressional Research Service.
The delegates focused on expanding U.S. support for grass-roots, female-led initiatives against violent extremism, strengthening women’s inclusion in creating Pakistan’s strategic priorities related to internal security, counter-terrorism and negotiations to end violent extremism, and especially the need to increase the recruitment, retention and professionalization of women in the Pakistani police force. To date, congressional appropriations to Pakistan have not prioritized engaging more women in the police, according to a report by the Institute for Inclusive Security, a D.C-based organization that works to increase the participation of women in peace processes and that hosted the women during their week-long visit.
“This is a missing link in our set-up,” said Chughtai, as she prepped with her colleagues before their meeting with Representative Pelosi. “We have women in the police force, but the number is very small, the number is less than 1 percent.”
This oversight is not one Pakistan can afford. Terrorism and insurgency-related violence may have claimed as many as 49,000 lives since 2001, according to Pakistani intelligence reports cited by the Congressional Research Service.
“Extremism and internal security—it all boils down to the fact that police is the first responder,” said Chughtai during a panel discussion with the other delegates at the Atlantic Council last week. Using her background in Sharia and international human rights law, Chughtai has advised individuals and organizations on national and international human rights and women's rights conventions, linking those with Islamic tenets. She thus counters arguments that fuel extremism and promotes peace and interfaith harmony.
Yet without women police officers, female victims of bomb blasts have been left to die because male responders cannot attend to them, thus reducing trust between the community and police. Raids into homes where females are present or searches of women are not possible, and in general, gathering valuable intelligence from women or community members is constrained.
According to Inclusive Security, citing statistics released by the National Police Bureau of Pakistan in 2011, just over 4,000 of the 453,901 members of the police force were women. Only 85 of them served in higher ranks.
Still, Moeed Yusuf, director of the South Asia programs at the United States Institute of Peace, said it’s not the number of women in the police force that matters most. It’s putting them in roles where they can be most effective. This, he said, is in building police and community relations.
“The fundamental thing that you have to do is better law enforcement,” he said, “which, in turn, requires you to have the trust of the society, which means better police-community relations.”
Yusuf explained that women officers excel in these positions by using their networks among mothers, who he said would not go to male police officers, to build trust and identify young people vulnerable to the lure of violent, intolerant ideologies. Such early identification is key, of course, to preventing the spread of extremism.
“There is no other more effective way to actually handle this than that,” he said. “And that’s lacking.”
It is also well known that militant groups already include female members and that other women, especially those left bitter from the loss of a loved one, are vulnerable to recruitment, said Haider Mullick, an adjunct professor at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.
“So I think it makes perfect sense to have more females involved in counter-insurgency,” he said, “especially when we know that a lot of them are already involved in the insurgency side.”
Allison Peters, a policy advisor at Inclusive Security who also leads the organization’s advocacy work on Pakistan and recently spent a week with the women delegates, said there were several reasons why their visit was especially timely. Of particular concern is the drawdown of NATO troops from Afghanistan later this year and what any subsequent security vacuum along the borders will mean for Pakistan. She further highlighted the Pakistani government’s ongoing attempts to negotiate with the Pakistani Taliban, the resumption of the ministerial-level U.S.-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue after a three-year break, the development of Pakistan’s first comprehensive internal security policy, ongoing terrorist attacks, and a new multinational fund announced by the U.S. and Turkey that will provide financial support to locally-led initiatives to combat violent extremism in Pakistan and elsewhere. The delegates stressed that women need to be part of many of these conversations and need to help shape the policies that result.
While it is perhaps too early to know how the women’s recent week of advocacy will turn into action on the ground, Swanee Hunt, founder and chairperson of Inclusive Security, emphasized the importance of their presence, of their voices being heard, and of the chance it brings for change. Pervaiz, the National Assembly member, agreed that having an opportunity as the “stakeholders” to meet in person with decision makers leaves a unique impact.
“It has given a very humane touch to the whole thing,” she said. “When people come into contact, when you share experiences, when you share your thoughts, that makes a lot of difference.”
Hunt, who served as the United States ambassador to Austria from 1993 to 1997, also said that the ways women are fighting back against violent extremism in Pakistan, as part of the police force and without, can be a global model.
“It’s law enforcement but it’s beyond that, it’s what women bring into law enforcement,” she said. “They are disarming extremists with no collateral damage. Unlike a drone attack, which is extremely, extremely expensive, and kills many more innocent than it does the extremists that it’s targeting.
“The basic question is why should we meet murder with murder?” Hunt continued. “When we do that we lose the war and we lose ourselves also, we lose the humanity in ourselves. And that’s what these women understand. So when they go out, someone like Mossarat Qadeem, when she goes out, she is winning back the young men and their mothers. She’s not going out to kill them. So what they’re talking about is transformation. It’s really the most noble form of foreign policy.”