Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Shobhaa De in conversation with Edit Schlaffer about SAVE's mission

During SAVE Global's recent trip to India, Edit Schlaffer talked to Shobhaa De, Indian author and journalist, about SAVE's mission. Shobhaa De has written 13 books and her columns in Bombay Times, the Sunday Times and The Week reach 10 million readers. The following article was published in the most recent edition of The Week and on Shobhaa De's blog

 Shobhaa De, renowned Indian journalist and author, spoke to Edit Schlaffer

Edit Schlaffer means business! It was easy to tell as much when she strode into my home late one afternoon. Her stride and voice indicated she was someone who was determinedly focused on issues that concern her deeply – her organization - SAVE (Sisters Against Violent Extremism) - reflects that unflinching commitment. Accompanying the Austrian lady was a beautiful assistant called Elaine. Both were unambiguously “ Ladies With a Mission” . After an hour long chat, I got a better understanding of their extraordinary mission.

Often, it is personal tragedy that ignites such fervour. She talked about empowering and inspiring women to stand up against violent extremism. She mentioned how society could transform itself if women were consulted on policy. She asked me several difficult and perplexing questions that demanded a great deal of introspection (“ What solutions can women offer to combat terrorism?”). As we chatted – easily and naturally – I began to understand her concerns better . Edit travels around the world meeting women who have suffered at the hands of violent men representing special interest groups of all hues, religious and political. The stories of those battered women are what she wants to highlight and eventually find peaceful resolutions to. She points out, “ Violent extremism is not a distant, abstract threat. Acts of terrorism could happen at your grocery store, your bus, your plane….” Scarey! But it is important to move beyond victimhood, her brochure states. “ For too long, in too many places, the potential of women to make meaningful change has been ignored and overlooked – this is a grave mistake.” Hear! Hear! She also stresses on reconciliation and dialogue, pointing out that “without the knowledge of the other, how will we ever live together?” She believes that without genuine contact and communication, the process of healing and moving forward remains incomplete.

The response mechanisms she recommends involve alternatives that reach out to young men and women who feel frustrated, confused and isolated in societies without adequate support systems. She talked about providing women with the required tools for critical debate to challenge extremist ideologies. As she points out, women are at the heart of the family. They are the first to recognize signs of anger in their children.Change starts in the home…. change starts with women. As she continued talking passionately about her work, I was moved to note her level of intensity as she described meeting the mother of the sole terrorist in custody after the 9\11 attacks in New York. At a conference in Vienna earlier this year, 15 courageous women from Yemen, Pakistan, India, Israel, Palestine, Northern Ireland, came together to share their experiences and work towards a safer future.

The thinking behind Edit’s remarkable initiative is pretty simple : “ Women can transform society by sensitizing and mobilizing their own children susceptible to or already trapped by ideologies of violent extremism.” She has successfully launched ‘Mothers for Change’, a world wide campaign to involve women who can ensure safety and security in their immediate surroundings…. and act as an early warning system.Representing India is Vinita Kamte, the outspoken, fearless widow of the legendary Police Commissioner Ashok Kamte, who was killed during the Mumbai Terrorist Attacks on 26\11. From Hatred to Hope, is the apt heading for this segment that chronicles the efforts of women like Vinita, lone voices in a hostile environment, struggling to be heard. Despite the odds, these extraordinary women are managing to push for reform and change, no matter how daunting the task. There are several other ‘Vinitas’ across the world, most of them linked by a single common factor – the loss of a loved one at the hands of senseless terrorists. Tragedy is the ultimate leveler. But Edit’s tireless efforts are about the triumph of the human spirit … she wants to change the world, and fervently believes that her organization - ‘Women Without Borders’ - will emerge as the most effective agent of that change.

How right she is!

Correction: In the original article, Shobhaa De mentioned that Edit Schlaffer had lost her son. This is not the case. This is a confusion with the stories of Phyllis Rodriguez and Aicha El-Wafi, which were also mentioned in the conversation.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Flash Points: Edit Schlaffer presents SAVE in an interview with CBS

SAVE Executive Director Dr Edit Schlaffer talks with CBS News senior national security analyst Juan Zarate  about the importance of reaching out to young women in an effort to stop extremism globally. Sorry for the adverts at the beginning - the video starts after about 30 seconds!

Monday, December 13, 2010

MOSSARAT QADEEM: A great commonality flows between our countries

 Demolish the temple, demolish the Mosque,
Demolish all that can be demolished,
But do not injure the heart of people,
for that is where God resides.

This is the lesson that we, the women of Pakistan and India, have taken back with us from our dialogue organized by Save Global in Mumbai in November 2010. Save Global gave us the opportunity to listen to each other’s grief , share our concerns, develop understanding of each other’s pressing issues of insecurity, violence and poverty, connect with each other as good neighbors and not as enemies, feel each other as human, and build bridges of sisterhood on the basis of commonalities. Based on natural, historical and cultural factors, a great commonality flows between two important countries of South Asia, which one would imagine should be used for greater cooperation and hence progress and development.

It was the first time that the impact of extremism on women from both sides was shared. It also gave us the opportunity to tell everyone how this war on terror has affected the state and nation of Pakistan in myriad ways. It is we the people of Pakistan that are facing suicide attacks; it is our children who have been psychologically affected; it is our youth who have become the victims; and it is our women who have to bear the brunt. It is through such sisterly forums that we can share our insights, sufferings and feelings. SAVE Global provided us an environment to break down our misperceptions, distrust, and doubts towards each other and develop a common vision of peace and sisterhood for the Sub-continent. We believe that it is through such interactions at different levels that misperceptions regarding each other can be addressed.

We also realized that women have been totally ignored in peace negotiations or talks between Pakistan and India. It is high time that women are included in all peace talks between the two countries. 

In closing I would like to say:

Amongst the values held in special esteem in Pakistan and India are respect for the human personality, recognition of the primacy of spirit, the importance of religion in life, faith in the unity of mankind, the kinship of all religions, and devotion to peace and creative work.

To preserve these values and eradicate some of the suicidal conflicts of the 21st Century it is necessary to rewrite history on rational and human lines, to link politics with morality, to subordinate the idea of fanaticism to the concept of human brotherhood and unity, and to develop an active appreciation for the cultures, religions and attitudes of other people.

SAVE Global gave us the opportunity to rebuild bridges of sisterhood and friendship in the region.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Much more to Yemen than what we see in the news

Yemen is often portrayed by the news media as a failed state and terrorist haven. Alice Hackmann, who recently returned from two years in Yemen as a reporter for the Yemen Times, tells the other side of the story.

First published in Common Ground News Service. Photos by Women without Borders / SAVE.

 The beautiful architecture of Sana'a, Yemen's capital city

The British media’s focus on a young British Muslim woman who stabbed a British Member of Parliament last month once again shines a gloomy spotlight on Yemen. According to The Guardian, Roshonara Choudhry, a 21-year-old student who stabbed the politician for supporting the war in Iraq, told the police: "I've been listening to lectures by Anwar al-Awlaki.... He's an Islamic scholar. He lives in Yemen."

As the media concentrates on al-Awlaki’s online sermons, his role in the launch of Al Qaeda’s new magazine, and the Yemeni government’s ongoing battle against Al Qaeda, the real Yemen has been drowned out. Yet it is this narrative – that of the vast majority of the population, not of a few hundred militants – that holds the key to better understanding, breaking stereotypes and perhaps ultimately less extremism.

Inside a coffee shop, near King’s Cross station in central London, British-born Yemeni Abubakr al-Shamahi, 21, sips his hot chocolate and talks passionately about his home country. Not once does he talk about extremism. Instead, he talks of corruption and his fear that donors’ money is not properly spent on long-term development, he laughs at Yemeni parents’ matchmaking, and he raves about the beauty of the old city of Sana’a. No one he knows has been influenced at all by the radical sermons of al-Awlaki.

This is the real Yemen. It is not al-Awlaki’s falsified narrative of a West-hating, militant-training Yemen. It is a country of over 22 million people – over 70 per cent of whom are under the age of 25 – struggling for development and the privilege to join the World Trade Organization. On Facebook, this is what the English-speaking youth in Yemen are telling the world. A Yemeni-Canadian, Issmat Alakhali, 32, attracted over 4,500 users to his page, “I know someone in Yemen and he/she is not a terrorist!” which he launched in January. More recently, Atiaf A., another young Yemeni, started a video project called “I’m Yemeni, I’m not a terrorist”.

And yet, in an interview last May, Al-Awlaki said that he enjoyed free movement among the tribes of Yemen because “the people of Yemen hate Americans.” This is not true. Most young Yemenis learn English because, apart from it being the international language of business, they also dream of emigrating to the United States or Europe to study or to work.
For the average young Yemeni, daily grievances are far more important than politics. Graduates hope to find a job. Young men struggle to accumulate enough jobs to be able to get married. New couples battle with price hikes. Nearly half of the population lives on less than two dollars a day and social development indicators – such as child malnutrition, maternal mortality and educational attainment – remain extremely poor, according to the UN’s World Food Program.

Yemeni children

In the north of the country, hundreds of thousands of Yemenis have been displaced by six rounds of war between the government and the Houthi rebels. In the south, a growing secessionist movement threatens the unity of the country, while each month thousands of refugees, asylum seekers and economic migrants arrive on the coast from the Horn of Africa. Nationwide, the next generation will struggle for water to drink as the country’s population continues to increase and its already depleted aquifers rapidly run dry.

Instead of focusing always on Al Qaeda, the international media should highlight the efforts of youth-led initiatives such as Resonate! Yemen, Me for My country, Ayoon Shabah (Arabic for “youth’s eyes”) and the Yemeni Children’s Parliament to tackle some of the country’s other issues. They should profile social entrepreneurs like Hayat al-Hibshi who set up the Assada Women’s Association to help girls from marginalised poor communities go to school.

The media should also highlight positive exchanges between the Muslim communities of Britain and Yemen, such as the British-Somali charity that helped to set up a day care centre for young refugee mothers in Sana’a earlier this year.

More media focus on positive community-led change in Yemen, instead of terrorism, would counter negative stereotypes of both Yemenis and Muslims in the West. The effect would be more respect for Muslims in the West, less feelings of alienation or anger among their children and, perhaps, less reason to listen to a radical preacher in the first place.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

SAVE Dialogue--Political Conflict Resolution Starts at Home!

For talks between two countries that have a long history of struggle and discord to make an impact on the ground, the recommendations that come out of the talks must resonate with the people who are directly impacted by the effects of the struggle. As representatives of civil society who are located at the critical juncture of family and community, women are best-placed to implement strategic recommendations on the ground. At the same time, women must necessarily be included in such talks to highlight real examples of the commitment to ending violent extremism on the global stage.

On November 28 and 29, SAVE Global hosted a ground-breaking dialogue between Indian and Pakistani representatives in Mumbai, India. These activists, academics, experts, terrorist attack victims, corporate sector representatives, and mothers came forward to participate in intense discussions and to make clear their commitment to reducing the enduring tensions between India and Pakistan. The talks were unique in two key aspects: first, the participants represented a wide range of fields beyond the political realm, and secondly, they were all women. This SAVE dialogue aimed to highlight women’s and victims’ experiences with violent extremism, and to provide space for their recommendations and best practices for combating radicalism.

On the first day of the dialogue, the Pakistani delegation and select Indian counterparts identified false stereotypes and misperceptions of ‘the other’ as one of the main causes of discord between the countries. They therefore carved out strategies for promoting exchange between key groups and deepening cultural and academic understanding of their counterparts. That afternoon, the participants walked the ‘terror trail,’ visiting the sites of the 26/11 terror attacks. As Shabana Fayyaz, an academic from Pakistan, noted, ‘Being here has helped me to internalize the attacks, and to understand how it must have been here.’ On the second day, over 20 individuals participated in the day-long talks; by the end, the group had come up with the following suggestions:

1. SAVE India and SAVE Pakistan representatives should gather in Lucknow to develop a multi-tiered manual on how to change perceptions of ‚the other‘

2. Increase School/Students Exchanges; implement a Big Sister / Little Sister program

3. Launch ‘This is Me, Who are You?’ programs to learn about the other

4. Continued, regular dialogue; next meeting to be held in Pakistan

5. Develop module to train women how to talk about these issues—remove topical taboos

6. Engage in media work to reduce mistrust

7. Create a network of witnesses of violent extremism to educate the young generation

8. Conduct pilot projects in both India and Pakistan, and then bring together a select number of women from each side to share best practices

These recommendations will be implemented on both sides and monitored by SAVE Global over the coming months.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

ARSHI SALEEM HASHMI: There is no "them" there is only "us" - women of Pakistan and India share their stories

SAVE Global organized a workshop in Mumbai on Nov 28-29 to provide a platform for women’s voices from both India and Pakistan rejecting the stereotypes about  each other and sharing the pain and sorrow that victims of terrorism in general, and women in particular, feel. Arshi Saleem Hashmi describes the benefits that both Pakistani and Indian women derived from the dialogue.

Arshi Saleem Hashmi, member of SAVE Pakistan, took part in the bridge-building dialogue

SAVE Global's bridge-building dialogue facilitated an emotional bonding between the victims of terrorism and religious extremism in India and their sisters in Pakistan who are suffering almost daily from the impact of violent extremism in many forms. It was made even more emotional and deep by the vulnerability of the women in Pakistan caused by feudal-religious orthodoxy.

Pakistani women from the nongovernmental sector, research and academia accepted the invitation and opened their hearts and minds to hear and feel the pain of their sisters in India. More than once, it occurred to SAVE Pakistan members that, despite the popular perception that the dialogue was in the context of “us” versus “them”, there was no “them” - it was all about “us”, the women of both India and Pakistan. We not only share a border, we share our feelings, emotions, pain, happiness and success.

It was heartening to see and hear Indian women victims of terrorism tell their stories; it was as if they were our own stories, using the same expressions, and voicing the same concerns and fears. It was decided that we must strengthen the bond and continue to build on the commonalities rather than discussing or highlighting differences. If it is all about perceptions, then perceptions can be changed in good faith.

Talking to Indian media was a great opportunity to let the people of India know that, despite the fact that Pakistan has become hostage to violent religious extremism, the majority of Pakistanis strongly believe in a moderate, prosperous Pakistan continuous with their South Asian identity. They would love to have more and more interaction with their eastern neighbor. There is hope that we can achieve this, because of a vibrant civil society that has maintained its existence and remained active in its struggle to save Pakistan from losing its South Asian identity, connection and bond. This civil society gives hope that people on both sides of the border, and especially women, will continue to take initiatives to demystify the myths about each other, and prevent dehumanizing of one another.

SAVE Pakistan strongly believes in this commitment to peace between the two countries, a goal that was expressed in the joint statement and future steps that we would be taking.

SAVE India provided this opportunity and arranged our meeting with the victims of terrorism, Indian media and civil society activists, teachers and researchers. It was a very positive initiative in an environment suffering from a trust deficit between the two countries. A step has been taken in the right direction, all we have to do is to sustain it, follow it and strengthen it. 

ARCHANA KAPOOR: Building on commonalities of culture, cricket and concerns - a bridge-building dialogue between Indian and Pakistani delegates

In November, SAVE Global traveled to Mumbai to conduct an income-generating workshop and a bridge-building dialogue between Indian and Pakistani representatives. Archana Kapoor, president of SAVE India, describes the projects and the impact that SAVE is making on the search for a peaceful solution to the India-Pakistan conflict.

Delegates from Pakistan and India came together in Mumbai for a 
groundbreaking bridge-building dialogue

The Pakistani delegation comprising civil society members, academics and a victim of terrorism had arrived. It was great to see them. We at SAVE India had been constantly worried that they would not get clearance until they finally joined us in Mumbai on November 29.

As the first step towards a meaningful dialogue, we assured the delegates that we were all there to look forwards and find solutions, rather than to rake up issues that were being dealt with at various other levels. For any dialogue, ground rules must be set. The parameters for our dialogue had to be fixed. The sensitivities of each of the participants had to be respected and most importantly, what was discussed had to stay within those four walls until a common consensus had been arrived at. Once this was done everything seemed so simple!

Thus began our two day interaction/dialogue with our neighbors and delegates from across the border. It was important to know what we as women first, and mothers later, could bring to the table and discuss in a forum that was definitely social but could not keep the political out, as the personal is political in the context of India and Pakistan.

SAVE Global provided this opportunity by sponsoring this dialogue and also setting the agenda. With experiences of working with victims of terrorist attacks in US, UK, Spain, Palestine, Israel ,Yemen and many other conflict zones, Dr Edit Schlaffer kicked off the dialogue. It was important for all of us to understand the issues plaguing each side. The problem of Pakistan was indeed different from that of India. They were not only suffering from problems of bad press, stereotyping and labeling as a country that has become the breeding ground of terror but also from the problem of terror attacks on innocents. Be it the SWAT valley, Lahore or Islamabad, the problem in the last few years has been aggravated and it is very difficult to say who is responsible for this. It was interesting to hear the points of view of experts who have worked with victims and who are doing their research on issues like Islamisation of Madrasas, terrorism and its causes, youth and radicalization. One thing that came out strongly was that women have a role to play - on the one hand when they are coping with victimhood and on the other hand they are also propagating terror as either mute spectators or active participants.

Thus the time has come to assimilate their energies, to discuss and debate with them and channel their energies positively. One way is of course to provide them with choices and this can be done by empowering them to access those choices. Income generation and livelihood skills along with life skills seemed a good option for Paiman Foundation, which has trained over 1000 women already and is carrying on these training programs on a large scale.

Families of the policemen on duty during the Mumbai terrorist attacks 
in 2008 discuss the livelihood project

SAVE India did the first pilot of Mothers for Change in April 2010. In a program called ‘Our Stories Our Future’ a 5-day workshop brought out the fears, sorrows and apprehensions of the mothers on one hand and their aspirations, hopes and expectations on the other. The program was a huge success, and it was important to go back with a concrete double program for these mothers who had opened their hearts to the SAVE team. Thus a livelihood program was announced for them. The beauty of the program is that it is a needs-based program that provides them with skills that they feel they need and which they feel would add to their confidence. After a thorough brainstorming session and assurance from the women that they would not back out, a basic computer training program, an accountancy training program and an English speaking course were announced. Vinita Kamte, the driving force of this program has committed her time and energy to see that this program becomes a success. The same Pakistani model will also be followed to provide life skills, including negotiation skills, to the beneficiaries.

It is important to use these income generation activities to create a platform for mothering change in the attitudes and mindset of the women. This could be their chance not only to voice their grievances but also to look at solutions to address their grievances against the extremist activities that their men and boys get into.

Build on commonalities, instead of stressing differences

The stories of those impacted by violent extremism in Pakistan and India were the most heart-rending part of the two-day dialogue. The story of Anjali Chemburkar, who lost her husband in the Trident hotel on 26/11, was very moving. Her spirit and courage despite her personal tragedy was not only inspirational for the women from India but also got a huge round of applause from the Pakistani delegates. In fact it gave others the courage to share their own stories of loss, grief, despair and hope.

The walk along the terror trail was disturbing for all. A comment made by Shabana haunted me last night. She said that ever since she had come to the Taj, she was internalizing what must have gone through the minds of those who were trapped here for more than 60 hours. The walk sent shivers down everyone’s spine. The common refrain among the delegates was, How could anyone ruin the lives of so many innocents? Could this tragedy have been avoided? The silence in the car on the way back itself reflected what was going on in the minds of all the delegates.

It was clear that perceptions about each other had to change. Though a handful of young men had destroyed the peace and tranquility of Mumbai there were millions in both countries who wanted to stretch a hand of friendship across the borders. Schools and universities could play a vital role in breaking stereotypes and changing perceptions. More dialogues and interactions at different levels are needed. Women have to join hands and become a force to be reckoned with.

It is time to build on commonalities of culture, color, cricket and concerns. There was no doubt that there are more reasons to work together and resolve the differences at the earliest stage than there are to allow the rift to continue. The love for Indian cuisine, music and Bollywood was stronger than any political differences.

It is time to break the barriers. It is time for women to lay the foundation for a strong bridge of friendship!!

Flash Points: Edit Schlaffer presents SAVE on CBS