It was 2009 in Peshawar, Pakistan, and Mossarat Qadeem was sitting on the floor of a house with about a dozen young Pakistani men -- some of whom had nearly become suicide bombers. Qadeem's goal: to undo the destructive brainwashing of the al-Qaeda and Taliban teachers who trained them in extremism, in part by asking the students to narrate their life stories.
"We were handling one of the boys, and he just came, put his head here in my lap, and he started crying and weeping," Qadeem recalls. "I was taken aback. It is very unnatural in my country that a man that tall can just sit at your feet and put his head here. [The other men] were all crying with him, and I was looking at him, and thinking, ‘my God.'"
All in a day's work for Qadeem. She's the national coordinator of Aman-o-Nisa, a coalition of Pakistani women that convened in October 2011 to combat violent extremism in Pakistan at the grassroots level. A delegation of 12 women from Aman-o-Nisa, sponsored in part by the Institute for Inclusive Security, recently traveled to Washington, DC to share their work with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other Washington policymakers. The AfPak Channel sat down with three of the women -- Qadeem, the founder of Pakistan's first center for conflict transformation and peacebuilding, Sameena Imtiaz, the founder and executive director of the Peace Education and Development Foundation, and Bushra Hyder, the founder and director of Qadims Lumiere School and College -- while they were in town for a conversation about why so few women work in counterterrorism, and the tactics they use to reverse the violent, extremist mentality.
The interview is condensed and edited below.
Of course, Islamic extremism is a major problem in many other countries besides Pakistan. Why are there so few groups like Aman-o-Nisa, and so few women working to counter extremism?
Bushra Hyder: Most of the women are not even aware that they can play a positive role combating extremism. Secondly, there are security reasons involved. In our part of the country, if a woman goes out and starts getting involved in such activities, she is definitely going to be at risk. Naturally, the males of the household and family would not like their women and females...facing any kind of security threat. That could be the reason, but the fact is the majority of the women are not aware of it.
Sameena Imtiaz: [Women] are also not recognized by men as [people] who could play a very supportive role in combatting extremism in countries such as Pakistan. [In] the security sector in countries like Pakistan, for instance, women are hardly visible. They are not at the dialogue tables, they are not consulted and valued in the policymaking processes that are there.
Mossarat Qadeem: Extremism per se has never been recognized and debated upon in Pakistan as a threat. We feel that there is a foreign hand involved in the incidence of extremism that takes place in Pakistan. And ...we leave it to the government to respond to it. Even the men in the community and society have never thought that they can do something at their level to combat it or to address it. Everyone says it's the responsibility of the government , and they should respond to it because it's a foreign threat - it has nothing to do with Pakistanis, it's not our issue.
Why do Pakistanis see it as a foreign threat? Is it because the extremism in Pakistan isn't homegrown, as it tends to be in Morocco, for example?
MQ: In Pakistan...it's so unobtrusive. It's not obvious that someone is coming and asking the people to become Taliban, to become an extremist, unlike Morocco. That's why this invisible enemy, this invisible hand, is so dangerous, because you don't know who to counter and how to counter.
What are the origins of extremism in Pakistan?
SI: Talibanization and extremism are not new phenomena in Pakistan. We have to go back into the early 80s when many Pakistanis were fighting in the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan. There was a lot of money that was poured into Pakistan to help these militant groups who are now called Taliban and who have become a monster. They have been thriving on foreign aid.
A lot needs to be done to undo what has been done in the past. But what we are expecting from Pakistan at the moment is there should be a magic wand and all this disappears. It [requires a] change of mindset. You have for decades taught young people that they have to fight this fight in the name of Islam. If you have trained young people to become fighters and warriors, you cannot expect them to become mercenaries of peace immediately. You have to work with them...deradicalize the people who already have this mindset now, and to stop the slide of these young people into extremism. You have to provide them other opportunities, you have to open up avenues for alternative work opportunities for them. What do they do if they don't fight? If they don't become militants? Do they have then food to eat, places to sleep in? You have to look at them as human beings and treat them as human beings.
How do you go about trying to transform the mindsets of radicalized youth?
MQ: We use the Quranic verses -- the true interpretation of the Quran, and of course the teachings of the Holy Sunna. We give examples of the Prophet Muhammad. That's the best way to counter radicalization and extremism in Pakistan, because the [verses] have been misquoted and misinterpreted [by extremist trainers]. We use a lot from the history around the world, giving examples of why peace is important.
What are the subjects - or verses - that you bring up the first time you speak to a radicalized young person?
MQ: Before doing all of this, I conducted research [to find out] what tools have been used to transform these youth. I came across certain verses that were misinterpreted and misused -- particular verses about jihad. And I had to take different sources and different interpretations of various religious scholars and accumulate them. I had to actually work with some of the trainers and scholars [who had radicalized the youth] because I wanted to know, what should be my approach?
How did you get these trainers to talk to you? And what did they tell you?
MQ: Two are transformed now. They told me, these are the verses we have been using, these are the tactics we have been using, this is the picture we used to draw for these students. I did it in a very different way. I used the same tactics, but it was real, it's what the Quran says.
What's an example of a verse that has been misinterpreted?
MQ: There is a particular verse in the Surah Maidah that says ‘go out and fight.' But the fighting in that particular verse was misinterpreted. That verse was used in a particular period of time when Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, was living in the state of Medina, and the people wanted to kill every Muslim. So they really had enemies to face - [they] were being killed, and [there was the risk that] Islam would [disappear].
Obviously, you all do very risky work. How often do you feel directly threatened?
SI: All the time. We are working in such a sensitive area. The risk is always there. We have so many times received life-threatening messages. There have been attempts on many of us. So yes, that's part of the game.
Elizabeth Weingarten is an editorial assistant at the New America Foundation.
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