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The Covert Project to Help Mothers Push Back Against the Taliban

As part of our series “Women and Jihad,” we look at how one charity in Pakistan’s Swat Valley worked undercover with mothers of young Taliban recruits to help them spot signs of radicalization and find ways to intervene before their sons carried out acts of violence.

Written by Flora Bagenal Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Under the cover of jobs training, the Paiman Trust taught mothers in Pakistan’s Swat Valley how to subtly and effectively counter the extremist doctrine the Taliban was using to recruit their sons. AP/Mohammad Sajjad

Mossarat Qadeem spent 14 years teaching political science at the University of Peshawar before founding the Paiman Alumni Trust, a nonprofit that promotes the sociopolitical and economic empowerment of marginalized Pakistanis. As she watched her home province in northern Pakistan become a stronghold for the Taliban, Qadeem realized women in the region were unwilling or unable to stop their young sons being recruited into the group.

Under the pretext of offering these women livelihood skills, the Paiman Trust launched a project to help mothers identify signs of radicalization at home. Through discussion and storytelling, the women developed the critical thinking skills they needed to challenge the violent doctrine spread by Taliban leaders, empowering them to intervene before their children became fighters or suicide bombers.

Thanks to the success of the project, which Qadeem estimates may have reached over 65,000 people by the time it ended, she is now internationally recognized as an authority on community empowerment, peace-building and deradicalization.

Qadeem spoke to Women & Girls about how the Paiman Trust managed to infiltrate one of the most closed-off and conservative regions in the country to access women on the front lines of the war against the Taliban.

Women & Girls: When did you first identify a need for this work?

Mossarat Qadeem: I became interested in this subject at the end of 2008 and the beginning of 2009, when the Taliban started becoming very strong in the Swat Valley. All of a sudden there were a lot of young boys becoming radicalized and joining the extremist forces. During this time, I came across some of the women in the area who all claimed their sons were innocent. I realized that these women needed to be educated on what was happening in their community. I wanted to empower them to be able to challenge extremist beliefs.

Women & Girls: How easy was it to start working with these women?

Qadeem: It was very difficult work. We’re talking about an area that is highly conservative, where no one imagines women will leave the house unless it is for health reasons or a special occasion like a wedding ceremony.

We knew the first thing we had to do was engage the community elders in a dialogue and win their confidence. We didn’t tell them the women were mothers of extremists and we had plans to educate them. Once we had gained the trust of the community and the husbands, we were finally able to speak to the women themselves.

Ten women came to the first few sessions at our offices. They came to us for a few hours a day and we made sure the time didn’t conflict with their other domestic obligations. We wanted to teach them simple skills they could use to earn money, for example, making patties or raising bees. The women quickly saw they could earn at least $4 a day, which is quite a huge sum in Pakistan.

Within a few weeks, the 10 women had recruited 20 more and the project grew and grew. When we built up enough trust with the livelihood training, we gradually also started talking to the women about extremism. We talked about how violent extremism is harmful and under which circumstances jihad is acceptable. We would also talk to them about indicators that suggest their relatives are involved. The women started to open up to each other and share stories. There was no need for us to do anything specific. We would let them tell the stories and then we would give advice on what to do in that situation.

Women & Girls: What kinds of stories did these women tell?

Qadeem: Mostly they would say, “My son comes home really late,” or “He gets really angry.” These are common indicators a child is getting close to extremists. They also reported that their sons would start criticizing their sisters for going to school and tell the family off for watching television or listening to music.

Women & Girls: What did you tell the women to do when this happened?

Qadeem: We would tell them not to get angry with their sons, but instead to get them to sit down and to start a conversation. It is common for mothers in this region not to speak to their husbands and their sons at all because often they don’t have time with all their domestic duties. But we said to them, “If you want to bring your son back and reverse what is happening, you must make time.”

Women & Girls: What kind of impact did the project have?

Qadeem: This is very hard to measure, but I would say we helped around 700 women. We also worked with around 1,270 youths and prevented them from becoming extremists. Besides that, there have been thousands of women and youths working for NGOs or other organizations who we have trained to deal with issues of violent extremism. So our total number goes into around 65,000 people.

Women & Girls: Could women be the key to changing the outcome of places susceptible to violent extremism?

Qadeem: It’s not only mothers who can recognize the signs of extremism. Any woman, whether she is the mother, the teacher, the activist or the reformer should play a role.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

This story is part of our special series “Women and Jihad.”

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