Maryam Bibi talked with Alasdair Soussi
A chief executive of a women’s charity is not usually what springs to mind when one considers dangerous professions. But when that profession is based in one of the most violent and volatile cities in the world, the dangers are all too real. Peshawar, the capital of Pakistan’s restive North West Frontier Province (NWFP), has hovered on the brink of war for 30 years. It’s been home to Maryam Bibi and her organization, Khwendo Kor (KK), since 1993. For Bibi, the threat of death is a daily occurrence in this socially conservative city which borders the militant Khyber region and is only an hour’s drive away from war-torn Afghanistan.
‘It is very dangerous here and our work is badly affected,’ says Bibi, speaking from her home in Peshawar. ‘Our offices have been attacked, our staff have been kidnapped, but 90 per cent of the people here want development and demand our work; only 5 to 10 per cent are miscreants.’
By work, Bibi means her long-standing commitment to empower women through education, better healthcare and job creation. Khwendo Kor – meaning Sister’s Home in the local language, Pashto – has been active in the NWFP for the past 17 years, and was established ‘so women themselves could take the initiative’ in Pakistan’s rural and notoriously hostile tribal communities.
‘I established this organization to highlight women’s issues, so we could take ownership of our own identity’
‘I come from Waziristan and I know the situation of women there. I was lucky to get exposure to education – and the credit for that goes to my father, who was courageous enough to educate his daughters – but even being educated I understood how difficult it was to think for yourself as a tribal woman. I wasn’t trying to do anything outside of my religion; I simply wanted to work. I didn’t want to have to be dependent on others just because my husband was not well. When he died I wanted to do things for myself. When I found I was not allowed, culturally, I was shocked. Then, when I came to know other women, I was further shocked – I saw how they were much poorer, not educated. It was then that I decided that I would do something for women. I established this organization to highlight women’s issues, so we could take ownership of our own identity.’
Reaching out to more remote areas of Pakistan has been challenging, but the organization has established a strong reputation for tailoring projects to the specific needs of a given community.
‘We always work in partnership and in collaboration with the communities,’ says Bibi. She stresses that it’s critical to get the men and village leaders on board. ‘We select an area where, for instance, there is no girls’ education or girls’ school. Or where the government school is dysfunctional, preventing girls from attending. We then assess whether the people are ready to take an active role in change, and not just act as recipients. But creating schools is not just for education: it is also a tool for mobilizing the community and mobilizing women, because women in the villages don’t have forums like men who have mosques and other meeting places.’
As well as community-based education for women and girls (KK has helped train some 250 women teachers), the organization’s other main concerns – social organization, primary healthcare, women’s micro-enterprise , human and institutional development and advocacy – have all yielded positive results in Pakistan’s remote areas. For instance, KK has trained nearly 1,000 traditional birth attendants and given some 130,000 people increased access to health facilities through the creation of 114 medical camps. Such has been KK’s success that staff numbers have swelled from 4 in 1993 to more than 340 today. Offices have sprung up across the North West Frontier and the organization can even boast a British branch, the UK Friends of Khwendo Kor (FROK) in York.
But violent attacks and kidnappings, carried out by Islamist extremist groups who bitterly oppose women’s rights, have plagued KK (and its educational efforts in particular) since its inception, and have forced Bibi to stop working late in the office.
‘There are those in the remote areas that have a different agenda,’ she explains. ‘They want to create problems, but our approach is very rooted in the people in the villages… and having local people working with you is very helpful.’
In 2005, Bibi was one of ‘1,000 Women’ collectively nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Though she and her colleagues were ultimately unsuccessful, her own nomination was victory enough and vindicated what has been a long and often turbulent campaign for women’s rights in Pakistan’s rural communities.
‘When you want to do something positive and you want to bring change, and you get opposition, you don’t understand it. So many times we’ve questioned ourselves. But when you’re nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, you suddenly realize that you’ve not done anything wrong! It gave us confidence and encouragement and I personally felt very good about it. Despite the setbacks and the problems we have survived.’