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Monthly Archives: April 2013

Saving Sons: A woman in Pakistan dares to convince & bring young radical boys back home, with their mothers’ help

Published in Chime for Change:

For complete video and story

The landscape appears strangely rugged, despite its lush green meadows and mountain ranges topped with snow. Perhaps this is because the soil of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK), Pakistan’s once pristine Northwestern province, has absorbed too much blood. For its inhabitants, the silence here is merely a lull. Fear lurks behind the striking green eyes of the almost European-looking children here, even as they run to school or play cricket in the streets. They seem much too aware for their young years – aware of words like terrorism, drones, and death. They overhear their mothers talking over cups of sticky sweet tea cooked over wood fires, their conversations fueled by loss and despair.

Nearly every home here has lost one or more male family members to the scourge of violence – the lost are victims, or perpetrators, or sometimes simply suspects who have vanished: either into the abyss of a grave or into nothingness. For those of us who know this part of the world through news snippets, these men are mere statistics. The tragedy of conflict in Pakistan is seldom given a human face by the international media. And the women who mourn these lost men are even more veiled to the world.

Her name is Mossarat Qadeem. She is a daughter of this soil. As the loudspeaker of the mosque near her office summons the faithful to Friday prayers, she respectfully covers her head. In her office, a prayer mat and the Holy Quran sit handy. It is this deep connection with Islamic teachings of peace and the value of human life that has given her the strength to pursue a perilous quest. In her soft, measured voice, she begins her story.
Mossarat has taken on one of the most difficult challenges a peace-builder can ever confront: to convince young radicals in the making to come back home and to embrace life. Her bridge to each of these boys is usually a woman – his mother or his wife or his sister; women reach out to Mossarat because they trust she can help them.

She never envisaged this life. Born of an educated but non-political family from the KPK region, Mossarat majored in Conflict-transformation and Peace building at university. She studied and graduated in the United Kingdom, but realized during her student days that “we were studying conflict-transformation as practiced by other nations, but not tailored to our own cultures.” With her degree, Mossarat should have become an academic in the safe bubble of a university back home. Instead, she was practically thrust into the danger zone. “When conflict began in my own area,” she says, “I realized it was time.”

While working with Internally Displaced Persons in refugee camps, she heard of a woman no one wanted to meet because her son was a terrorist. “Everybody said I shouldn’t, but I felt I must meet her. A colleague agreed to lead me to her house. But he showed me the house from a distance and promptly disappeared.” She entered and found only women. “About ten of them,” she recalls.

Initially, it was Mossarat who was interrogated. But, in the end, the mother of the boy, overwhelmed by pent-up fear and emotion, shared her story: “My son has been taken. People say that he is responsible for killing people with the help of a remote-controlled bomb. But my son is not like that. I know him! He is just 17. Please help me. Save my son.” Once this woman had opened up, the others did too. “My husband’s been taken.” “My father.” “My brother.” The stories were many, each unique, yet all similar.

“If your son is how you say he is, and is not inherently violent, I promise to help you,” Mossarat told the first woman. “At that moment I did not know what I was getting into. I asked to meet her son when he came to visit,” she says.

Months later, on a cold November night at around 11:30 pm, the desperate mother called Mossarat. The son had come. Mossarat wrapped herself tightly in a shawl and set out, traveling through the night, reaching her destination just in time to sit on the floor of that village home and have breakfast with the family.

“This could not have been possible without one-on-one trust building. I had remained in close contact with the mother for months, supporting her all along. This work is about human connection. Only through genuine trust can one convince a mother to introduce me to her son who is wanted,” says Mossarat, a fierce determination underlying the softness of her voice.

Convincing the mother to let her son surrender to security personnel was the first hurdle. “’They will kill him,’ she wailed in fear. I said to her, ‘I give you my word! They will have to kill me before they kill him.’” Once the mother agreed, Mossarat started the process of convincing the boy by having repeated discussions with him about the concept of jihad in Islam. “The base of the problem is the wrong interpretation of religion. You have to counter that with religious reasoning. If you do not have solid knowledge of religion, you can’t do this,” says Mossarat, who has studied Islamic injunctions pertaining to jihad in depth. “Not many people have the courage to have dialogue around this issue. Why are we so afraid to talk about this?”
She then gave the boy time to wholeheartedly understand what she had said. Finally, he called her himself. “I am ready to surrender,” he said.

Mossarat’s next hurdle was to reach an understanding with Pakistani security personnel. She told them she would turn the boy over only under certain conditions. “Do not torture him. Instead, give him time in a rehabilitation facility,” she demanded. He spent months there, being counseled and simultaneously learning skills like masonry and fan repair. “Tell me, the boys I save from the clutches of terrorists, if we do not work on their rehabilitation and sensitization for peace and tolerance, what use is it? Give them opportunities and another chance! The brainwashing has to be countered. We work on prevention and de-radicalization, but their reintegration into society is the toughest part of our work.” She stresses that she can only achieve this with young men not yet hardened beyond redemption.

In Mossarat’s opinion, no militant can be won back to the fold unless he is first acknowledged as a human being. Understanding where the boys are coming from is a critical part of her job. “They are hungry for recognition and respect,” she says.

This empathetic and humane approach comes easily to Mossarat because she herself is a woman and her way to these men is through the women in their lives. “You have to make the women understand the impact of terrorism on their personal life and the life of their family and community. It’s tough to develop critical thinking in these women who have been brought up in a patriarchal environment,” she says.

Life is difficult for the women of KPK. A lack of security has made things worse. Schools are often closed due to unrest. Those that are open, the girls’ schools in particular, live in perpetual fear of attack. Countless stories like that of Malala Yousufzai, perhaps the most famous daughter of KPK, wait to be told. So many homes no longer have male members older than 13, and have thus lost their breadwinners in a culture where women are often unable to go out to earn a living. Their men have either been lured into a ‘holy war’, or have been killed. Some have died because they chose to fight, others simply because they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time – a market or a wedding or a school, rocked by a bomb blast.

Poverty, cultural conditioning and social inequity leave young men and boys little choice but to take up arms. And while men are braving it out, women are braving it in, trying to keep radicalization from consuming their most precious possessions: their men.

“Part of my aim is to develop these women’s critical thinking so that they start noticing the changes in their son or husband,” Mossarat says. “If they’re aware, they will notice the sudden presence of a cell phone when the family cannot afford to spend 500 rupees ($5) a day on food. She will notice that her husband now has 25 new friends frequenting their home. She’ll notice the changes in attitude and conversation and priorities. But if she is in her usual slumber-like state she won’t know. She is not conditioned to.”

In rare cases – like that of a 21-year old boy who, thanks to Mossarat’s efforts, has completed his Bachelor’s degree and is working in a private firm – it is the mother who must be convinced. “This boy attended one of our training sessions with a hidden agenda to relay inside information to his mentors in the extremists’ network. However, he was so moved by the message of peace and the rationale behind the message that he came around,” says Mossarat. But it took months to overcome the resistance of the mother, who initially blamed Mossarat for converting her son into an “infidel”.

Mossarat has saved almost 80 boys thus far. She has also trained many mothers who are now working as peace practitioners at the grassroots level. But the journey has not been easy. There are nights she lies awake, traumatized by memories. “Particularly difficult is the part when the boys finally are ready to speak, to share, after a few months in rehabilitation. They burst out! They cry, they yell, they scream! They are uncontrollable. In many cases, they have withdrawal symptoms because they have been drugged,” she says.

Mossarat also has to walk a fine line between gaining support for her work and maintaining the privacy it requires. But her priorities remain clear: “I don’t want to romanticize my work by giving interviews and becoming a celebrity. I just need to do this. This mess of 30 years cannot be cleaned up in a day,” she says. “Conflict is about humans. It’s never about weapons. It has nothing to do with ideology or religion.”

Mossarat believes what is happening in Pakistan is too abnormal to even be termed a conflict in its strictest sense. “Innocent people are being hijacked. Those are the ones I am saving. Enough is enough. How long are we going to be killed by bullets and suicide attacks? Apathy is not an option. And believe me, the solutions are there. We just need to look deep enough.”

** For safety reasons and due to recent events in the region images of Mossarat Qadeem, the mothers and boys do not appear in this story.

The Chosen Child – Adoption in Pakistan: the roadblocks

Published: March 25, 2013

Adoption may also be hard for single fathers as the majority of babies up for adoption are girls and institutions are reluctant to hand over a baby girl to a single male parent. PHOTO: FILE

For single women, setting out to adopt a baby can be doubly difficult

We don’t choose our family, they say. We don’t get to make a choice about the ‘who’ when it comes to flesh and blood — who will be my parent, my sibling, my child. We often also do not choose the ‘when’, especially in the case of children. Often, we become parents at a less than optimal time, a tad bit too young or a wee bit too old. But when we decide to adopt, we are making a careful choice, one that is not without deliberation and careful thinking. Especially for a woman in Pakistani society, as they end up being the ones answering most questions in social gatherings — ranging from why she doesn’t have a child to even more invasive questions about ‘where was the baby adopted from’ if she went ahead with the decision to adopt. Thus couples and even single men and women have a hard time deciding to adopt, mostly because of the fear of social reactions.

But for 33-year-old Samra Khwaja* and her husband, it was the best decision of their life. “We decided to adopt a baby five years after we got married; we had been trying for a child for more than three years at that point,” says Samra, smiling as her 17-month-old adopted daughter Anaya plays with her hair and face while we talk. But in a society that is certainly baby-friendly but predominantly not adoption-friendly, it was a decision they had to carefully weigh.

“My husband and I had always wanted to adopt a baby, even if we had had our own biological children. We both were keen to give an orphan child the opportunity to be a part of a loving family. But strangely, when adoption became our only option, we found ourselves a little less certain,” says Samra.

The reservations are justified for a number of reasons. For starters, the law, or a lack thereof, makes adoption a difficult choice.

Legally Mine

“There are currently no laws governing adoption in Pakistan,” says lawyer Mishal Husain. “This does not mean that you cannot adopt a child; what it does mean is that if you do decide to adopt, the only legal relationship you can establish with the child is to become their guardian under The Guardians and Wards Act, 1890. In order to become the child’s guardian, the adoptive parents have to file a petition in court.”

Husain explains that because of this gap in our laws, adoptive parents cannot make birth certificates and B Forms for their adopted children, if they disclose the fact that they are adopted. “Most adoptive parents therefore simply state that the child was born at home when they go to have their birth certificate and B Form made,” says Husain, which explains why a lot of adoptive parents never reveal to the law that the child is adopted.

Tougher For a Single Woman

A few years ago, Zahra Faiz* decided to adopt a baby. She is a single woman who has never been married, but is financially independent and has strong family support. Yet, every orphanage or organisation she went to was discouraging. “They’d usually say, ‘You are young and good-looking. Why don’t you get married and have your own childen?’ My reply would be that that is a personal choice. And some of these people are famous philanthropists who run well-known centres! Their reaction surprised me,” shares Zahra.

After a long wait, she finally got a call from a a very small social welfare organisation that a baby, a couple of days old, was available for adoption. “This child is the best thing that has happened to me,” she says.

Yet, her trial is not over. While the laws of legal guardianship are strict, most couples take advantage of loopholes to avoid long procedural issues and declare the child as their own. As a single woman, Zahra could not do that. The result: her child had no B Form till five years of age and admission into school became an issue. While her own problem may have been solved, Zahra now is actively following the developments and policies regarding registration of adopted children.

Singled Out

For single parents, adoption is doubly difficult. “Institutions dealing with adoption are reluctant to give a child to a single woman for fear that if that woman subsequently marries, she may abandon that child if her new husband is not keen on raising it,” says Husain, and explains that in addition to this, the single mother faces a hard time getting a birth certificate and B Form made for her child. “Having said that, I am aware of single mothers who have successfully adopted babies in Pakistan, had their papers made and are very happy with their decision,” says Husain, confirming that if you want something hard enough, you can find a way.

Adoption may also be hard for single fathers as the majority of babies up for adoption are girls and institutions are reluctant to hand over a baby girl to a single male parent. However, Husain shares an interesting loophole here. “Despite NADRA guidelines indicating otherwise, it is not normally possible to get a birth certificate or B Form made on the basis of your guardianship of the child. The only persons that I am aware of who have succeeded in getting the birth certificate and B Form on the basis of their guardianship are single adoptive mothers and even they have to do a lot of running around.”

Faith Matters

At a certain point, religion does step in. While Islam strongly encourages care and nurturing of orphans and unclaimed children, what it does not allow is giving an adopted child or society the illusion that she is the biological child of the adoptive parents. “In Islam, the persons raising an orphan child are not permitted to give that child the surname of the adoptive father, and the child is not entitled to inherit from them like a blood heir,” says Husain. The adoptive parents, of course, may gift any asset to that child in their lifetime, and leave a share for that child in their will.

“Due to these reasons, there has been a reluctance to draft any laws governing adoption,” says Husain. “In the absence of any laws, adopted children have no legal rights. Pakistan needs to draft comprehensive laws dealing with adoption and the rights of adoptive parents to make birth certificates and B Forms for their adopted children and to fulfill all other parental duties in respect of those children.”

It’s in the Genes

The fear of the unknown genetic and hereditary baggage that comes with a child scares off many people who consider adoption. Samra and her husband had heard many a horrendous story about how tough it can be to handle issues of adopted children “simply because they are from a different gene pool. Because we do not know where they are coming from,” says Samra.

If a biological child makes rash choices in life, it may be just a phase. But if an adopted adolescent indulges in drug usage or promiscuous behaviour, the unknown linage and tendencies are blamed. There is a stigma attached to a shady background with adopted children, partly because we fear the unknown and mostly because of the reasoning that if these children are the ones ‘left behind’ by biological parents, it is assumed that they are illegitimate. It is also then an unsaid assumption that some of the promiscuity of that act has left a genetic residue in the child. Ridiculous as that may sound, many people believe that.

“Once it comes to marriage, adopted children face problems. My adopted daughter, 22, liked a boy, whose family was happy about the prospect of their marriage. But since they have found out that she is adopted, the ‘pata naheen kis ka khoon hai’ dynamic has come into play, and they don’t want their son to marry her anymore,” says Masuma Khan*.

The ‘Looks’ Bazaar

It seems that when children are taken up for adoption, good looks are the currency that is deemed most valuable. Children who are plain-looking have a hard time getting accepted into homes — everyone wants a cherubic angel from the calendar posters.

The problem is exacerbated if the child does not look like the adoptive parents or the adoptive parents are ‘fairer’ or deemed ‘better-looking’ compared to the child. “My (adopted) daughter does not look like me or my husband at all. In addition, while she is such an attractive young woman, she is not the typical gori chittee girl, while I am fair. We have had to face a lot of questions due to this over the years,” shares Masuma.

When to Tell

“I found out I was adopted when I was 12. It shook my foundation and made me doubt everything I have ever believed in. It was my family’s most well-kept secret, I should say,” says Shehla Ali, 39, with a tinge of bitterness. It was during a heated argument that her father ended up blurting it out, saying, “If you were my blood, you would not have misbehaved so much.” Initially, Shehla had thought it was a joke.

It is important to be honest and tell your child about their adoption at a young age so that they can take it in their stride and understand that it is just another way to make a family and nothing to be embarrassed about. Children who accidentally discover that they are adopted at a later age are more likely to deal with it badly than children who know about their adoption from the outset. However, seeking an expert opinion in this regard is recommended.

My Pride, my Joy

Despite the challenges, an adopted child succeeds in filling the emotional void childless couples suffer. “Adopting our baby daughter was one of the best things that we have ever done. She has brought us so much joy and happiness and has won the hearts of the entire family. I don’t even ever remember that she is adopted except when someone asks about her adoption. We feel blessed that God chose us to raise her,” says Samra.

*Names have been changed to protect privacy

Published in The Express Tribune, Ms T, March 24th, 2013.