Military strategists as well as political and social analysts all agree that there is a steady, dangerous downward spiral at every level of society. Pakistan is considered a safe haven for Taliban insurgents, and the country's nuclear capabilities are great cause for concern. Corruption is prevalent; rule of law is the exception and lack of electricity the norm. The majority of the country goes without power for close to 20 hours a day. And "without power" is an apt metaphor for the political system - there is no people's power. The military rules with an iron fist, and violent extremists terrorize vast parts of the country including the capital.
Last week I traveled to Pakistan and witnessed firsthand its security challenges. Equally alarming is the growing intolerance of America and the West.
Our partner in Islamabad arranged for a group of seven women from the Swat valley - formerly the touristic hope of the country, the so-called "Switzerland" of Pakistan before the Taliban established a stronghold in the area - to travel to Islamabad so that I could speak with them personally and privately. The women, all illiterate housewives with multiple children, told me how they reacted when Fazlullah, locally known as the "Radio Mullah," first arrived in Swat 10 years ago. Fazlullah strategically recognized the power women can wield over their families and communities in the region and was the first to address women directly and call for their support "to fight for their faith and country" through radio sermons.
In the Swat Valley, an extremely impoverished region, a woman's most valuable belongings are her wedding jewelry, which also ensures her status in the community. Women must be married to gain legitimacy within the society. After hearing Fazlullah's fiery addresses, the women of Swat donated their gold wedding bands and necklaces to support his cause, resulting in over two kilograms of gold to finance his jihad. Some even encouraged their sons and husbands to join his group, to supposedly pay their tribute to Islam and Fazlullah's struggle.
Soon, however, the women realized that Fazlullah only brought violence and misery. Family members who refused to join or publicly disagreed with his ideologies and methods were symbolically and brutally murdered in the street as a bloody warning to others.
Even in the face of such gruesome threats, the women of Swat are now determined to defeat Fazlullah and the death and destruction he represents. Halda, one of my interview partners, insists: "If Fazlullah comes to our area again and the men fail to stop him, then we women will take up the fight against him."
It is ironic that it was a Talib who first recognized the potential and power of women in the Swat Valley and to directly and explicitly call on them to support a cause. He tried to use them. But the women soon saw through him when they recognized how his "jihad" was negatively impacting their families, and they demystified the dangers of his ideologies and consequent actions.
It is now high time for policy makers and strategists to tap into the incredible power of women around the world and to connect with civil society as the primary driver in daily life.
Ahmed Rashid, the acclaimed expert on Pakistani affairs and the Taliban, entitled his last book "Pakistan on the Brink," with a very interesting subtitle - "The Future of Afghanistan, Pakistan and the West." Our futures are interconnected. Radicalization in distant areas such as the Swat Valley will certainly have global consequences and affect the safety and security of our world.
These women, who were willing to share their stories with me, are on a mission. They all brought with them pictures of their missing husbands or sons. Their men were generally lured into the terrorist network, and when they tried to escape they were imprisoned by the military. Now they are missing, either dead or in an unknown military prison, and the women are struggling to find even the smallest indication of their whereabouts. In an extremely volatile region, they are looking for certainty.
The women were accompanied by male guardians on their trip to Islamabad. One was 17 years old and a former Talib; he had been recruited at the age of 12. He has been able to escape the grip of Fazlullah's forces, and his dream is now to study - to learn something and to become somebody, but it will be difficult. He is now solely responsible for feeding, clothing and protecting his female family members, as his older brother and father disappeared - captured either by the military or the Taliban shortly after he returned home.
Another guardian is an old man, frail with a long beard. When he talks about his five sons who have all disappeared, he starts crying. Showing such emotion is very unusual for a man in his cultural context. He apologizes and says, "I am crying my eyes out. Soon I will be blind. Can blind people cry?" He has accompanied three of his five daughters-in-law to Islamabad, for whom he is the only source of support now.
The women brought along six young children between them - of course, how could I forget that this could happen? We rush to the market to get a few toys - cars for the boys and princess crowns for the girls, anticipating that this would not be the moment to challenge gender stereotypes. The women were pleased. One woman said to me, "My daughter will wear this on her wedding day." The girl is nine years-old.
This article was originally published on the Womenetics website on 24 July 2012.