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Shad Begum a symbol of courage for Pashtun girls
Recipient of International Woman of Courage Award continues jihad for women
By Javed Aziz Khan
PESHAWAR – Shad Begum has long argued that Pashtun girls need a positive female role model, and her two decades of work with an NGO she founded in the remote area of Talash Town, in Lower Dir, has helped fill that void.
In 1994 Shad founded and the Association for Behaviour and Knowledge Transformation (ABKT), which she still runs. ABKT promotes the development of women by focusing on education, health, capacity building and other areas.
ABKT has handed over 79 non-formal schools to the government since 1995.
“More than 2,000 girls used to pass out every year from these schools where we used to provide them primary education in three years instead of five or six years,” Shad said.
Her work has earned her worldwide recognition, as she recently won the 2012 International Woman of Courage Award for her contributions to women’s rights in Malakand Division during a time when the Taliban had taken over the region and were threatening women who dared to leave their houses without a male relative.
After the award ceremony, “I received calls from several parents, saying they made their daughters sit in front of TV channels and watch me receiving the award,” said Shad, who was born in the Kalpanai area of Talash in 1974. “I think this is my achievement, that I finally changed the way of thinking of the people regarding the rights of their daughter and sisters.”
Shad is the second Pakistani female to win worldwide recognition for her bravery in fighting the militancy. Before her, Malala Yousafzai, a 14-year-old girl from Swat District, Malakand Division, was nominated for the International Children’s Peace Award. Malala did not win the international award, but Pakistan gave her its first National Children’s Peace Award in 2011.
Mumtaz Khan, a resident of Timergara in Lower Dir, said the schools and training centres being run by Shad Begum and her organisation have proved to be rays of hope for parents who were not sending their children to school.
"My daughter not only can read and write after qualifying in these informal schools, but she feels ... more confident now. I have now admitted her to a high school since she had developed love for education," said Mumtaz.
Mumtaz's daughter Anila said there should be more women like Shad Begum in Dir and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP).
"Shad Begum is my ideal as she has shown the new ways of living a better life to the women of Malakand and KP," Anila said.
A number of her friends in the school are now receiving a formal education in Talash, Timergara, Chakdara and other areas of Lower Dir, she said.
Fozia Begum, who has learnt sewing and embroidery from a vocational centre being run by Shad Begum, said she is supporting her family financially after learning the skill.
"Though I am doing it at a small scale, it not only earns me pocket money, but I also support my father in running the financial affairs of my family," Fozia said.
She and others, including Anila, have also learned reading and writing at the vocational centre, she said.
"I was so excited when I learnt to read and write. It gave me a good feeling that I am able to read newspaper and books and write at my own," said Anila.
ABKT and education
ABKT became involved with informal schools because the government lacked easy access to the remote areas of Upper and Lower Dir districts, she said. The ABKT called upon members of local communities to teach the young.
The ABKT, initially called Anjuman Behbood-i-Khawateen Talash (organisation for the welfare of women of Talash), gradually expanded its efforts across Malakand Division, Peshawar and other areas of KP.
“We are now planning to expand our organisation to Sindh and Punjab provinces,” Shad said, crediting her father, husband, brothers, children and her entire family for supporting her. “There were times when many might have surrendered to the criticism and threats, but my father was steadfast. He was a brave man.”
“We are providing vocational training to the girls and boys in different fields,” she said. “Girls are taught embroidery, sewing and stitching, while males are being imparted technical education in mobile phone repair, electricity and other fields.”
The ABKT also works with farmers, introducing them to the latest agricultural technology and more productive seeds.
Trials and tribulations
Shad faced a number of threats and challenges during her two decades of struggle.
After the Taliban took over most of Malakand Division, Shad moved her office to Peshawar because of threats.
Today, different threats exist. Abdul Haleem, a former member of the National Assembly from Kohistan, a remote district of Hazara Division, recently warned all the women working with NGOs to leave his area or they would be forcibly married to the locals. He has also warned against educating girls.
That decree and the verdict by a KP jirga to kill four women and two men for singing and dancing at a wedding are issues that need to be addressed, Shad said. “The main reason of such thinking is the lack of education in these areas,” she said. “The entire district has a single high school for girls.”
She sticks to her principles despite the hardships, though.
“She is a simple and hard-working woman who strictly believes on following traditions,” said her husband, Jan Muhammad, defending her work.
Shad’s involvement in women’s rights goes beyond her ABKT work.
“My father was running an organisation, Idara Khidmat-e-Khalq, in our village,” she said of an earlier endeavour. “I joined the organisation when I was only a ninth-class student after my father decided to involve women in the process.”
Shad, who earned a master’s degree from the University of Peshawar through home study, is also becoming more politically involved. She was elected tehsil councillor in 2001 and district councillor in 2005 in an area where women could not even vote.
Besides receiving appreciation from all over the world for her struggle, Shad Begum has earned a number of awards for services on behalf of women in KP. She was selected as Ashoka fellow in 2001 and received an award from the Women’s World Summit Foundation for her contributions to bring creativity to the lives of rural women. She also received a certificate of recognition by then-Pakistani prime minister, Mian Nawaz Sharif, in 1998.
“There was criticism and more threats after I was awarded ... the Intentional Woman of Courage Award,” she said. “But these things are part of my life for the last many years, so I don’t pay it any mind. In fact, people should realise that I am doing jihad.”