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opinion | colin nickerson

Four courageous women who are making a difference

In the face of hatred and violence, these role models don’t back down

They are four women who do brave things in terrifying places: their own countries. They were in the United States recently for a colloquium, sponsored by Cambridge’s Institute for Inclusive Security, focusing on how to bring women more effectively into peace processes in some of the world’s most intractable conflicts.

“Women will compromise where men will not,’’ says Swanee Hunt, chair of the institute. “Women will stop conflicts sooner than men will, if only they can gain a place at the negotiating table.’’

The Globe sat down with each of the women individually to learn their stories.

Esther Ibanga is a Christian pastor in Nigeria.
Esther Ibanga is a Christian pastor in Nigeria.(Mel Snyder/Hunt Alternatives)

Esther Ibanga

It’s one thing to preach love thy neighbor. It’s another thing to join arms with her and march into the jeering maw of raw religious hatred.

Esther Ibanga, who presides over a congregation in the Nigerian city of Jos, is among the few Christian pastors to make open cause with Muslim peace-seekers. She’s founder of Women Without Walls, a group that brings together women from the bitterly divided faiths to seek practical ways to curb the escalating violence that has claimed tens of thousands of lives.

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Jos lies at Nigeria’s flashpoint “middle belt,’’ where the largely Islamic north meets the Christian south.

“The world joined hands to deplore the killings of [17] people in Paris,’’ says Ibanga. “What does the world have to say about the killings of many thousands by Boko Haram?’’

Boko Haram is a murderous Islamic insurrectionist movement based in northeastern Nigeria but extending a deadly hand south. The group claimed responsibility for last month’s sacking of the town of Baga, an attack that left scores dead and destroyed many businesses and homes.

“Whatever must be done to bring peace, we must do for ourselves,” Ibanga says. “I believe women are the key. Women understand peace comes through persuasion, patience, and compromise. But we must be brave enough to assert our strengths.”

Fourteen years ago, Ibanga quit a prestigious job with the Central Bank of Nigeria to found a new church in turbulent Plateau State. Jos Christian Missions International church has a congregation of only 200, but has hurled itself body and soul into a risky campaign for peace.

“We might be killed [by either side] for refusing to hate,’’ she says.

Fatuma Abdulkadir Adan promotes girls’ soccer in Kenya.
Fatuma Abdulkadir Adan promotes girls’ soccer in Kenya.(Mel Snyder/Hunt Alternatives)

Fatuma Abdulkadir Adan

Killings along tribal and religious rifts in Kenya’s unruly north are the stuff of day-to-day life: partly the work of international Islamic radical groups like al-Shabaab, partly the work of shabby ethnic militias more interested in pillage than piety.

“It’s a region where it’s far easier for youths to get an AK-47 [assault rifle] than an education,’’ says activist Fatuma Abdulkadir Adan. Trained in law, a promoter of compromise, and a passionate fan of soccer, Adan, 36, has combined all three in an uphill struggle for women’s rights and drawing children to peace processes in the Marsabit district, site of a notorious 2005 massacre. She jokes darkly that she was born to the work: Her parents hail from the two antagonistic clans in the butchery.

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“The blood in my veins doesn’t fight,’’ Adan says. “So why shouldn’t people learn what my blood knows by nature?’’

She’s founder of the Horn of Africa Development Initiative, an organization that partly seeks to nurture peace on the playing field. Her love of soccer — which she was not allowed to play as a girl in a deeply traditional society — gave her the idea to engage children in sports as an alternative to rock throwing. For boys, it would be a way of channeling aggression and living by rules. For girls, it was a chance to assert oneself and win a place in a culture that doesn’t put much value on females.

In 2008, Adan started the first girls’ soccer club in the district, generating social shock even though the 13-year-old players wore uniforms — designed after consulting Muslim clerics — with long loose trousers and sleeves, as well as customary head-garb.

It took only a few weeks for local gunmen to weigh in.

Seven players from the team were kidnapped from the soccer field and spirited away to bush villages. “They were taken by angry men — beaten, raped, forced into marriages,’’ says Adan. “It was meant to teach that girls should never expect the same [rights] as boys. I was very scared. But not so scared I could accept such a lesson.”

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Instead, she went on a relentless two-year quest to locate the girls. She was able to retrieve three and get them back in school. She located two others, but was unable to persuade them to defy their new husbands. As for the remaining two, relatives frustrated Adan’s effort to reach them. She learned only that they are alive and pregnant in forced marriages.

Adan wasn’t dissuaded from her dream of girls’ soccer. Today 10 schools in Marsabit district boast 36 all-girl teams. They get occasional taunts, but the militias have backed off.

She has helped shape boys teams, too, sometimes with ethnic rivals playing on opposing sides. The trick, she says, is discouraging boys from turning a game into ersatz warfare.

“Players received red cards as penalties for repeated offenses,’’ she says. “But we soon realized that the boys took pride in penalties, trying to win more ‘prize’ cards by bloodying heads or breaking bones.’’

So she devised a system that awards “peace’’ points to sportsmanship and decent behavior, as well as to scoring kicks.

“Boys who play peacefully may grow into men who accept that peace can be normal,’’ Adan says. “And girls who can compete in a game may grow into women willing to take a stand in their own lives.’’

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Lubna was tortured for carrying medical supplies in Syra.
Lubna was tortured for carrying medical supplies in Syra.(Maria Daniels/Hunt Alternatives)

Lubna

Lubna prefers to go by a nickname because her real name already appears on too many worrisome lists — the ones kept by Syrian internal security agencies, for example. The development worker, in her 30s, makes twice-a-month forays into her war-ravaged native land carrying simple medical supplies for displaced families — bandages, swabs, antibiotic ointment.

That’s not a crime, exactly, but crime in conflict zones is a fluid concept. Two years ago, Lubna was grabbed by operatives of President Bashar Assad’s feared intelligence branch, she says. They were riled by her gauze and salves.

“You may be helping people we want to kill,’’ they told her.

This was near the city of Homs, then site of a ferocious seige. They brought her to a giant concrete building, yanked a blindfold over her eyes, and manhandled her into an underground labyrinth.

“The halls seemed endless. Until we came to a small room and I was tied to a chair. There was an overpowering smell of acid. Then the beatings began — fists, feet, pieces of wood.’’

Her nose was smashed, the bone around her left eye broken. Through the edge of the blindfold, she caught a tiny glimpse of one of her captors.

“Some shirt buttons. So ordinary. I felt sorry for what this man had allowed himself to become.’’

Her torturers wanted the identities of others smuggling supplies.

“I tried to give up names only of those I knew to be dead.’’

Lubna works for a small aid group that focuses on internally displaced persons in Syria’s civil war, a struggle that pits the Assad regime against a hodgepodge of militias, most menacingly the self-proclaimed jihadists of the Islamic State. Some 200,000 people have died in the fighting and many millions made homeless.

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Her group’s core mission is organizing women to work for peace, even if only by such humble acts as persuading a son or husband to refuse to take up arms to join the conflict.

Nuzhat Sadiq is the head of Pakistan’s Girl Guides.
Nuzhat Sadiq is the head of Pakistan’s Girl Guides.(Mel Snyder/Hunt Alternatives)

Nuzhat Sadiq

A Pakistani woman two years ago planted the nation’s flag atop Mount Everest. And Pakistan women jockey combat jets in the Islamic Republic’s Air Force. A woman has served twice as prime minister of Pakistan, versus zero women ever to run on a major party ticket for the White House.

Pakistani women often wear hijab, or modest religious head-garb. But plenty wear scarves that proclaim style at least as boldly as devotion. And Pakistani female police officers wear cocky caps like any proper copper.

Pakistani women belong to an elite anti-terrorist commando unit. But, yes, a Pakistani woman ranks among the world’s most notorious Islamic terrorists: Aaifa Siddiqui, a MIT- and Brandeis-educated neuroscientist from Karachi, is serving an 86-year sentence in US prison for plotting to kill Americans.

So please, says a Pakistani senator and Girl Guide leader Nuzhat Sadiq, let’s have a little nuance when we talk about women in her beleaguered native land, which is home at once to female brain surgeons and Taliban thugs who think it a sacred duty to blow out the brains of little girls for going to school.

“My country is in highly difficult times, it’s true. But anything you start to say about Islam and women is contradicted by another thing equally true about Islam and women,’’ says the 59-year-old head of the women’s wing of the Pakistan Muslim League, a political party.

Social reality in Pakistan means Sadiq felt obliged to back a measure to protect young women from the hideous crime of “acid attack,” in which victims are disfigured by hurled chemicals for sullying Islamic “honor,’’ perhaps by flirting with a boy or perhaps by beating boys in arithmetic.

But it may say even more about the status of women that Sadiq is a prominent and forthright public figure, not a fringe feminist.

“Women in Pakistan are already quite strong,’’ Sadiq says. “We just need to become stronger and more outspoken in pursuit of peace.”

Islamic fundamentalism is on a sharp rise in Pakistan, especially in its hinterlands but also in its teeming cities. Sadiq sees cause for alarm when some mullahs pointedly refuse to speak out against terror attacks.

“No person of God should support, even by silence, killings in a school,’’ says Sadiq, a reference to the ghastly slaughter of 148 pupils and teachers in December at a private school in Peshawar. The Pakistani Taliban takes prideful credit for the attack, and a few prominent preachers have refused to condemn either the anti-Western Taliban or the massacre.

“It’s a horrifying thing for my country. Unspeakable,’’ says Sadiq of the attack. “But we also learned that the [female] principal was killed for refusing to leave her pupils.’’

Pakistani officials say the principal, Tahira Qazi, died trying to save students. A tragic tale, but hardly one of a meek, downtrodden woman.

Pakistan is also the home of Malala Yousafzai, the 17-year-old Nobel Prize laureate shot in the head in 2012 by Taliban gunmen enraged by her campaign supporting education for girls. Smart young women are prized students in Pakistan’s universities, but in Malala’s remote Swat Valley, Muslim radicals have sought bans on even primary schooling for girls.

And yet everywhere across Pakistan, the plucky Girl Guides persevere.

Pakistan’s equivalent of the Girl Scouts is a thriving organization of more than 100,000 girls who pitch tents, learn first aid, and tutor younger students.

Sadiq says her single greatest honor is to have been elected last year as National Commissioner of Pakistan’s Girl Guides.

“This is girls learning to become the next generation of leaders,’’ she says. “So how can we say, with girls such as these, there’s no room for great optimism?”


Colin Nickerson is a frequent contributor to the Globe opinion pages.