Amazing changes are underway in Pakistan.
For all the attention this young country gets for being a haven for radical Islam, a base of operations for the Taliban, and a sanctuary for Al Qaeda, it has managed to do something the U.S. has not–elect a woman head of state, not once but twice. And it has produced a generation of young women who seem determined to assert their place in its conservative society. I wrote about Malala Yousafzai and her campaign to educate women two years ago. I have the honor of knowing personally a young Pakistani woman (whose name I won’t use here, because I haven’t asked her permission) who returned there last year to become a journalist.
Khalida Brohi is another such courageous young woman, one who is using her talents to seek justice for other women.
I don’t remember where I first heard of Ms. Brohi. I think it was in her TED Talk, which I first heard in early 2015. I was immediately struck by her courage, even more than her eloquence; like so many of her contemporaries in rural Pakistan, the fight she has chosen could kill her.
That fight is a fundamental one: she stands against honor killings, a custom in which women may be killed by their relatives for real or imagined slights against the family’s honor, offenses that might range from being alone with a man not related to her, to pre- or extramarital sex, to the unforgivable crime of being raped. Her fight started when she was sixteen, when she learned a friend of hers had been the victim of one of these honor killings.
At first, her approach was typical of an angry young person out to save the world: she went out to tell everybody how awful this practice is, spoke to everybody who would listen about just why it’s wrong to kill women for having contact with men. The reaction was predictable–the community rejected her and her teenage rebellion, threatened her life, forced her to leave before she could end up like her friend.
Most people would have given up, or taken their fight elsewhere, or gone to YouTube to post anonymous videos condemning the practice–videos the people she wants to help would in all probability never see.
Ms. Brohi made a different choice. She went back to her home, the province of Baluchistan, with a new tactic. Rather than fighting the culture of her home head to head, she took the aspects of it she found beautiful–its language, its music, its traditional embroidery–and embraced them. And in doing so, she found ways to educate and empower women without threatening their culture. And women started standing up for themselves, speaking for themselves, preventing honor killings not by attacking the men in their lives but by making themselves indispensable to their families and communities. The women Ms. Brohi’s organization empowers are not changing their world by shouting and waving signs; they are changing their world by changing their place in it.
Her web site, Sughar Fund, boasts that its programs have impacted the lives of 800 women in Pakistan. That hardly sounds significant in a nation of almost 200 million, but Ms. Brohi is just getting started. Her goal is to impact a million women in the next ten years. Which means her real impact will be much greater; a million women empowered means a million women who can now teach the other women and girls they know how to empower themselves. A million women empowered in ten years means that honor killings could be a thing of the past in Pakistan in a generation. A million women empowered could mean that Ms. Brohi tells her grandchildren what happened to her friend–and they react with shock and disbelief that such a practice could ever have been accepted in Pakistan.
It’s impossible to know what the future holds, in Pakistan or the U.S. or anywhere else. But knowing people like Ms. Brohi are out there, working to make the world better a few people at a time, should give us all hope for the future.