VIENNA, Austria (WOMENSENEWS)–A group of women in Mumbai, India, are about to get their first lessons in computer skills and English next month.
That might sound like a limited, practical development, but the organizers behind the workshops have something larger in mind: developing a global female power base to reject the fear of violent extremism and to help people recover from it.
"The global destabilization of life is one of the biggest challenges of our time and each terror attack makes it obvious that conventional methods can no longer curb terrorism in the long run," Edit Schlaffer, an Austrian social scientist, said in a recent interview in her office here. Schlaffer is a Women’s eNews 21 Leader 2010.
"The response and reaction of the Indian workshops will set the ground for a global campaign that is already under preparation for Pakistan, Yemen and Indonesia," Schlaffer said.
In 2002 Schlaffer founded Women Without Borders, a nonprofit international research and advocacy group for global women to share concerns.
Schlaffer said that after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks she watched incidents of terrorism increase around the world and wondered what mothers, wives, sisters and daughters were doing as their male family members became angry and more involved with hate and violence.
After the Mumbai terrorist attacks in November 2008, Schlaffer drew from the membership of Women Without Borders to attract 35 women from all parts of the globe–South America, the Balkans, Africa to Asia–to a meeting in Vienna. Participants included community activists, victims of the terrorist attacks in Madrid, Spain, anti-terror strategists and former members of radical networks. They founded Sisters Against Violent Extremism, or SAVE, as an initiative of Women Without Borders to serve as the first women’s anti-terror platform.
‘Peace Starts at Home’
"At the heart of Sisters Against Violent Extremism is the belief that peace starts at home," Schlaffer said.
The group’s first major initiative was to open a chapter in Mumbai in November 2008 for the wives, daughters, sisters and mothers of the policemen on duty in that city, some of whom lost their lives in the terrorist attack.
With the support of the Austrian Ministry of Social Affairs, Archana Kapoor, an Indian filmmaker and head of SAVE India, opened the chapter in Mumbai by reaching out to as many survivors as possible and to those who had lost family members in the attack.
In an e-mail interview, Kapoor–who is also the founder of the New Delhi-based nonprofit Seeking Modern Applications for Real Transformation (SMART), which works with marginalized sections of society, especially women and children–said many of the people she found said that they felt lost and abandoned after the initial media attention. Most were struggling to deal with the trauma and grief on their own.
Some of these grief-stricken women agreed to attend SAVE India’s first workshop, which was held at the Mumbai Police Officer’s Club in April 2010 help empower the women to sensitize and mobilize against violent extremism. There were about 65 women, including mothers and children, who ranged in age from 9 to 70. It was a chance, Kapoor said, for the women to break the silence that frequently follows a tragedy. In talking about how they could move on in life, many expressed interest in improving their language and computer skills.
In March, SAVE brought four professional teachers to Mumbai to prepare for the workshops, which will start in April. They brushed up their skills as confidence-building facilitators and prepared to give English-language and computer lessons during eight workshops that will be held for six months. The workshops are supported by $25,000 from the Austrian Ministry of Social Affairs with ground support from the Mumbai Police.
The Legend of Ganesha
When she thinks back to the beginning of SAVE, Schlaffer recalls the popular Indian legend of Ganesha, the elephant god who was once asked to describe the world.
According to legend, the portly Ganesha, widely worshipped as the remover of obstacles, made his mother Parvati stand still from her chores while he leisurely circled around her.
"This is how I describe my world," Ganesha said.
The legend shows how women–particularly mothers–enjoy tremendous moral authority in societies all over the world.
But for Schlaffer the thought of Ganesha circling his mother alternated with another image: that of 23-year-old Ajmal Kasab visiting his family village in rural Pakistan to seek his mother’s blessing before embarking on the deadly mission to attack Mumbai.
Kasab is the only person out of the 10 Pakistanis to be captured alive for laying siege to Mumbai between November 26 and 29 in 2008. The attacks killed 164 people and wounded at least 308.
Kasab is in custody in India where he has been sentenced to death.
Schlaffer admits that hosting similar workshops in Pakistan is a challenge for SAVE. Incidents of terrorism are on the increase in that country, where the lives of women and children in particular is greatly restricted and endangered.
However, Schlaffer has already found a grassroots partner in Mossarat Qadeem, executive director of PAIMAN Trust, an Islamabad-based organization working with women and young people in Pakistan’s conflict-ridden region of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, and the driving force of SAVE in Pakistan. In a few months, Qadeem is expected to launch similar workshops for female survivors of terrorist attacks in Pakistan.
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Mehru Jaffer is a Vienna, Austria-based Indian journalist and author of "The Book of Muhammad" and "The Book of Muinuddin Chishti," both published by Penguin. She teaches Islam and gender related courses at the University of Vienna and at the American Webster University in Vienna.
For more information:
Women Without Borders:
Insight on Conflict, Pakistan:
Seeking Modern Applications for Real Transformation (SMART):