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‘Respect the Pen, Not the Gun’: A Young Woman From Malala’s Hometown Calls for Education Over Violence

‘Respect the Pen, Not the Gun’: A Young Woman From Malala’s Hometown Calls for Education Over Violence

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This profile is part of TakePart’s “I Am Malala” series, telling the stories of young people around the world who are following the footsteps of Malala Yousafzai to break down cultural and political barriers to champion children's and girls’ education. The series coincides with the October release of the documentary He Named Me Malala, produced by Participant Media, the parent company of TakePart.

In December 2011, then-17-year-old Neelam Ibrar Chattan witnessed three 10-year-old boys fighting near a private school in Saidu Sharif, a city in Pakistan’s Swat Valley.

One child had a knife in his hand and was telling the other, “ ‘I’m going to kill you. I’m going to slaughter you,’ ” recalls Chattan, now 21, who spoke in Urdu by phone to TakePart from her home in Saidu Sharif.

“I took the knife from the child. I thought it was real, but it was a fake,” she says. “I asked, ‘Where did you get the knife?’ He said he got it from the bazaar.”

Chattan later went to the marketplace and saw other weapon-like toys, including rocket launchers and pistols. She asked the shopkeepers why they were selling these types of toys—fake guns, they replied, were the most popular among kids.

Swat Valley, once called the “Switzerland of the East,” is nestled in the Hindu Kush mountains in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province in northwest Pakistan. With its lush greenery and flowing rivers, it wasn’t always associated with violence. But in 2007, the Taliban rose to power and imposed harsh rules with an extreme interpretation of Islamic law—men had to sport long beards, dancing was forbidden, and girls’ education was banned. The group destroyed 200 schools in the area from 2007 to 2009, according to the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

In 2012, the valley made headlines again when 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head by the Taliban for campaigning for women’s education. She sought treatment in the United Kingdom and has since become one of the most recognizable rights advocates, winning the Nobel Peace Prize last year.

Malala Yousafzai speaking to the European Parliament. (Photo: Flickr)

Now, Chattan is doing her part in their hometown and calling for education over violence.

“Swat children have seen a lot...and in this day and age, so many people have been killed,” she says. When the war between the Taliban and the Pakistani military ended, the violence and terrorism had a lasting effect on the children, she recalls. During the Taliban reign, she herself witnessed people being killed or decapitated.

Chattan wanted to teach children in the area that there is more than fear and violence around them; there is hope. In 2012, she formed a campaign called Peace for New Generation where, in the first year, she was the sole volunteer organizing conflict resolution and anti-terrorism workshops that focused on promoting education, the arts, and sports. Now, 10 volunteers that include local artists, singers, and Punjabi minorities work with about 30 to 40 kids ranging between 12 to 15 years old. Many of the children are involved in child labor, typically attend a religious school known as a madrasa, or have parents or brothers who currently support or have supported the Taliban in the past.

The workshops especially focus on empowering young girls, emphasizing education and the opportunities they’ll have by staying committed to their schoolwork. Girls are also encouraged to look beyond traditionally-revered career paths, such as becoming doctors or engineers—occupations especially prized by the older Pakistani generation, Chattan says—and pursue what they are truly passionate about. They can be lawyers or journalists, too, Chattan says she tells the girls.

“Swat doesn’t have any female journalists. Getting an education was really bad, people were scared when the Taliban came,” she explains. “Now in Swat, there is a shortage of schools but there is so much demand, especially from girls."

For now, Peace for New Generation holds a few education workshops in areas such as Kabal, Mingora—the largest city in Swat—and elsewhere in Swat Valley. But most of the workshops take place in the children’s homes every Sunday.

“I teach them about guns and terrorism because we want to finish this and we want to bring peace in this world,” she says. “ 'Respect the pen, not the gun,’ we tell them.”

The campaign also arranges sessions with mothers to raise awareness of the day-to-day lives of their children, including who they spend time with and where. To date, Chattan estimates she’s reached out to 300 mothers and 700 children.

Now, she says the organization is planning sessions with government teachers and school children between the ages of 12 to 16 years old. She hopes to take the program nationwide in the future.

But her work isn’t without risks. Once, a local village man threatened to kidnap her younger brother if she didn’t stop speaking about educational access and conflict resolution.

“He even called me and threatened me. After that, I told the Pakistani Army and they caught him,” she says.

A confident young woman with strong convictions, Chattan is often seen flashing peace signs and smiles in photographs and playing cricket with groups of boys. She wears a burqa, but doesn’t cover her face. Her face, she says, is her identity.

Chattan grew up a middle child with three brothers and one sister, drawing much of her inspiration from her parents. Her father, who died in 2011, was involved in local politics. Her parents didn’t raise her like a daughter, but like a son, she says—essentially, with the same equal rights as boys. She is also the first person in her family to receive a college degree (a Bachelor of Arts in political science from Government Girls Degree College in Saidu Sharif).

Although she doesn't have a Nobel Prize to her name just yet, she was awarded the European Union-Paiman Trust Gold Award last year in Pakistan’s capital of Islamabad for her advocacy work to date.

War will end, Chattan says, when children are focused on school and extracurricular activities.

“Our campaign is against war and we want to build a peaceful and sustainable society,” she says.

In December 2011, then-17-year-old Neelam Ibrar Chattan witnessed three 10-year-old boys fighting near a private school in Saidu Sharif, a city in Pakistan’s Swat Valley.

One child had a knife in his hand and was telling the other, “ ‘I’m going to kill you. I’m going to slaughter you,’ ” recalls Chattan, now 21, who spoke in Urdu by phone to TakePart from her home in Saidu Sharif.

“I took the knife from the child. I thought it was real, but it was a fake,” she says. […]

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