Inspired by the honor killing of her good friend when she was 16 years old, Pakistani activist Khalida Brohi set out to challenge this practice in her village through several campaigns over the years. Yet she was faced with death threats, both to her and her family. Torn between wanting to change her culture while embracing it, Khalida had to create a whole new way of working. Here’s how she tapped into her culture’s strengths to create the Sughar Women Program in 2009, which empowers 800 women in 23 learning centers across rural provinces. As told to Celeste Hamilton Dennis.
How it all began
I’ve never been able to say how much I adore the place where I come from. I’m from a village in the mountains of Balochistan. I was the first person in my family who went to Karachi and got her education. I got to see two very extreme worlds.
Honor killings are a tradition in Pakistan, and they come from a really, really old custom in Saudi Arabia. Women, money, and land: these three things are the property of man, and they can do anything they want with them. They can kill a woman for doing anything they judge brings dishonor to her family.
When I was 16, a friend of mine was killed for wanting to marry a boy she liked. As soon as I learned about her death, I went into a crazy state and decided I was going to stop this. I did the WAKE UP Campaign. [An online media campaign that set out to raise awareness about the issue through sharing women’s stories.] It became really big. But the more I worked, the more I realized I was trying to fight the entire system in Pakistan, and that’s difficult because different tribal communities have their own laws. Every time I went back to my village, nothing had changed.
I started getting many death threats from men who were angry I was going against the traditions. I went back to Karachi, and into hiding for six months. 2008 was a really bad time.
In hiding I started thinking about what led me to this failure. Why did I get these death threats?
Then I realized that I never said there were good things in the rural, tribal traditions. I never involved the village women in the campaign; we only had urban activists involved. So I decided to take a new approach.
The birth of the centers
After the failure and all the problems I had in the Wake Up Campaign I thought nobody would support me. But we had these 13 urban youngsters who said they would do anything to come back and help me.
We went to villages in the Balochistan province, where I grew up, and found the tribal leaders were who were against us. We said we were very sorry about protesting openly against you, we’re here to make it up to you, and we have some funds which we are going to use to promote your traditions. We said we were going to focus on three: language, music, and embroidery.
Turns out tribal leaders are always looking for ways for traditions to be promoted. Elders are dying without telling their old stories, and they’re afraid for that. Embroidery is something women have been doing for centuries. Every day, all the women from the local havelis get together and sit and make embroidery while singing. My own aunties do that.
When we did the embroidery part, we established a center and selected the women. One woman from every house would come to the center every day for two hours. The men were like, Wow, that’s great, women wouldn’t have to go anywhere else.
So now, here’s the trick. Instead of embroidery, the women in the center go through life training, and also learn little bit of embroidery so we can show what’s going on in the center. We start with really small things like: women cannot speak loudly, women cannot say their names, women cannot laugh. We start by changing this week by week, day by day.
In two weeks the husbands find out because they’re acting so differently. Their first reaction is, My wife is not going to that center ever again!
We knew that when the men found out it was going to to be a disaster, so we had do to something to keep them happy. We launched Pakistan’s first ever tribal fashion brand. We did a fashion show. The top models wore clothing made by the village women. It became a hit, a cool thing, because nobody had seen anything like it before. Our product went from very cheap to very expensive in Pakistan. The fashion brand took off and so did the prices and income for the women.
The men were like, Oh my God, she is actually bringing in a lot of money which I really need. I can’t stop her from going. For six months, these women end up learning so many life skills and bringing in much needed income.
Why respect and forgiveness are key
We have to show the men that without them we cannot do anything at all. We have separate people on our team who mobilize: one is a man, another is a woman. They are accountable to go in, talk to the tribal leaders about promoting their traditions, and get them on our side. Sometimes it takes three or four months because you have to learn their values, respect them.
Respecting others is key. I mean, I had to forgive those people who I knew had killed their daughters. I was sitting in front of the tribal leaders who were involved with honor killings. The day I learned how to forgive them, and give them respect and let them work for me, was like a key in my hand.
It’s so hard. Forgiving them for who they are is one of the most emotional things for me. The main inspiration I got about how to forgive was when I learned that the mothers who cannot say “Don’t kill my daughter” because it’s a custom, live inside the house with the person who has killed their daughter.
The hate they would feel all their life I think is very difficult. And to know them and to see that everyday has been a struggle for me in the forgiveness process. But I have to keep going.
The fight continues
For me it’s compulsion. I still live in two worlds. I have my home in the mountains, and I have my home in Karachi. When you live inside mountains and places where women are suffering domestic violence and inequality, anyone would’ve done what I’ve done. I still go and sit with my cousins who are making embroidery and I know about their lives and the women’s lives in my community. I still feel there’s a long way to go.
Remembering the person who I started this whole thing for, my friend when I was 16, I feel like if we reach one million women then maybe I’ll feel like I did something for her. Because my limited ability, the helplessness I felt at the time makes me feel so guilty. It’s something I will never get rid of.
Recently I went to visit one of the centers. Someone was like you have to meet Zeena, she’s amazing. When I went to meet Zeena, she said come sit beside me. I sat beside her. She took my pen and the paper I’d had in my hand, and she started writing her name on it, pronouncing it with her whole heart and spirit. Zeeeee Naaaa. She had this beautiful smile on her face and I couldn’t stop crying.
That’s the reason I’m working. I go on and on because I know how proud she felt, seeing her name emerge on that page.
Khalida is graduate of The Unreasonable Institute, an accelerator program that strives to get entrepreneurs who are solving social and environmental problems the resources they need to scale their businesses and impact.