Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
The challenges IWPR’s Open Minds project faced in winning over officials at Pakistan’s conservative madrassas were highlighted in a leading Pashtu language programme broadcast by Voice of America.
Sameena Imtiaz, the executive director of PEAD, IWPR’s partner in Pakistan, was interviewed about the project, which, she said, had trained over a thousand students in madrassas and government schools in discussion skills and the basic principles of journalism in the last eighteen months.
Much of the interview with the United States broadcaster focused on the project’s work in the madrassas. Imtiaz was asked by the programme presenter, Sadaqat Jan, whether IWPR/PEAD had to overcome any resistance to Open Minds’ activities.
“You are right; some people in the madrassas do have a negative image of NGOs and they feel that NGOs are working on some agenda given to them by the West. Initially, we did face a lot of difficulty in penetrating the madrassas but once we had set foot inside, things got better,” Imtiaz told the programme.
“When they saw the nature of the work that we do, their interest developed and it’s been smooth sailing ever since. There were even some madrassas who approached us themselves and said that they would like a similar sort of project to be started in their institution as well. If you ever get a chance to speak with the madrassa students that we have worked with you will notice a significant change in their attitude and way of thinking.”
Jan asked Imtiaz whether she felt the project had had any influence on negative perceptions of the madrassa students and the Pashtuns in general.
“Just like you heard about this project and contacted us, similarly people from all around the world have contacted us and want to know more about this project and the children that we work with,” Intiaz said.
“For them, it is quite hard to believe that students from Mohmand agency or a madrassa in Peshawar are getting trained in journalism. They are surprised to learn that girls and boys between the ages of 14 and 18 are able to express themselves and raise their voices through getting their articles published in newspapers and by producing programmes for the radio. People get to hear their points of view and learn about them.”
Also featured in the programme was Muzlifat, a teacher at one of the government girls schools in Utmanzai, Charsadda, who spoke about her students’ experience of Open Minds.
“The project which is being implemented in our school and other schools in Charsadda by IWPR and PEAD is extremely beneficial for the students who are participating in it,” she said. “Before this project these girls were very shy and could never speak about their problems or issues with any one.
“By participating in these programmes they have become confident enough and brave enough to not only speak freely about their problems and issues but also to form an opinion about various subjects and issues. If you are to ever speak with any one of these students about any subject you will find that they ready and willing to have a mature conversation with you. They will be able to communicate with you in English, Urdu and Pashtu as well.”
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