Sarwat Jahan knows how hard it is to change someone’s mind. For the past two decades, she has tried do so over and over again. But she doesn’t rely on hypnosis or arm-twisting; instead she focuses on inclusivity and patient peacebuilding in her work countering violent extremism in Pakistan. Sarwat knows that here achieving success comes down to shifting deeply held beliefs.

“Changing people’s mindset is really difficult,” Sarwat says. “It is hard, but I would say that once you are able to prove that you are sincerely doing your efforts and you really want to bring this change, then ultimately the spaces will open up for you.”

Despite this uphill battle, she is determined to modernize people’s beliefs. It is something she delicately tried to do during her nine-year development career with Creative Associates International, and the approach has paid off: Sarwat has been instrumental in linking the private sector, peace organizations and government officials with efforts to counter terrorism and extremism. She also continues the fight for women’s empowerment in Pakistan by bringing women-led organizations into lead roles in these networks.

“I’m a very strong believer that when you are putting all this sincere effort together then no one can stop you,” she says.

Photo by Asad Zaidi
Photo by Asad Zaidi

Becoming a role model

Sarwat’s very presence in the field of countering violent extremism is an example to other Pakistani women.

In the rural culture in which she grew up, tradition holds sway over many aspects of life. One pervasive example: Girls are taught to dream of getting married; their goals should not extend beyond being excellent wives and mothers.

With her own life as a model, this is one of the most fundamental mindsets that Sarwat is quietly trying to change.

Her ambitions began early and were big from the get-go. As a young woman Sarwat told her father, “I want to work for the people of my country in a way that I feel satisfaction and in a way that can be seen tangibly.”

Her father told Sarwat that, as his first daughter, he wanted to give her all the education she wanted and help her pursue whatever professional endeavors she dreamed of.  Although encouraging, Sarwat’s mother was somewhat less enthusiastic about her daughter’s ambitions. She wondered what people unaccustomed to accepting women as capable professionals would say about Sarwat.

Sarwat began working as a social worker, charged by her father with proving that she could be the role model for other girls in the family. She transitioned into working on gender issues and women’s empowerment.

Yet Sarwat almost halted her own professional progress as she readied herself for the birth of her first child. The traditional mindset still flickered in her consciousness and played into Sarwat’s doubts that she could continue her career and start a family. She told her friend and supervisor Rukhshanda that she was leaving her job.

Rukhshanda talked her out of it. “This is our life, and if we are working on all this women’s empowerment…you have to prove it now that you can do that,” she told Sarwat.

Three children later, Sarwat has worked in some of the most dangerous and insecure areas of Pakistan to help foment peace in the face of extremism. “It was all possible because of my husband’s support,” she said.

For the past nine years, she worked with Creative on programs that use community and civil society capacity-building to give greater voice to specific segments of the population, such as youth and women.

She had a hand in managing about 1,450 community-focused projects and working with 50 partner organizations throughout Pakistan. Through her work, Sarwat helped convince the Pakistani government to come on board for countering violent extremism work in the Federally Administered Tribal area, Punjab and Khyber Pukhtoonkhwa, and to include more voices to support the National Action Plan against Terrorism. She helped reach thousands of people with messages that are more modern than the ones they were likely brought up with.

Instead of serving as an example of the traditional view of women as property with a role limited to marriage, Sarwat is proving that women can achieve more. Instead of offering the singular perspective that extremism is the solution, Sarwat is the confident voice that peace is attainable.

Changing people’s minds about violent extremism and promoting peace and tolerance is a long-term endeavor, but Sarwat Jahan is committed to building peace for years to come. She amplifies her pro-peace message through a network of organizations that share her vision of peace across Pakistan. Photo by Asad Zaidi

Changing minds for good

Sarwat particularly remembers one man she met after he took a conflict resolution course offered through a project she managed. He was a mosque leader and head of a madrasa—a religious school that is responsible for guiding the community and shaping young minds.

He realized during the training that he was a hatemonger, delivering hate speeches during his Friday sermons. “And then after attending this training…I stopped this,” he told Sarwat. “And in every Friday sermon now I am giving the message of peace and love.”

To change even one person’s mind fills Sarwat with a sense of reward. To do so in collaboration with communities, the government and the private sector, as she did as deputy chief of party of the Pakistan Transition Initiative from February 2014 to October 2015, makes it even more fulfilling. In this role, she oversaw the Peace Network, a coalition of 40 Pakistani nongovernmental organizations, universities and media organizations actively working to promote peace and tolerance.

“Working with the community, the community elders, with the political agents [and with others], it’s all giving you strength,” Sarwat says.

Now, as chief of party for a non-Creative USAID project, which monitors community perception around initiatives like improving livelihoods and training youth in conflict resolution, Sarwat is still working hard for the country she loves.

She knows that there are so many more minds to change and that shifting the mentality about both women and war will take coordination and commitment. The development sector and civil society can’t do it alone, she points out. Sarwat is committed to helping as much as she can.

“However much effort, however much input we can give to this country, we should,” she says. “We need to be united and we need to give this message that if we are united, we can bring peace to our country. We can reclaim our country back.”

By Jennifer Brookland