Last week I had the pleasure of travelling across the UK with a young Pakistani peace activist. In many ways, she’s just like many twenty-something women; obsessed with Facebook and Instagram, an occasional dieter (all of which, she confides with a cheeky smile, absolutely do not work), and talks about her love for friends and family, and of travelling the world, experiencing new sites, sounds and cultures.
Except that this particular young woman is not at all like most twenty-somethings. Raised in an area heavily influenced by the Taliban, she and her sister decided when they were in their early teens to do something about it; first by helping other young girls at her school understand they have equal rights to men (she produced a ‘declaration of rights’ that all girls had to sign and carry with them); then over time by establishing a network of activists who seek out young people at risk of being drawn into extremist Taliban narratives, and engaging with them to pull them back from the brink.
Now, 13 years later, Gulalai Ismail and her sister Saba are widely acknowledged for their remarkable work, which is fitting as they are among the most remarkable people I have ever met.
I travelled with Gulalai across the UK to share her story, so that she could inspire others. Along the way we met activists, business leaders, students, public sector workers and academics, all of whom heard the same core messages.
First, believe in your own power. This was the key to everything that Gulalai and her sister did. When young people started to understand that they weren’t powerless, anything became possible.
Second, everyone can be a peacebuilder, so don’t wait for someone else to take the lead. Gulalai and her sister encouraged young people to develop their own strategies and plans which would help build peace in their communities, and this became a highly effective way of sowing the seeds of peace across many communities in the north west of Pakistan.
Third, it is one-to-one engagement over a sustained period that creates change. People don’t want to be lectured, nor do they respond well to generic messages blurted across loudspeakers, television or the internet. People respond to people, and this is key to building peace.
Today, as we celebrate International Day of Peace, I hope that we can all take the lessons from Gulalai’s talk and embody them now, not tomorrow or next week.
If we believe in our own power, take the lead in building peace in our communities, and engage other people directly in this, there may well be a time we no longer need to mark one day as International Day of Peace. This is my #messageofhope.