When Neelam Ibrar Chattan was born in Pakistan’s picturesque Swat Valley, no one in her family ever imagined their region would one day make international headlines. She had a calm childhood with her three brothers, a sister and parents who treated their girls no differently from their sons. It was an upbringing that allowed Chattan to grow up and become an outspoken activist who rallies for girls’ education.
During her teens, the Taliban took control of Chattan’s hometown and began its reign of violence and terror. Taliban militants gained control of the Swat Valley in 2007 and later banned girls in the region from going to school, decrying education for girls as un-Islamic. Under its rule, the Taliban destroyed 400 schools, 70 percent of them girls’ schools, according to the Guardian.
More than 1.5 million residents fled their homes in the Swat Valley before the Taliban was forced out of the region. Even then, the group continued to exert its fundamentalist beliefs on the area. In 2012, a masked gunman shot education activist Malala Yousafzai in the head for openly defying the Taliban’s rules and going to school. She survived and went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize for her work advocating the right to education for all children.
But the same year Yousafzai was attacked, Chattan formally launched her own campaign, Peace for a New Generation, which works closely with both girls and boys to promote education, arts and sports as ways to combat violence and terrorism.
Though the Taliban’s control over the valley has ended and some sense of normalcy has returned to the area, the extremist militant group left behind a largely male-dominated region, which still lags behind in rights for women and girls.
“In this society, girls are supposed to stay at home and they are looked upon as having no value and opinion,” Chattan says. “If a girl is getting an education, she’s not considered a good girl.”
Chattan says many parents worry that if their daughters leave the house to go to school, they risk falling under the gaze of male strangers, which would bring shame to the family. “People will keep their girls inside the house so they can keep a close eye on them,” she says.
Girls as young as 12 find themselves trapped in their homes, kept from an education they are legally allowed to have. So Chattan visits families to explain that Islamic teachings encourage education for everyone, including girls. “We sit with the family and explain to them the merits of education,” she says. “We explain to them how, in Islam, getting an education is a positive thing. … The first word that was revealed to us in the Quran was ‘Read.’”
In situations where the family still doesn’t agree, Chattan takes matters into her own hands.
“If the family doesn’t listen, then we enroll the girl into school ourselves,” she says. Through her initiative, she has raised money to pay for these girls’ school fees, books and uniforms.
Chattan also leads educational workshops for young men and women. In her sessions, she encourages girls to pursue careers such as law or journalism, which are not traditionally practiced by women in the Swat Valley. She says she tries to give the girls a voice, since they often aren’t allowed to choose their own path.
“Girls in this area never do the opposite of what their family wants,” Chattan says. “In our workshops, we find out what the girls are thinking and what they want. If a girl comes to me and says, ‘I want to do this’ or ‘I want to do that, and my family isn’t giving me the permission to do it,’ we try really hard to help her.”
Sometimes, says Chattan, the girls’ fathers or brothers show up and forcibly take their daughters or sisters back home from the workshops. “They say, ‘You are spreading vulgarity,’” she says.
Chattan has been the target of numerous threats, not only because she is outspoken and in the public eye – appearing in the news and giving speeches – but also because she goes outside her home without wearing the traditional full-length scarf, leaving her face uncovered.
She’s faced verbal abuse and insults, and people have also hurled derogatory remarks to her brothers. “People yell at me and scream at me,” she says. “They go up to my brother and say, ‘Your sister goes outside, doesn’t cover up and doesn’t cover her face,’” she says.
While her immediate family has stood by her, Chattan says her activism has tarnished her reputation among other relatives. “Even in my own family, I’m considered to have a very progressive mindset, which is a bad thing,” she says.
“I’m on Facebook, and you can see my face. I’m the first girl in my family who is using my real name on Facebook,” she says. “All the male relatives in the family say I don’t have a good character because I use my real picture and talk to the media.”
But she remains determined to reach her goal of educating Pakistan’s children and says she’s helped almost 800 kids and young adults through her work.
“We need to move in a direction where both girls and boys have an opportunity and resources to learn,” Chattan says. “If you look at other countries, their men and women work side by side and go to school side by side. In our country, the men are in the front and the women are always pushed to the back. You can’t have that if you want to be a normal functioning society.”