by Mariam AzeemDecember 20, 2017
While front-line activists in the streets engage in visible acts of bravery and resilience, civil resistance educators, trainers, and mentors sometimes remain backstage, playing a quiet, longer-term role in nonviolent movements. Their work consists of educating activists about civil resistance, and teaching them how to use analytical tools to become strategic thinkers, choose smart tactics, and adopt suitable strategies to their own contexts. Considering that, as Hardy Merriman has argued, there is “virtually no infrastructure or standardized educational processes for learning about this field,” civil resistance trainers play a crucial role in movement building.
Over the past few years, I have been working as a civil resistance trainer and educator in various parts of Pakistan including Azad and Jammu Kashmir. At times, my work to spread knowledge about civil resistance for human rights, peace, and democracy has brought me to cross red lines drawn by patriarchal principles in Pakistani society (and so many other places in the world). Like perhaps many others involved in civil resistance training, my work has often led me to reflect on questions like: What compels people to join a nonviolent movement? And why do some movement participants become disengaged in their pursuit of justice and freedom?
In today's post and a follow-up post next week, I would like to share a few observations that I hope will shed light on these questions, starting with a bit about my personal journey to becoming a civil resistance trainer. In the process, I also hope to share takeaways that will benefit other trainers and educators in this field, whoever and wherever they may be.
My journey to becoming engaged in civil resistance began when I was very young. Despite an otherwise privileged childhood—my father served with prestige and honor in the military for 36 years and my mother is a devoted Muslim and dedicated housewife—at the age of seven, I began to speak up about child sexual abuse.
For years, even with several other girls in my town joining me to voice our concerns about sexual abuse, our voices were ignored, hushed, and shamed. Patriarchy plays a very wicked role in limiting women’s freedom to act and express their opinions.
As I reached adulthood, people continued to condition me to think that our religion did not allow females to play roles outside their domestic boundaries. This, of course, was a manipulated interpretation of Islam. Similarly, family members rejected and discouraged me from being vocal, bold, and “free” in my actions and words against injustice in my community. Under this social pressure, I stopped taking risks and crossing boundaries to find out what freedom felt like.
However, the seed for resisting an unjust system remained buried inside me.
In 2008, I attended a capacity-building workshop on citizen action in Islamabad, organized by British Council and Youth Parliament of Pakistan, which served to reactivate my dormant passion for justice and put me back on my civil resistance journey. I left my job as an arts teacher and started social work. Later, in 2013, I connected with women and men from around the world who shared my passion for justice at the ICNC Summer Institute for the Advanced Study of Nonviolent Conflict. It was truly a game-changer for me.
Since then, I have conducted many civil resistance and civic empowerment trainings with youth, women and sexual minorities throughout Pakistan. I have come to believe that effective civil resistance trainers:
• Enable movements to learn from the past
• Facilitate analytical and strategic thinking
• Contribute in concrete ways to sustaining the movement
• Operate on decentralized leadership principles, and
• Train minds and hearts
In my second post next week, I will expand on these takeaways. But in the meantime, I will leave you with this thought: Over the years, my civil resistance training work has occasionally put me at risk. But knowing that I have a role to play in my society helps me face these challenges. My role—discrete but critical—is to mobilize people and facilitate interactions to help them realize how important it is to voice their concerns and act in solidarity against patriarchy, human rights violations, corruption, and shallow democracy.