Palwasha L. Kakar, an Afghan-American Muslim and Bethel College graduate, shares her experiences as senior program officer for Religion and Peacebuilding at the United States Institute of Peace. Kakar visited the Eastern Mennonite University campus as keynote speaker for the first "Frontier Luncheon" during the 2015 Summer Peacebuilding Institute. (Photo by Michael Sheeler)

Mennonite education provided to Afghan-American Muslim woman leads her to key roles in world peacebuilding

The culturally mixed background of the Afghan-American Muslim keynote speaker fit well with the diverse attendees from 21 countries at the first “Frontier Luncheon” during the six-week Summer Peacebuilding Institute.

Palwasha L. Kakar told the audience of about 100 that her religious faith underpins all her efforts to empower women across the Islamic world. “In the field, it’s really faith that allows us to overcome obstacles,” she said in her May 6 speech, facilitated in part by the Center for Interfaith Engagement at Eastern Mennonite University.

Tailoring her message to the professional peacebuilders in her audience, Kakar outlined two projects under her purview as senior program officer for Religion and Peacebuilding at the United States Institute of Peace: (1) mapping the religious sector of Libya and (2) promoting women’s rights within the Islamic constitutional framework of Afghanistan.

For the pacifist Christians present, however, the glimpse she provided of her background may have been even more interesting. Kakar’s undergraduate degree came from a sister Mennonite institution, Bethel College in Kansas.

Kakar rushed through highlights of her personal story to focus on the situations in Libya and Afghanistan. The following fleshed-out version of her history was culled from three Bethel College news articles, all pertaining to her 2014 selection as Bethel College’s Young Alumnus. The extracts are republished courtesy of Bethel’s writer, Melanie Zuercher.  — Bonnie Price Lofton

Daughter of culturally mixed marriage

Kakar’s mother grew up Mennonite in the Midwest. “When she married my father, she agreed to raise the children Muslim,” Kakar said. “When she was pregnant with me, the first child, she went to study Islam with a Muslim women’s group, and she decided to convert to Islam.”

Kakar was born in Seattle and spent her first 11 years there.

“When I was growing up, my mother was in medical school and my father was working on a PhD, and my Mennonite grandparents came to take care of me. My grandmother would take me to Friday prayers [at the mosque] and stay to listen to the sermon. On Sunday, she would take me to church, so I grew up also hearing Mennonite hymns.”

In 1989, the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan after a 10-year occupation. “My parents were eager to go back to Afghanistan. However, because of the ongoing war and conflict, we only got as far as Peshawar, where I met my extended family in a refugee camp.

“I quickly noticed that of all the girl cousins, I was the only one going to school. Their families, especially my uncles, wouldn’t let them go. I would get into conversations with my uncles – which pushed me to understand their very traditional mentality.

Changing through faith-based conversations

“Through this kind of discussion, I found what could really convince them was that, in Islam, it is not only girls’ right, it’s their obligation, to be educated. Along with my parents, I was able to convince my uncles to allow their daughters to go to school.

“Now one of my cousins is a teacher, one is in medical school and others are continuing their education. I realized the importance of talking at the level people are at, and how important faith is in helping people think differently.

“We hear from the IMF and the World Bank how women’s education is connected to the economic strength and health of a country. In places like Afghanistan and Libya, it’s important to get this information out, but also to frame it in the context of religion.”

When Kakar came to Bethel, she was leaving a “very conservative” Muslim context and coming to the Mennonite one of her [maternal] grandparents, Ruth and Erwen Graber.

“In both, faith was very important,” Kakar said. “It was the lens through which to view the world.”

The lens of conflict resolution

She continued, “At Bethel, I took classes in conflict resolution and mediation with a goal of educating other societies, especially in Pakistan and Afghanistan, on women’s rights, and of understanding gender and Islam from a perspective that would help expand women’s rights in Muslim countries and societies.”

Kakar has always felt strongly that “it was important to work carefully from within the context, the framework – not push an ideology [such as ‘global human rights’] from outside.”

Many non-governmental organizations shied away from any kind of faith-based development work, she said, but her experience told her that in conservative Islamic societies, the only agenda that would work was a religious one.

At the Asia Foundation, with which she spent most of the last decade in a variety of roles, she found one NGO willing to say, “It’s OK to work in a religious framework, it’s good to work with religious leaders,” she said.

Among the many things she did was organize tours for religious leaders from Afghanistan to see how leaders in other Islamic societies – such as Turkey, Malaysia and India – worked on community issues, especially related to gender.

“Women and men went on separate tours,” she said, “but when they came back, we asked them to reflect on their experience together. It was an experiment” – one that became as important a lesson to the men about the gifts of educated, articulate women as the tours themselves.

“All these bearded men were nodding their heads, saying, ‘Yes, we agree with you, sister.’ There was suddenly no Us and Them. They all had the same cause. That was amazing to see.”

Community-based discussions

Another project Kakar worked on was organizing community discussion groups, which she based upon faith discussions she’s experienced at Bethel.

She took that idea about “safe space” into creating a place where men, in particular – the religious leaders and community elders – could experience “an internal process led by faith.”

The discussions in the community groups centered on women’s rights within Islam, Kakar said, “illustrated with personal experiences, stories and case studies. These became places where some things began to be resolved, where a woman’s rights were protected” – for example, land inheritance or the choice not to marry.

“Religious leaders told us that when we began the groups, they were hesitant to talk about domestic violence and other issues openly within the community. Hearing the experiences of leaders when they did speak out helped other leaders gain the courage to speak that they hadn’t had before.”

The community discussion groups would not have succeeded, Kakar said, “without the acceptance of it being all right to approach situations from a faith basis, [a value] I attribute to my Bethel education and to the Asia Foundation being open to this approach.”

New openness to faith-based work

As other NGOs observed the success of the groups, they began asking for the material to use in their own work.

“Now the tide is changing,” Kakar said. “There is much more openness to using a faith-based approach and to work with religious leaders to change attitudes toward women and their rights.”

Kakar did her undergraduate work in global studies, and Bible and religion, graduating from Bethel in 1999. Her first job was director of the Newton Area Peace Center, which is now Peace Connections.

After earning a certificate in intensive Arabic-language study at Zarka (Jordan) Private University, Kakar began graduate studies at Harvard University, completing a master’s degree in 2004 in theological studies, focused on gender, religion and politics.

Kakar is fluent in Pashto and English, proficient in Dari, and has basic knowledge of Urdu and Arabic. She has written extensively on women’s rights in Afghanistan and Iran.