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Award winner successfully advocates for women within a religious context

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – To get this year’s recipient of the Young Alumnus Award at Bethel College to campus for the presentation and lecture meant playing a game of “Where in the world is Palwasha Kakar?”

That was according to Jeffrey Graber, speaking for the Bethel Alumni Association’s Awards Committee, which gives the Young Alumnus citation along with two other alumni awards each year.

Kakar, who now lives in Woodbridge, Va., maintains a busy travel schedule, largely in the Middle East, with the most time spent in Afghanistan. She recently took a job (starting in January) with the U.S. Institute for Peace (USIP) in Washington, D.C., and had to juggle plans for a trip to Libya with scheduling the Young Alumnus lecture.

It took place April 14 on the Bethel campus, co-sponsored with the Kansas Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution as one of the periodic KIPCOR Peace Lectures.

“In the 15 years since Palwasha graduated from Bethel, she has been a persistent witness for peace and justice and a tireless advocate for gender equality around the world, especially Afghanistan,” said Patricia Shelly, professor of Bible and religion.

She added that Kakar will now manage a portfolio of USIP projects that span the globe, with a goal of promoting peacemaking and religious understanding.

Kakar was born in Seattle and later moved with her family to Peshawar, Pakistan, where her parents worked with Afghan refugees.

She came to Bethel “already interested in women’s issues and an advocate for women’s rights,” said Shelly, who was Kakar’s faculty mentor and major adviser.

For her lecture, Kakar chose to speak of “my life in light of what I do, and where I’ve come so far, the steps taken to reach this point.”

She began in 1989, when she was 11 and 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.

“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 grandparents, Ruth and Erwen Graber, who lived in Moundridge (her grandfather Erv is still there).

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

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.”

Another project Kakar worked on was organizing community discussion groups.

“At Bethel, I participated for at least two years in faith discussion groups in Haury Hall with [former English professor and academic dean] John Sheriff leading,” Kakar said.

“This was life-changing for me. This was where our faith and our thoughts about the future intersected. It changed me as a person, and I’ve heard that from many others who were part of this. It was a safe place to think about things differently.”

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.”

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.”

Bethel College is the only private, liberal arts college in Kansas listed in the 2013-14 analysis of top colleges and universities in the United States, and is the highest-ranked Kansas college in the Washington Monthly annual college guide for 2013-14. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see

Sidebar: Bridging faiths

NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – When Palwasha Kakar came to Bethel to accept the 2014 Young Alumnus Award, her former professor Patty Shelly took the chance to get her as a resource person on women in Islam.

This semester, Shelly is teaching one of her recurring classes, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Kakar began by reflecting on her choice to wear the hijab, a Muslim woman’s head covering or veil.

“There is not one Islam, there are many Islams,” she said, “and many people’s different interpretations of Islam, from nominal to very devout practice, from externally manifested to not outwardly expressed. This is maybe especially true for women.”

While some Muslim women feel the hijab is oppressive and expresses subjection to men, “for me, it is freeing,” Kakar said. “It says I don’t have to conform to a specific way of looking. I can be more focused on my brain, my ability to think analytically, and attract people with how I think, not how I look.”

Kakar’s oldest daughter, Huma, 16, who came to the class along with middle daughter Rema, said of her choice to wear the hijab: “It’s part of my fashion, but it’s more than a fashion statement. It’s to show I love my religion.”

“That’s refreshing to hear,” said class member Sierra Dirksen, a senior from Goessel, “because so often here [in the West] we hear about the oppressive side.”

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.

“When I was growing up, my mother was in medical school and my father was working on a Ph.D. [in Seattle], 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.

“I had a journey. For any person who comes from multiple identities, there’s a straddling, a process of trying to figure out how to balance.

“I had a lot of identities: Mennonite, Muslim, Afghan, Pashtun. I feel like going through that struggle with my faith and my cultural identities has helped me do what I do.

“One thing people have appreciated and that helped me to progress with the work I was doing [with the Asia Foundation] is that I could explain women’s rights within a religious context and from a religious perspective [and also] help foreign donors appreciate that and want to help instead of being afraid of ‘people who look like the Taliban.’

“It has helped me be a bridge builder, to explain one world to the other world.”

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