‘Respect the Pen, Not the Gun’: A Young Woman From Malala’s Hometown Calls for Education Over Violence

Neelam Chattan is helping children in Pakistan cope with conflict by refocusing their attention on school.

(Photo: Courtesy Neelam Chattan)

Sep 30, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Ameera Butt is a regular contributor to TakePart. Her work has appeared in the Austin American-Statesman, Merced Sun-Star, McClatchy newspapers and the Los Angeles Daily Journal, among others.

This profile is part of TakePart’s “I Am Malala” series, which tells the stories of young people around the world who are following in the footsteps of Malala Yousafzai by breaking down cultural and political barriers and championing childrens and girls’ education. The series coincides with the October release of the documentary He Named Me Malala, produced by Participant Media, the parent company of TakePart.

In December 2011, seventeen-year-old Neelam Ibrar Chattan witnessed three 10-year-old boys fighting near a private school in Saidu Sharif, a city in Pakistan’s Swat Valley.

One child had a knife in his hand and was telling the other, “ ‘I’m going to kill you. I’m going to slaughter you,’ ” recalls Chattan, now 21, who spoke in Urdu to TakePart by phone from her home in Saidu Sharif.

“I took the knife from the child. I thought it was real, but it was a fake,” she says. “I asked, ‘Where did you get the knife?’ He said he got it from the bazaar.”

Chattan later went to the marketplace and saw other weapon-like toys, including rocket launchers and pistols. She asked the shopkeepers why they were selling these types of toys. Fake guns, they replied, were the most popular among kids.

Swat Valley, once called the “Switzerland of the East,” is nestled in the Hindu Kush mountains in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in northwest Pakistan. With its lush greenery and flowing rivers, it wasn’t always associated with violence. But in 2007, the Taliban rose to power and imposed harsh rules based on an extreme interpretation of Islamic law—men had to wear long beards, dancing was forbidden, and girls’ education was banned. The group destroyed 200 schools in the area from 2007 to 2009, according to the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

In 2012, the valley made headlines again when 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head by the Taliban for campaigning for women’s education. She sought treatment in the United Kingdom and has since become one of the most recognizable rights advocates, winning the Nobel Peace Prize last year.

Malala Yousafzai speaking to the European Parliament. (Photo: Flickr)

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Now, Chattan is doing her part in their hometown and calling for education over violence.

“Swat children have seen a lot...and in this day and age, so many people have been killed,” she says. When the war between the Taliban and the Pakistani military ended, the violence and terrorism had a lasting effect on the children, she adds. During the Taliban reign, she witnessed people being killed and decapitated.

Chattan wanted to teach children in the area that there is more than fear and violence around them; there is hope. In 2012, she formed a campaign called "Peace for New Generation." In the first year, she was the sole volunteer, organizing conflict resolution and antiterrorism workshops that focused on promoting education, the arts, and sports. Now, 10 volunteers, including local artists, singers, and Punjabi minorities, work with 30 to 40 kids ranging between 12 and 15. Many of the children are involved in child labor, typically attend a religious school known as a madrassa, or have parents or brothers who support or have supported the Taliban.

The workshops focus on empowering young girls, emphasizing education and the opportunities they will have by staying committed to their schoolwork. Girls are also encouraged to look beyond traditionally revered career paths, such as becoming doctors or engineers—occupations especially prized by the older Pakistani generation, Chattan says—and pursue what they are passionate about. They can be lawyers or journalists, too, Chattan says she tells the girls.

“Swat doesn’t have any female journalists. Getting an education was really bad; people were scared when the Taliban came,” she explains. “Now in Swat, there is a shortage of schools, but there is so much demand, especially from girls.”

For now, "Peace for New Generation" holds a few education workshops in areas such as Kabal, Mingora—the largest city in Swat—and elsewhere in Swat. But most of the workshops take place in the children’s homes every Sunday.

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“I teach them about guns and terrorism, because we want to finish this and we want to bring peace in this world,” Chattan says. “ ‘Respect the pen, not the gun,’ we tell them.”

The campaign also arranges sessions with mothers to raise awareness of the day-to-day lives of their children, including who they spend time with and where. To date, Chattan estimates she’s reached out to 300 mothers and 700 children.

Now, she says, the organization is planning sessions with government teachers and schoolchildren between 12 and 16. She hopes to take the program nationwide.

But her work isn’t without risks. Once, a local villager threatened to kidnap her younger brother if she didn’t stop speaking about educational access and conflict resolution.

“He even called me and threatened me. After that, I told the Pakistani Army, and they caught him,” she says.

A confident young woman with strong convictions, Chattan is often seen flashing peace signs and smiles in photographs and playing cricket with groups of boys. She wears a burqa but doesn’t cover her face. Her face, she says, is her identity.

Chattan grew up a middle child with three brothers and one sister, drawing much of her inspiration from her parents. Her father, who died in 2011, was involved in local politics. Her parents didn’t raise her like a daughter, but like a son, she says—essentially, with the same rights as boys. She is the first person in her family to receive a college degree (a bachelor of arts in political science from Government Girls Degree College in Saidu Sharif).

Although she doesn’t have a Nobel Prize to her name just yet, she was awarded the European Union–Paiman Trust Gold Award last year in Pakistan’s capital of Islamabad for her advocacy work.

War will end, Chattan says, when children are focused on school and extracurricular activities.

“Our campaign is against war, and we want to build a peaceful and sustainable society,” she says.