Pakistan's America gains community's support through social activism

By Adnan Rashid  |  Oct. 6, 2013 at 4:05 PM
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When hundreds of women chanted "Long live America" while protesting power cuts and water shortages in the Jamrud Bazaar in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas five years ago, they were not supporting the United States but a pioneering woman named for the world’s most powerful nation.

Born in Jamrud in 1948, America was named by her father, Akhtar Munir, who did not add the family surname, because of his love for the United States. As an adult, America took some of her namesake's characteristics, especially outspokenness and activism.

"For the first time in the history of the tribal area, I organized a protest," America told UPI Next, referring to the 2008 demonstration.

"More than 1,000 women participated.”

Since then, she has engaged in social activism at a vocational training center in the area run by Khwendo Kor, a non-governmental organization that works on women's issues. She has worked for women's rights and to fulfill basic needs, such as electricity and running water, of her Afridi tribe.

As a member of Active Tribal Sisters, a union supported by Khwendo Kor, America has passed on her tailoring and handicrafts skills to other women, who now sell their work in the market. America can no longer do the work herself because of her poor vision.

"… America empowered our women and trained them in the local vocational center," local writer Qais Afridi told UPI Next. "She mobilizes women of the community if there is any event of the NGO or any issue in the community."

America's says her father chose her name because he "had a passion to go to America, and he tried hard.”

"Once he was on the way to America on a ship at Mumbai, before the partition of India, and disguised as an Englishman,” she said. “The crew identified him as an illegal traveler, as he was holding an English paper upside down because he was illiterate. He was jailed for three years."

He may not have realized the challenges she would face.

A 2011 Pew Research Center report found that 69 percent of Pakistanis considered the United States an enemy, and in 2012 the figure increased to 74 percent.

"Pakistanis perceive the U.S. as an unreliable ally," Asad Munir, a retired brigadier unrelated to America's family who has served in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, wrote in an Express Tribune article titled "The Reason We Hate America."

"Also, whilst the U.S. preaches democracy it has always supported dictators.

"Pakistanis doubt U.S. intentions regarding their nuclear assets. Another reason is that Muslims tend to blame other powers for the failure of their states and these are coupled with the fact that Muslims do not view U.S. support of Israel favorably."

Few other Pakistanis have unorthodox names such as America, although a Swat cleric in Swat is named Muhammad Israel.

On the street, children tease America about her name, as her children and grandchildren sometimes do at home.

"I wasn't mistrusted because of my name, as I grew up here and the community knows me well," America said, although she is sometimes good-naturedly teased by acquaintances who say she should move to the country for which she was named.

"Usually people refer to America in a bad sense, and I get annoyed because my name is America," she said, "but no one can dare to speak negatively of me. I know how to defend myself, even in front of male community members."

Asghar Ali, 40, a teacher living near her village, joked to UPI Next, "Like the U.S.A., she also interferes in others' families and their disputes."

America retorted that her attitudes had protected her children from possibly falling into the wrong hands. She said her nature also helped her solve community disputes, particularly among women, and to influence the male jirga -- an assembly of elders that makes decisions for such basic needs as water and electricity -- for female rights.

America, who is illiterate, said she regretted not having a formal education but educates herself by following radio, television and newspapers, which others read to her.

"I have watched thousands of Indian and Pakistani movies, and remember significant poetry by heart," she said.

Her son, Yaar Mohmmad, told UPI Next, "She could be a good lawyer if she had a school education, because she is fighting for the basic needs of the community and how to protect the rights of the community."

Despite financial constraints, she gave three daughters and three sons a basic education. She remembers working for several days to make 11 bed nets with hand-woven ropes for 60 cents because Yaar needed a book. He continued his education and is now a teacher.

"I am a living example of the extreme love that my father had for the U.S.," America said.

"He couldn't manage to visit the U.S., but I wish I could."

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