At a hearing titled “Women’s Education: Promoting Development, Countering Radicalism,” Rep. Randy K. Weber (R-TX) had a burning question about building peaceful societies in countries riven by sectarian violence and religious extremism.
Addressing Kathleen Kuehnast, director of the Gender and Peacebuilding Center of the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), at an April 3 hearing in the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Weber seemed unimpressed by her account of the institute’s training for local community leaders. “Do you teach in that process a respect for the sanctity of life?” the congressman asked.
The term “sanctity of life” is commonly used by anti-choice activists as a rationale for opposing abortion.
As Kuehnast began explaining that she is personally not a trainer, Weber interrupted.
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“I mean, if you’re gonna have peace, isn’t the ultimate goal not to kill somebody else?” he asked. “That’s not very peaceful.”
In the House of Representatives these days, the subject of abortion is introduced in the most unlikely contexts.
The hearing was called by committee chair
Edward R. Royce (R-CA), just hours before the committee marked up HR 3583, the Malala Yousafzai Scholarship Act, named for the young woman and Nobel laureate who survived a devastating shooting in Pakistan by a Taliban gunman in retaliation for her activism on behalf of education for girls. The bill would increase the number of needs-based college-level scholarships for Pakistani students administered by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), which currently average about 180 per year, and require that half of such aid go to women.
Though not specifically about the USAID scholarship program, the hearing seemed premised to provide a rationale for the bill that might placate Tea Party-allied members of Congress, who are typically unenthusiastic about foreign aid, by framing the education of women as critical to combating terrorism promulgated by Islamic extremists.
“[W]omen’s central role in families and communities makes them uniquely positioned to intervene and stop the radicalization of their children,” Royce said in his opening statement. “Mothers are most likely to spot the signs that something is off. Simply put, if angry young men are to be stopped before they strap on a suicide vest, women will be key.”
Joining Kuehnast on the witness panel were Hedieh Mirahmadi, president of the World Organization for Resource Development and Education, and Humera Khan, executive director of Muflehun, an American Muslim think tank with a mission of preventing violent extremism.
Khan noted women’s low literacy rates in Pakistan (around 60 percent nationwide) and Afghanistan (estimated at 12.6 percent) as an impediment to their full participation in countering violent extremism (CVE) programs, but also asserted that men must be engaged in creating an environment that makes women’s education possible. She told of how, without her father’s approval, her own education would have been impossible, and highlighted the role of Malala Yousafzai’s father in the young woman’s education activism. “These are patriarchal societies,” she reminded committee members.
Mirahmadi emphasized what she saw as the crucial role of mainstream religious institutions and clerics in combating the influence of violent extremists. If religion was the problem, she said, it was also “the antidote.” The United States, however, she contended, was a bit hamstrung in addressing that need because, she said, “the U.S. doesn’t do religion” in its development programs.
Weber took exception to Mirahmadi’s comments.
“You said … that some of the extremists use religion, and if I’ve got it down correctly, you say that the anecdote [sic] is religion, and then you follow that with, the problem is that the United States doesn’t use religion,” Weber said. “Dear God, what are we doing?”
“If the anecdote [sic] is religion, what does that look like?” he continued. “You said that the United States doesn’t use religion. Expound on that. Would you prefer—expound on that.”
“No,” Mirahmadi replied, “I have no intention of changing the Constitution. England does religion, but the—”
Weber interrupted her. “Well, the Constitution doesn’t prevent us from using religion,” he said. “Let me just make sure we get that out there.”
(The United Kingdom is a constitutional monarchy with two official religious bodies, the Church of England and the Church of Scotland. In the United States, the First Amendment to the Constitution forbids Congress from making laws “respecting an establishment of religion.”)
Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) turned the conversation back to the realm of the practical, noting that many extremist groups provide needed services to poverty-stricken populations, a means of gathering support. He asked the panel if any had seen effective alternatives available to the people who needed the services.
The replies were not encouraging: Mirahmadi said she had seen none. Khan explained that there were legal problems for the United States and other Western non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in providing such services, because if it turned out that a single member of family receiving such aid were found to be involved in extremist activities, the NGO could be charged with “providing material support to terrorists.”
Instead of funding outside NGOs to create programs designed to counter the services provided by unsavory groups, Khan said, it was better to fund and empower local organizations. “If you ask communities how to solve their own problems,” she said, “they come up with answers.”
The congressman then asked how to empower women as leaders in countries such as Pakistan and Afghanistan.
By “making sure they’re on the guest list” when the United States and international bodies are convening conferences and events, Mirahmadi said. “[W]hen we help elevate their profile and other countries help elevate their profile, they become players,” she added.
Before the hearing closed, Khan reminded the committee of the primary reason for supporting women’s education around the world. “Education is a human right for all,” she said.
The Malala Yousafzai Scholarship bill was later passed by the committee. It has not yet been scheduled for a vote on the House floor. A Senate version, S. 120, was introduced by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) in January, and has seen no further action. The bill-tracking website GovTrack.us rates its chances of enactment at 24 percent.