Fighting Discrimination Electronically
Digital Storytelling to Advance Peace in Pakistan
by Ruth Broyde Sharone
The iconic image of a male storyteller addressing an enraptured audience pressed shoulder to shoulder around a glowing campfire may soon be replaced by hijab and sari-clad young women holding their smart phones.
A group of ambitious and empowered young women in Lahore, Pakistan are primed and eager to tell the stories of their time, their place, and their gender. Their instructor is Naveed Hameed, an accomplished filmmaker, journalist, and peace-builder, named one of 15 emerging young leaders in Pakistan by the U.S. State Department in 2016 and recently selected by the United States Institute of Peace (USIPS) as a Generation Change Fellow.
Naveed formed his own organization, Faiz Resource Foundation, in 2014 to teach young men and women visual storytelling through a variety of information and communication technology (ICT) tools. His long-range goal is to use digital storytelling to build peace in Pakistan, a country where in recent years, as he describes it, “people have witnessed an environment of growing intolerance, vigilantism, and violence against weaker groups.” Hameed is working conscientiously to counter the violence by promoting pluralism, harmony, and diversity among people of very varied heritage, background, ethnicity, faith and language.
The most vulnerable, he says, are young adults, women, transgenders, religious minorities, and human rights defenders “who are terrorized by state institutions and non-state actors, including extremist groups.” Naveed believes the iPhone has the potential to become one the most potent weapons in the struggle against discrimination. His short-term goal is to teach the use of the smartphones and iPhones to provide a voice for minorities and the oppressed, especially women.
Naveed himself is no stranger to discrimination. He was born in a small village to a poor Christian family in a predominantly Muslim country. None of his family could read or write. Naveed’s father worked a low-income job, and he was dead set against Naveed obtaining an advanced education. He believed that – regardless of his son’s future educational achievements – because he was Christian, he was destined to suffer religious discrimination. Even with a college diploma, he thought Naveed could at most only land a janitorial job. In the end, Naveed’s mother took a courageous step – in opposition to her husband’s wishes – to allow her son a chance to continue his studies.
At the age of seven, Naveed moved into a boarding hostel to pursue his studies. Naveed’s mother continued cleaning homes in order to cover his educational expenses until he successfully completed his education. Although in retrospect he understands and appreciates the sacrifice she made on his behalf, at the time he felt cut off from his family “at the very age when I needed them the most.”
In 2009, while Naveed was studying in university, a horrific incident happened in the Christian colony of Gojra, a pivotal incident that would determine his life’s path. More than 75 houses were set on fire in, and eight people were burnt alive. Naveed arrived at the scene of destruction, and while he was recording video interviews of the aftermath, suddenly he heard a young girl cry out: “They are coming! They destroyed my toys and now they’re going to kill me!” The little girl’s grief and consternation had a profound impact on him. He thought back to the pain he himself had faced during his childhood when he was separated from his family and when his Muslim friends refused to play with him unless he agreed to convert.
It was at that moment Naveed made up his mind to do everything in his power to eradicate the religious violence and misunderstandings he had witnessed and experienced. To that end he hoped to bring together – in a collaborative endeavor – Pakistan’s diverse religious communities. And, especially, he wanted to help empower young women.
He launched his digital storytelling initiative named SOCH (in English: THINK) in 2016 and began to recruit young people from the Muslim, Christian, Hindu, and Sikh communities to teach them the skills necessary to create their own peacebuilding media and startups. Pakistan is a third-world country with more than 140 million cellular subscribers, 67 percent of them youth. He knew smartphones and iPhones with Android and ISO technology were destined to play an integral role in the country’s development, replacing traditional desktops, laptops, and cameras. “It’s time to seize future technology as a means to create crucial and innovative alternative media to help shape public opinion,” Naveed emphasized.
The digital storytelling intensive training workshop he designed for young people included three modules:
Youth would learn hands-on pre-production basic skills of scripting, still photography and videography by using the smartphone/iPhone Android/ISO technology.
Youth would participate in an in-depth focus group discussion and content development for production. Youth would then go back to their communities to record stories and they would return to the workshop to learn the basics about post production and editing.
A final screening and diversity celebration event would be organized to give the youth an opportunity to present their work. The screenings would be held at different educational institutes and communities around the city. This would also be a golden opportunity to invite policy makers, academia, media, civil society, and politicians to become involved in this “collective journey to peace.”
The project was funded and a total of eight short stories were produced on different issues, each using cell phones. Ultimately, the SOCH program directly benefited 80 diverse youth – particularly marginalized youth and women. Indirectly the program benefitted upwards of 5000 people. More than 2000 were reached through screening events and some 3000 through social media.
The video ‘Women on Wheels’ was produced for SOCH by two participants, Mariam Shahzad and Amir Hameed, and sponsored by the U.S. embassy in Pakistan. Mariam, 20, researched the idea and was involved in all aspects of the film’s production. Her feedback, as a SOCH alumna, provides an illuminating look into the future of digital storytelling used purposefully to empower women in Pakistan and world-wide. She writes …
“Before applying to this peaceful initiative, I had never been a part of a startup that used technological tools in promoting peace and empathy in our community. Coming from a marginalized society, I have always looked for ways in which I can build bridges of peace between different communities. Through the proficient training provided by SOCH for capacity building and use of technology for visual storytelling, I successfully completed a short video called "Women on Wheels." It highlights women using public modes of transport (as taxi drivers) to create financial means for their families. Thus, the program not only empowered me but also allowed me to empower others through these remarkable inspirational stories of change – all documented with cell phones!”
Naveed believes technology can encourage and prepare anyone to become a storyteller for good, with a built-in global audience. By learning to create compelling digital stories, he predicts the young people of Pakistan will spark social change, transforming the atmosphere of intolerance into respect and, in the process, create an opportunity to celebrate Pakistan’s colorful array of distinctive communities.
Header Photo: Pxhere