As a scientist, Rizvi can’t help but think of terrorism as the symptom of a bigger disease, “which is ignorance or intolerance” fed by poverty and a lack of access to education and information. “I see no better drug to treat this disease than education. If you can stop [the gene] from expressing, you can kill the disease from its very roots.”

Ultimately she would like to build upon the success of eLIT to reform madrassas, turning Islamic schools where hatred toward Westerners is often taught into technology centers. “Most families who send their young boys to madrassas do so because they’re poor and the schools provide food and clothing as well as a sense of respectability,” Rizvi says. “From early childhood they learn that anyone who doesn’t believe in their brand of Islam is an infidel and it is their duty to eliminate the world of the infidel. It’s not really their fault because they’re brainwashed.” If these students have had any exposure to Western popular culture, “they think that every man from the West is a James Bond, and every woman is walking around in a bikini and seducing men.”

What if these children were instead learning digital editing, word-processing and other marketable computer skills, Rizvi wonders. What if they went online to research what life is actually like in other countries, get advice from mentors in various professions, and take part in moderated chat rooms with students from different cultures? If the clerics who run these schools didn’t cooperate, technology centers could be set up at alternative sites to compete with the madrassas.

Whatever it would cost to create a network of such schools in places like Afghanistan or Iraq, Rizvi says, “It would still be only a fraction of what it takes to bomb countries. These children can be attracted if we provide food and clothing, and hope for a future.”

She shared this idea with President Bush a few years ago when she was invited to the White House with a group of Pakistani-Americans to talk about U.S. policy in South Asia. The invitation came just months after September 11, and Rizvi spoke bluntly. “While we’re dropping bombs and doing all these things as a way of eliminating terrorism, I believe those are short-term solutions,” she told the President. “What those things do is make one place safe for a short while and make the rest of the world even more dangerous.”

Rizvi has not heard back from Bush on her proposal, but she hopes to grow her organization enough to support one technology center at a time.

Meanwhile, she has other ideas for dousing extremism. In July she spoke to the Islamic Foundation of Villanova about how electronic literacy can increase women’s participation in societies where they face cultural and religious restrictions.

“It provides women ‘virtual purdah,’ Rizvi says. (Purdah literally means curtain but is used for different forms of covering of women.) “If a woman is sitting at home and her parents, husband, or brother do not allow her to attend a meeting regarding any kind of social issue, she has the ability to send her view or interact in different ways through electronic media. I think it has a very unique benefit for women”—and for those societies, by adding other viewpoints to the mix.

 

It is partly her own experience as a grad student, finding fellowship among people so different from her, that fuels Rizvi’s desire for a world less divided by national or religious boundaries. “It’s very idealistic, but I don’t feel it’s impossible,” she says. “If 18 years back I said I would have a Ph.D. and an MBA, and I would be doing this, everyone would have thought I was crazy.” (The Queen of Paris did eventually make it to Paris, by the way. On a brief visit with friends who lived there, Rizvi was “very disappointed there were no streets of glass and no cars running on glass streets.”)

Her work with eLIT also takes her back to Pakistan occasionally. “It’s a very different feeling,” she says. “I left as a kid, emotionally sheltered and naïve. I didn’t know the world at all. And now I’m a grown woman. I think my age, my education, and the work I’ve done have lent me a credibility that’s very helpful when I go there now.”

Rizvi’s own parents, who now live in Toronto, have come around as well. While they still can’t comprehend “that a woman can live on her own and be fine,” she says, they “accept my life’s choices.”

“My father visited the other week,” Rizvi says. “He was sick. I think it’s the first time in my entire life I had a heart-to-heart conversation with my father. We actually discussed things and I felt my opinions were valued.”

As close as she is to her own daughter, Rizvi happily accepts the fact that Maham has different dreams and interests. “I loved subjects like algebra and chemistry, and she finds history and literature, and art and acting very interesting. I learn a lot from her. She’s a great kid.” Rizvi wants the future to look as bright for other young women.

One of her favorite stories is of an eLIT graduate in India who got a job with a multinational firm because she could use the computer. “This girl comes back and says, ‘I’m going to go to college and one day I’m going to be managing director of that company.’

“I felt so happy when I heard this story,” says Rizvi. “To me this is empowerment: being able to feel you can achieve anything you set your mind to. That is the sort of feeling I wish every woman could feel. It’s a gift that’s beyond any words.”

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©2005 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 10/28/05

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The Power of Her Choices