A young Pakistani Muslim immigrant to Washington has built a platform for fellow immigrants to come together and do their part to promote peace and tolerance in Pakistan. Her biggest motivation is an unbreakable bond with the country she grew up calling home — in spite of the systemic persecution her community has faced there for decades.
Zaineb Majoka, 28, grew up moving across small towns in Pakistan’s Punjab province, now considered a hotbed of religious extremism in the troubled nation. Her father was a successful civil servant, and Zaineb and her siblings had a comfortable childhood. But things were never quite simple for the tight-knit family.
Zaineb and her family are Ahmedi, a minority Muslim sect whose members are considered heretics by most Pakistani Muslims as well as the country’s constitution. They are commonly referred to as Mirzai or Qadiyani, both derogatory terms that reject their ties to Islam. Growing up, Zaineb saw her father refuse postings to rural towns known for religious extremism to protect his family. Her school’s Islamic Studies teacher once announced in class that all Ahmedis deserved to be killed. Her friends tried to convert her to “real” Islam, and she and her siblings became painfully accustomed to hiding their religious affiliation from friends for fear of being cut off.
In 2010, Zaineb and her family were traumatized by a horrific attack on two Ahmedi mosques in the Pakistani city of Lahore which took 98 lives, including that of her uncle and best friend’s husband.
“I think everyone I knew had lost someone in that attack,” she recalls. “Even now when I think about it, I just feel speechless. All of that happened and when media started reporting, they were just not sure about the terminology to use to refer to us.”
Shortly after the attack Zaineb moved to Maryland to study her passion, international development, and took up a job with the World Bank in Washington while volunteering with Amnesty International and several human rights movements. But despite being removed in distance, Zaineb has maintained a close connection with family and events back home, and has become deeply involved in advocacy to promote peace and religious tolerance in Pakistan.
Following a shocking terrorist attack on a school in Peshawar in 2014 that killed 148 students and teachers, Zaineb founded AdvoPak, an apolitical group that advocates for fundamental human rights and peace in Pakistan, with a focus on informing policy-makers and providing research and material support to initiatives run by Pakistani human rights organizations. The group brings together a wide-ranging group of Americans across Washington, D.C. with or without direct ties to Pakistan, from government workers and economists to students, educators, and a host of young professionals. It initiates awareness on not just human rights violations, but also on positive homegrown initiatives to address those violations in Pakistan.
A prime focus of AdvoPak is supporting school curriculum reform in Pakistan to introduce open source teaching materials that promote open-mindedness and discourage discrimination against minorities.
“We just finished developing supplementary curriculum that focuses on civic engagement and non-violence,” Zaineb says. “It’s really interactive and directed at high school students, and uses local heroes to encourage students to use non violent means for conflict resolution.”
Contrary to the frequently dismal forecasts about the country’s future, Zaineb expresses a confident optimism about recent youth mobilization in Pakistan and several positive initiatives by the Government. She believes change is afoot, albeit slowly, especially through a rise in small-scale grassroots movements by some Pakistanis back home.
“Urban youth is getting more and more political and I think that’s how the democracy should work, that is their (key) constituency,” she says. “People were just not used to getting together and actually thinking about how to change things because at the end of the day you didn’t have a process, you didn’t have those institutions. It is so recent that this has all developed, and I think this is a huge progress for Pakistan in a very short duration of time.”