In 2009, the Taliban destroyed 10 girls' schools in the tribal district of Dir in Northwest Pakistan - schools which Maryam Bibi's charity, Khwendo Kor, had helped to build.
Now she and her supporters are risking their lives by working to rebuild them, organising tents as temporary classrooms, until the burnt out schools can be rebuilt.
Filmmaker Farah Durrani followed Maryam Bibi and spoke to Al Jazeera's Donata von Hardenberg about Maryam's mission, and the daily lives of those struggling to survive amid the warfare of Pakistan's tribal districts.
Al Jazeera: Why did you decide to make a film about Maryam Bibi and her mission to empower women through education in the tribal areas of Pakistan?
Farah Durrani: One of the things I wanted to show was how Pakistan's struggle with the militants is affecting ordinary people and how ordinary people deal with it in their daily lives.
So following Maryam Bibi was a way of trying to understand how ordinary people are being very creative in their daily lives and are trying to say to the world: 'we want peace in our country'.
As one of the leading women in Peshawar and the tribal areas Maryam Bibi is someone who is taking that challenge head on and saying 'enough is enough, we want peace too'.
Do the local people support Maryam Bibi's work, either discreetly or openly?
|Maryam Bibi has dedicated her life to promoting peace and women's rights
Maryam Bibi has a network of supporters and volunteers and is very good at persuading people to join her in the demonstrations she organises.
She and her supporters use email and texts to communicate saying 'can you come out for five minutes? We are going to a place where there was a bomb blast just to pay our condolences and show support to the people affected, whether it is the police or the ordinary people of the region'.
So they do this very quickly and obviously it is open to all.
A lot of the women are risking their lives because every time they go out anything can happen. One woman I spoke to told me that every time she leaves her home, whether to pick up children from school or buy groceries, she never knows whether she will come back home alive.
So there is that fear in Pakistan – people don't know where the next bomb blast is going to be. So these women who organise and demonstrate are risking their lives, and Maryam Bibi and Khwendo Kor are the forefront of that. They are part of a minority who are coming out against violence. But a lot of people are scared.
How much support does the Pakistani Taliban have among the local people?
We focused on Maryam Bibi and her work in the villages rather than the Taliban themselves.
We went to a village where the Taliban had been living. Then when the fighting began between the Pakistani army and the Taliban, many of the Taliban went and hid in the surrounding mountains, but while they were in the mountains they could still come back.
And the problem for Pakistan's army and the local people is that it is very difficult to distinguish who is Taliban and who is not – as they look and wear the same clothes as the local people and speak the same language.
So for this particular programme the idea was to focus on Maryam Bibi as she was travelling back to Dir to look at the schools following the fighting between the army and the Taliban.
How are tribal communities affected by the Taliban's presence?
Of course there is fear in the villages. As one head of the village said, the Taliban are in the mountains and they continue to intimidate the people by burning their schools.
What the Taliban wanted was to close down schools. It was a signal from them 'if you go with the government or with the army we can do this to you'.
They are always sending those strong signals. Maryam Bibi returned once the army had cleared the road. But there was always fear.
As the film shows, there was a bomb blast literally a few meters from where we were staying which was aimed at people attending Friday prayers.
Fearing for their lives, many international NGOs have left the region. How much of a threat do the Taliban pose to Maryam Bibi's work?
|Maryam and her team never know what they might be confronted with when they go out
The threat is always there. The Taliban started openly attacking any institution including NGOs.
They can always come down from the hills, from their hideouts, and it only needs one or two of them to attack a target.
They come down easily and then go back again. The fear is always there.
So for Maryam Bibi and the staff of Khwendo Kor going out into the villages, going out into these schools, they don't know what they are going to be confronted with.
Maryam Bibi is an extraordinary woman because it is a male dominated society. She is doing a lot of the work with local people, working closely with local leaders and that's good because they work within the local traditions there while pushing development of education to a limit.
Maryam Bibi and her team know they have to work with local leaders, so they take the tribal leaders with them. And that's what she is very good at.
What has been the reaction of the tribal communities and the tribal leaders to her work?
Of course there was a reaction but because Khwendo Kor asked them for their help and took them along with them, the local communities and elders are beginning to realise that Khwendo Kor is doing valuable work for them.
If you can imagine in a village where there is no school, children have to walk for miles to the nearest classroom. What Khwendo Kor does is work with tribal local leaders and with the local women and provides funds to take over a local property and then bring in their teachers or they train local people to run the school.
If you speak the local language and you understand the local traditions, you can build up trust. And that's what Maryam Bibi does - she is trying to build up trust with the local community to inform them what she is doing.
She is going into areas where sometimes the government does not have schools. So sometimes she has to work with local government agencies. At other times, she raises money to build up small schools.
These are extremely remote villages. Most of the women spend most of their time within the four walls of their homes. Young girls go out for a bit, but basically there is not much to do.
How does it impact tribal communities if girls get an education?
The aim of Khwendor Kor is to bring about gradual change. If you educate the mother, then you are hopefully educating the next generation. So the idea is to educate slowly and gradually.
Maryam herself is from a tribal society. She is from a tribal background. Her parents thought that education was important so she managed to get education. But for these women in the tribal areas to come into the school is a huge step.
If a woman like Maryam Bibi can be a role model that in itself is a huge step. It is easy for those in the West to say 'but they’ve got to go to school', but in the tribal areas of Pakistan to get girls to come to school to have a basic education is a huge step forward.
What does Maryam Bibi hope to achieve?
|People in tribal areas are slowly beginning to realise that education is important
Through her work Maryam Bibi hopes that once you educate young people, there will be change.
She strongly believes that education is what you need in that area, because if you don't educate them they are not going to have a skill.
If they don't have a skill they are not going to work, and in those societies where young men - and young girls - but young men in particular- where they don't have education, what do they do?
And it is precisely because there is nothing for the young people to do that the tribal area has become a fertile recruiting ground for the Taliban.
The Taliban have the money and they are able to offer parents money to buy young boys. So if you live in poverty, parents may think they don’t have an option.
But gradually people are beginning to understand that they have to bring about change in society. Because of all the fighting and suicide bombings most people including young children have been affected.
In the film you see that when children are shown a simple picture of a young lad sitting by a gate, they all say he is Taliban. They all give him a name. They project their own experiences onto the picture.
They have seen their houses burn, or seen fighting, or had to leave their homes to live in the refugee camps. These communities have suffered a huge amount in the so-called war on terror. It is a society in transition.
Where do you see the tribal areas of Pakistan and its women in the future?
The fighting and suicide bombings are a daily reality. It is going to take generations for the situation to really change. And now it is not just in the tribal areas. It is throughout Pakistan. Bomb blasts are happening in Peshawar, Lahore, Karachi ....
Investment in education is the future. It is changing attitudes and it is bringing investment into the country, and into the tribal areas. That's where the future is.
But sadly change is not going to happen overnight. The traditions, the culture, it is a very conservative society so there is a long way to go.
What challenges did you encounter while making the film?
Filming in the tribal areas is always a challenge and travelling with a film crew can be difficult as you tend to attract crowds wherever you go.
It is a huge responsibility so you have to put safety measures into place. You have to have local knowledge and local advice, put security measures in place advice and work closely with people who are aware of what's happening.
As journalists you do that on a daily basis, but of course it's dangerous and you work with that in mind.
Are you still in touch with Maryam?
Yes. I haven't been back since the filming, but I speak to her.
Have there been any developments since you were there filming?
Khwendo Kor continues its work. Maryam Bibi still continues to visit schools. She is busy raising money, that's the biggest challenge. They want to raise more money so they can put more back into schools and continue supporting the local staff.
The staff is drawn from within the community. But as the film points out they are seen by some as agents of the West because they get aid from the West. Some people don't understand that this does not mean they are working for the West.
Khwendo Kor is working for local communities and because it is working with local people it is able to continue while other NGOs have had to pull out.
Source: Al Jazeera