Voices of the unheard in Pakistan: Zubair Torwali

Peace Award 2015: Shortlist

He risks his life for the rights of minorities: Zubair Torwali helps marginalised peoples to develop an awareness of their own cultural identity and, as a journalist, he denounces breaches of human rights in Pakistan, his native country.

The Switzerland of Pakistan – this is the name given to the idyllic valley in the northwest of the country. The Taliban have terrorised this region particularly severely over the past years. Death threats prevented girls from going to school and anyone who showed resistance to the terrorist power, was brutally beheaded. But there were those courageous individuals who refused to be intimidated. One of them is Zubair Torwali, protector of minority languages and human rights activist. 

Empowering endangered languages

Born and raised in Swat, Zubair Torwali fights for the rights of marginalised communities in the north of Pakistan. In addition to the Torwali – of which he himself is a member – there are also the Pashtuns who have for decades been the victims of terrorist attacks. Zubair and a group of young activists cooperated to develop a way of writing the endangered language of the Torwali, which had thus far never been given a written form. The group set up a school which taught in Torwali. The wish to create a solid base to support endangered languages motivated Zubair to found the Institute for Education and Development in 2008, which published many books in Torwali and which he still directs.

New self-confidence and self-awareness

Zubair’s work enabled him to give the Torwali the feeling of their own identity. The older generations had unwittingly associated themselves to the Arabs or the Pashtuns but have now become aware of their own cultural and linguistic background.

Zubair and his fellow campaigners also successfully encouraged the community to stand up for their political rights. In the course of their daily work, they combine linguistic and cultural values with the social and economic development of the community. When they run literacy projects or support professional training, then the skills they have learned harmonise with the cultural identity of the participants.

Writing – for the love of Swat

Numerous articles served Zubair as a means of drawing attention to the desperate situation in the Swat Valley. In 2009, after the journalist had witnessed beheaded bodies with his own eyes, he wrote a disturbing article which gained national and international recognition. It was called “From Swat – with no love” and lead to public protests and a government offensive against the Taliban.

Zubair’s articles and activities are witnesses of his courageous work – but are also the reason that he has to hide for months to protect his life. But he still continues working relentlessly to stand up for his community and others who remain unheard.