Born in Sargodha, Pakistan, the daughter of village schoolteachers, Rubina Feroze Bhatti grew up in a community of mainly landless farm labourers. While still at university, she showed considerable courage breaking her silence as a Christian woman living in both a male and Muslim dominated culture, and fighting for justice to save the life of a Pakistani man who was unjustly accused. For her postgraduate studies, she moved to Ireland, first obtaining a masters degree in chemistry and later in development studies, being awarded with the “Student of Year Award” by the Higher Education and Training Council Ireland.
Rubina’s ‘breakthrough’ came with the founding of Taangh Wasaib Organization (TWO), a rights-based development group working for communal harmony and equality through its many programs.
In December 1998, a group of 25 students, teachers and professors from district Sargodha, Punjab gathered to hold a set of discussions on core social issues in order to understand underlying problems, with the aim of promoting communal harmony, gender equality and respect for human rights among students. Their philosophy was simple: before being able to raise their voices against the issues of discrimination and violence, they – the students – had to first understand the issues through in depth investigations of the root causes of sectarian violence and religious intolerance.
At first these meetings were completely informal 'Study Circle Meetings' not only composed of Christians and Muslims, but even several Hindus, sitting in a circle, studying the wounds of their society with a hope of healing them. Each time they would pick a topic, which someone would prepare and then present a briefing, thereby leading to discussion and discovery. It took another two years before the organisation started to achieve a legal and organisational form. Today, TWO is still a young organisation that continues to grow, evolve and transform. And, not surprisingly it has experienced some growing pains. Keeping this relative youth in mind, TWO has managed to achieve significant successes. Currently the organisation is operating in 12 districts of Punjab and its work has been highly appreciated at the local level and even international level. Accordingly, TWO has developed strong relationships with international organisations especially in the area of peacebuilding such as: International Peace Research Association; Theatre without Border; South Asian Cultural Heritage; Peace x Peace; Noble Peace Laureate, and many others.
TWO’s peace work is built on context and conflict analysis. As Rubina pointed out:
"My own experiences as a women and part of a minority - while maintaining my closest relationships with those very different from myself - has provided me with a wider scope of the world around me. My participation and connections with many different institutional structures - government, education, Muslim and non-Muslim groups, NGOs - has provided me with a deeper understanding of the ins and outs of these structures as well as a more comprehensive understanding of what collaboration might look like for Pakistanis to experience peace."Today Rubina is general secretary of TWO, protecting the rights of women who are targets of honour killings, acid attacks, and other forms of violence. She trains women’s groups to report on violence against women, supports victims with counselling and legal aid, works with media to bring attention to these issues and has appeared on most of the prominent TV channels in Pakistan (PTV, ARY TV, ATV, Dunya TV and GEO TV) and participated in interactive discussions on Public Radio FM 93 and FM 96. She also spoke on FOX News, San Diego 6, and KPBS. Furthermore, Rubina created and directs the 'Women’s Support Programme', which offers micro-credit loans to poor women and runs skill development centres.
Moreover, Rubina and TWO went political, striving to abolish separate electorates which prevent non-Muslims from voting. In 2000 and 2001, the organisation launched a massive campaign with the platform of Christian Organisations for Social Action in Pakistan (COSAP), encouraging religious minorities to boycott local elections. The campaign turned out to be a great success, with the the government restoring the joint electoral system. Subsequently, during the 2002 elections, Rubina was the nominee of Pakistan People’s Party for reserve seats for women in Punjab Assembly.
In addition, Rubina has been actively fighting for Human Rights, introducing a human rights education programme in more than 200 public schools and writing scripts for films and theatre productions on human rights and peace issues that have been performed throughout the Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Rubina is the member of the editorial committee of the newsletter “Taangh”, which published a number of Rubina's articles on human rights, peace and interfaith issues. Standing up for children as the most vulnerable members of society, Rubina established educational and healthcare facilities for children working in Pakistan’s carpet-weaving industry.
The overall key result of her work is the emergence of grassroots women leadership in the form of vibrant women fora who have been taking responsibilities to address pressing issues, such as violence against women by awareness raising, service deliver, lobbying and advocacy.
Rubina's efforts as a defender of human rights have been widely recognised, resulting in an 2001 award by Samina Khalid Ghurki, Federal Minister for Social Welfare and Special Education during a women’s conference organised by the Award Foundation Faisalabad. Furthermore, She has been selected as one of the 1,000 women nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005, as well as being honoured as 'Women Peace Maker' 2009 and a recipient for the World Vision International Peace Making Award 2010 (pdf). The Joan B Kroc Institute for Justice and Peace San Diego University, California has documented Rubina’s biography entitled “Harmony in the Garden”.
"It was my context and conflict analysis that has led me to the platform of TWO, building bridges between different groups of people in order to work toward conflict resolution. I identified Sufism as a connector for Muslims and non-Muslims when Taangh Wasaib’s first began sharing messages of peace through drama in their community. In the light of her views, Sufis, practitioners of an ancient school of Islam, focused on esoteric elements of religion rather than the exoteric or public: inner peace, meditation, spiritual truth, connection to the earth and humanity. The divine is mysterious, but the unity of humanity is knowable – and touchable. So, inspired by the never-ending quest for divine peace and truth, Sufis leaned toward progressive thought and concern for social ills. And though at times radically liberal, Sufism was embraced as a cultural treasure. Before Pakistan’s birth, the region that is now Punjab province was the birthplace and homeland of many prolific and celebrated Sufi poets."Drawing on the ancient value of Sufism’s emphasis on peace, harmony, tolerance, forgiveness, sacrifice and human dignity, Rubina helped to break walls of religious differences by inspiring people to work together in the community. For her, lasting peace cannot be achieved without integration with the majority culture. She points out that religious minorities must merge their voices with the majority, and women must work in collaboration with men.
Therefore, Rubina has been working by adopting an approach of interfaith dialogue and Sufi teachings through art as key strategies to convey the message of love and peace to people to reduce hatred in society. Accordingly, the key principle of TWO's interfaith work is “unity in diversity.” Rubina added that Sufism is the best source of practicing this key principle. As she explains, Sufism does not only speak about one religion - It speaks about humanity, so the children who get this message of Sufism, will never hate Sunnis, Shiites, Christians, Hindus, lower caste, upper caste, poor, or rich; and they will not be persuaded by extremists. Rubina is convinced that there is a potential in every person to become a terrorist or to become a peace lover, hence it is of utmost importance to think about which way we are guiding people: To become a terrorist or a peace lover? She shared a saying, “If you don’t teach your child peace, someone else will teach him/her violence or war.”
When asked about the response of participants to this Sufism project, she mentioned that the turnout was beyond her expectations. A clear indicator for this is the enormous expansion of a group of 25 volunteers into a vibrant network of hundreds of peace volunteers. The other key achievement is the establishment of a 'Peace Garden' – a unique platform where people from all faiths can spend some moments in meditation and reflection, nurturing their inner peace so that they can contribute more effectively in fostering a culture of peace.
2010 marked another moment of international recognition for Rubina’s outstanding work – She received the World Vision International Peacemaking Award 2010. On this occasion she mentioned:
"This is an unforgettable moment of my life. It will always remind me, that being the recipient of this award I have to fight that every moment of my life be in harmony with the expectation of World Vision. Now what is the World Vision or our vision about this world? It is the fullness of humanity. It’s a just and peaceful world where all people can enjoy equal rights."At the end of the interview she expressed her gratitude to her supporters and well-wishers:
"When I look back to my long journey of peacebuilding, I see hundreds of volunteers who have joined hands with me to share in my longing for the fullness of humanity. Some are my mentors on the path towards building a more peaceful Pakistan; others are my companions in my struggle for the protection and promotion of human rights. These wonderful volunteers always motivate people that they are not alone in their difficult times and that they are with them in the struggle to promote peace and harmony. I could never have been a recipient of World Vision Peacemaking Award without the appreciation, kindness and support of TWO volunteers. Therefore, these volunteers are my motivation, my strength and logic to continue working in area of peacebuilding."