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'New radicals': Pakistan's Generation Y battles to shape country's future

Khalida Brohi, 23, helps women in a remote part of Pakistan to "unleash their own potential" and battles against honor killings and for women's rights. "I want to change how people perceive women in Pakistan," she says.

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Khalida Brohi's new life began when another girl's life ended.

Born and raised in Pakistan's remote, conservative province of Balochistan, Brohi was 16 years old when the community's traditions collided with her own personal beliefs.

"I found out about a girl who was murdered in the name of honor," she recalls. "I knew her and why she was killed. She wanted to marry someone she liked and she was killed just for that. When I found out about this girl, I knew that was the turning point in my life."


While still a teenager, Brohi founded Sughar Women's Program, a nonprofit organization with the mission of educating women about their basic rights. In many conservative communities across Pakistan, a woman's world extends only so far as the walls of her home. Their social interactions are restricted to family members and opportunities are defined by husbands, fathers and elder brothers.

But training and micro-loans provided by Brohi's group have resulted in CDs, books and embroidered handbags the women produce being sold across the country as well as at a flagship Sughar store in Karachi.

Now 23, Brohi is somewhat of a veteran in her field, and she's not alone.

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All over Pakistan, where the majority of the 180-million-strong population is under the age of 30, members of Brohi's generation are striking out on their own to work toward change in their country, at an age when most are still finding their footing in life.

These social innovators, "change-makers" and "new radicals," as they've been called, represent an increasingly influential segment of civil society, in a country where the decision-making power has always been confined to limited circles.

'Demographic disaster'
Born, raised, and educated in Pakistan, but increasingly connected to the rest of the world through affordable telecommunications and readily-accessible social networks, many members of this generation are flexing their muscle in unprecedented ways when it comes to shaping Pakistan's future.

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Their emergence, in some part, is a reaction to their circumstances. A 2009 study on the attitudes and needs of Pakistani youth, conducted by the British Council's Pakistan office, predicted a looming "demographic disaster," if social and economic changes weren't made to support the next generation.

Muhammed Muheisen / AP

Images of daily life, political pursuits, religious rites and deadly violence.

Half of Pakistan's population is under the age of 20; two-thirds have yet to celebrate their 30th birthdays. To meet the expectations of this group, the study found the country would need to create 36 million new jobs by 2019. Fifty percent of those surveyed felt they weren't qualified to secure a good job; 79 percent felt Pakistan was headed in the wrong direction.

Growing importance, declining reputation
Many members of so-called Generation Y grew up under a military dictatorship or watched the same two political leaders bounce in and out of office. Their formative years were spent watching Pakistan's importance grow on the world stage, while its reputation has declined. They've come of age under the specter of war, watching a burgeoning and aggressive media fill the headlines and airwaves with stories of terrorism, corruption and political crises.

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After watching previous generations succumb to disillusionment, Brohi believes her peers are uniquely positioned to make lasting change.

"My generation is amazing. It's energetic. It's filled with anger," Brohi says. "They want something new in this country. And they want to take the reins in their hands now."

Happiness over 9/11
Ali Abbas Zaidi knows all about that anger. When he went to school on September 12, 2001, he was shocked by what he found.

"Some of my friends, they were congratulating each other," Zaidi says. "They were like, 'Congrats -- 3,000 people have died in America.'"

Zaidi, a soft-spoken 26-year old who was studying to become an aeronautical engineer, smiles in disbelief as he recounts the story.

Ali Abbas Zaidi is founder of the Pakistan Youth Alliance, a group which campaigns against extremism. "Something is wrong with the way we teach our kids," the 26-year-old says. "A lot of the youth population in Pakistan have extremist tendencies ... and we challenge that."

"That was the changing point for me," says Zaidi. "I was like, 'How can you be so sick,' you know? Being a human being that you're happy on the death of 3,000 innocent people?"

Zaidi worked to trace back the dominant collective mindset he saw in so many of his peers. He found elements perpetuated early in life by the educational system, and reinforced at various stages by religious, social, and political leaders. It is a mindset, he says, that glorifies violence and conservatism, and leaves the country's youth vulnerable to manipulation by ideological and cultural forces.

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Zaidi says his generation -- roughly 100 million people -- has become walking, talking "time bombs."

"If you don't correct them, if you don't guide them to being more peaceful citizens of this country and as a global citizen it will be disastrous for us, and for the world," he warns.

To balance the prevailing narrative and work to engage members of his generation, Zaidi founded the Pakistan Youth Alliance (PYA) in 2007.

Counter-terrorism workshops
Besides mobilizing some of his 50,000 Facebook followers for social welfare and relief work, Zaidi taps into this network as he seeks to change the dominant national dialogue. He and his fellow PYA members hold counter-terrorism workshops across the country, inviting local community members to debate them on religion and politics. They organize marches to peacefully protest policies with which they disagree. They've even organized street theater performances in parts of the country's rural and volatile northwest, with the goal of provoking local community members to engage and discuss.

"The older generation didn't realize that their voices mattered," Zaidi adds. "I think my father's generation was very apathetic. And they're responsible for what is happening in this country now. So our generation, we have to be responsible for what happens next."

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Blogger Sana Saleem, 24, has been writing for as long as she can remember. But it wasn't until 2008 that she realized how easily her voice could be quieted.

A controversial event called "Draw Muhammad Day" appeared on Facebook, drawing the ire of Muslims worldwide, many of whom object to any imagery of their prophet. Pakistan's government censorship agency leapt into action, banning Facebook and thousands of other websites, including Saleem's blog, all deemed to be in breach of the government's controversial blasphemy law.

Sana Saleem, 24, campaigns against "controversial issues that are not talked about" including Internet freedom and minority rights. "I want to see a Pakistan where diversity is thriving," she says.

"We've seen how social spaces can be constricted by using these laws, and this was just a side step of doing something similar in cyberspace," Saleem says. "We just felt that this was a dangerous precedent the government was setting."

'Rape threats'
She and a group of fellow journalists founded Bolo Bhi, which means "Speak Up" in Urdu, to organize and protest the government bans. The reaction was swift and fierce.

"A lot of hate we got was based on the claim that we were favoring porn, that we were favoring objectionable content, that we were somehow trying to spread immodesty," says Saleem. "Because a lot of our members were women, most of the threats were really vile, and they ranged from acid attack threats to rape threats."

By lending her face and name to the cause, Saleem became a target for the vocal, conservative forces in Pakistan that often bully and harass dissenting voices into silence.

"It puts you in a spotlight where it's either you're with them or you're against them," Saleem says. "What really scares me is the polarization here; the two ends have become such extremes, where the one hand has much more power and guns, and we have only our voices and the motivation to make change happen."

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Over the years, Bolo Bhi has become a safe space where controversial issues – like gender-based violence, minority rights, and Internet freedom – are given a forum. The seven core members of the group use the platform to raise awareness, enable discussion, and advocate for change on matters traditionally not acceptable for public discourse.

For Saleem, an effort launched to preserve her own voice in society, has grown into a mission to help her generational peers find their own.

"The youth [in Pakistan] is sort of suffering from an identity crisis, trying to battle between what Pakistan was in the past, and also moving forward," says Saleem. "How do we create the society that Pakistan was meant to be, and that was lost in those decades?"

NBC News' Waj Khan contributed to this report.

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