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Life in Exile: How Pakistani Human Rights Activist Gulalai Ismail is Fighting Persecution of Her Family

Life in Exile: How Pakistani Human Rights Activist Gulalai Ismail is Fighting Persecution of Her Family

  • A conversation with the 34-year-old, an ethnic Pashtun, who fled to the U.S. and is seeking asylum status after being targeted, harassed and threatened by the Pakistani state.

Pakistani human rights activist Gulalai Ismail is demanding that the bail application of her father, Muhammad Ismail, be accepted by the Peshawar High Court, and that charges against him and her mother, Uzlifat Ismail, be dropped immediately. “As of now, my father is in prison because he was not granted bail after the case was reopened,” Gulalai Ismail told American Kahani in an interview last week from New York, where she has been in exile since 2019. “My mother was granted a bail in the same case.” 

Muhammed Ismail was arrested on Feb. 2 on charges of sedition, criminal conspiracy, under the Anti Terrorism Act of Pakistan. 

Ismail says her father was jailed for being outspoken and for raising an activist daughter. News of her parents’ misery has been extremely hard on the 34-year-old. “The focus of the persecution just shifted from me to my parents, which is even more painful,” she says. “Especially seeing my mother being booked in cases, then my parents being exposed to COVID.” 

She is putting all her energy into fighting for the father’s release. “I really want my parents to be out of Pakistan,” she says. “They are above 65, and can’t live independently. They don’t deserve what’s happening to them,” she says. “My parents’ miseries should not be the cost of my activism. My focus is now to use any means and ways to bring my parents out of Pakistan. I don’t want to live with the guilt later that I didn’t do anything to save my parents even when I could’ve done something.”

Gulalai Ismail with her father Muhammed Ismail who has been incarcerated. Top photo, Gulalai with Malala Yousufzai and her father Ziauddin Yousafzai.

Gulalai Ismail is one of Pakistan’s best-known women’s rights activists. A vocal critic of the country’s government, Ismail’s crusade to get justice for women who’ve been victims of rape, incest and forced marriages has made her and her family target of the authorities in Pakistan. An ethnic Pashtun, one of Pakistan’s largest groups, Ismail has become a prominent  supporter of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement or Pashtun Protection Movement, a human rights protest group known as PTM.

Ismail fled Pakistan in 2019 when things seemed to get out of control. “When I went into hiding, the thought of leaving Pakistan hadn’t even crossed my mind,” she says. There were raids at her home, her family was tortured, her friends were abducted and tortured. That was when Ismail concluded that it was no more safe for her to stay in Pakistan. “So the best possible way to save my life and be able to keep speaking out,” was to leave the country.

She currently lives in Brooklyn, New York, with siblings. “We are six siblings and thanks to my activism, all of them are suffering,” she says. Her four siblings — two brothers and two sisters — have been living in the U.S. for years, and are U.S. citizens. Ismail and her younger sister Saba lived in Pakistan with their parents. “When I was living in Pakistan, I never wanted to live here,” she says. “I never wanted to live the life of an immigrant. I was more comfortable at home in Pakistan.”

Her siblings, however, would visit Pakistan regularly. “But now, because of this situation, even they cannot come, because we know that once they will come they will be booked in cyber crime cases or anti-terrorism cases, or they will be placed on Exit Control List,” she says. “There are some seen parts of the persecution and then there are these huge unseen costs which the entire family is paying,” she says. “Especially when my parents had COVID, there was literally no one to take care of them. It was the hardest time for us.” 

Her work has brought her audiences with powerful women leaders like former First Lady Michelle Obama and Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II. In 2013, she received the Democracy Award by the National Endowment for Democracy.

The pandemic is causing delays in her asylum case, but her activism is in full swing. A few months ago, Ismail, along with other exiled activists, started an initiative named The Exiled. Its purpose is to extend support to human rights defenders and peace activists who are at risk and also project impact on the issues back home “which are close to our hearts and which have caused our exile, but most importantly, issues of civic spaces and issues of human rights.”

Born in Swabi and raised in Peshawar, Ismail has a master’s in biotechnology. Since her teenage years, she has been interested in human rights, gender-based violence and countering extremism. This led to Aware Girls, an organization she co-founded at age 16, with her sister, Saba Ismail, 15. It advocates peace building and the rights of young women that is led by young women. She is also the founder of the Youth Peace Network, which offers training to young people in human rights and leadership skills, advocates for the increased participation of women in politics and encourages mutual respect between people of different faiths in Pakistan. 

Her work has brought her audiences with powerful women leaders like former First Lady Michelle Obama and Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II. In 2013, she received the Democracy Award by the National Endowment for Democracy.

In an interview with American Kahani, Ismail opened up about her persecution in Pakistan and her eventual escape, her parents’ misery, her life in exile, and her activism. Following are edited experts from the interview:

Q: How has life in exile been?

Soon after my arrival to the U.S., the pandemic started, causing delays in my asylum case. It has become difficult to reach out to policy makers because offices have been closed, everything has become online, and priorities have changed. Due to the pandemic, almost every country is focusing on healthcare. So safety and security of human rights defenders in exile was no more a priority. And authoritarian states like Pakistan used this as an opportunity to increase intimidation and harassment of activists who are in exile, including me. It has been a rough ride. 

Q: How did you leave Pakistan?

(Laughs). Well, I think I should save something for my book. I entered the U.S. via flight. I had a valid U.S. visa.  When I went into hiding, the thought of leaving Pakistan hadn’t even crossed my mind. 

It began on May, 21, 2019, when addressed a protest demonstration [against the brutal rape and murder of a 10-year-old girl named Farishta]. It was a two-minute speech, and I had no idea of how things would evolve. 

Gulalai Ismail, extreme left, with First Lady Michelle Obama.

On May 23 early morning, I received a call from a friend who told me that police were on their way to arrest me. They had filed a case against me and other PTM leaders [for allegedly defaming state institutions, creating unrest and inciting violence]. That’s when I left home. I thought I will leave, just to strategize. We thought I’ll go low profile for a few days and then maybe go to court. I was waiting for the situation to calm down a bit. 

But then the Kharqamar massacre happened [on May 26, the Pakistan Army clashed with PTM activists protesting near Kharqamar check post in North Waziristan], and everyone I was relying on went to the prison. So I was literally left alone, because all my colleagues like [PTM leaders] Mohsin Dawar and Ali Wazir were arrested. 

The situation kept getting worse. Someone leaked a UN letter written to Pakistan saying that my name was on an Exit Control List. There were raids at my home, my family was tortured, my friends were abducted and tortured, my sister was threatened, she was followed, there were attempts to even kill her. She survived, but she had to leave the country. 

Then some of my friends decided that it’s no longer safe for me to even hide. So the best possible way to save my life and be able to keep speaking out, was to leave the country. We developed a strategy for my exit. And I took a leap of faith trusting that exit strategy. 

Q: Can you describe your life during those months in hiding? 

Hiding is one of the most difficult things to do. There were times when I hid in basements. And you don’t get to eat every time, you don’t get to eat what you like every time. And there is so much uncertainty. When I would go to sleep, I wouldn’t know whether I would have to wake up in the middle of the night, because my location was revealed. I would have to move to another location. One thing I knew is that if they found me, I wanted to be arrested in a dignified way.  Hiding was really hard, really tough for me. Those were a few months, but they seemed like years.

During my escape, I would be among strangers, mostly men, and I didn’t know if I could trust them. Normally I would never trust strangers the way I had to then. I was lucky people knew me and respected me for my work.  My exit required a huge network, because you can’t go out with the same people due to safety and security. The people I was exposed to, were often changed, and no one knew my complete plan. So even if someone was arrested, they would’ve only known the part of the plan during the time they spent with me. No one knew the full chain of events.

There was also the notion of gairat (honor). It was obvious that if I would’ve been arrested or abducted, I wouldn’t have been treated nicely, I would’ve been exploited, assaulted. The honor of the community and nation was at stake had something happened to me. It was this notion of honor that led so many people to take risks and help save me.

Q: Do you feel liberated after fleeing Pakistan?

My sense of liberation has been curtailed by the persecution of my parents back home. When I fled Pakistan, I should’ve fled persecution, I should’ve felt liberation. My exile couldn’t liberate me because it didn’t bring an end to the persecution. The focus of the persecution just shifted from me to my parents, which is even more painful. Especially seeing my mother being booked in cases, then my parents being exposed to Covid. So the liberation which I should’ve felt by coming to a free land, unfortunately I couldn’t. 

Since the time I’ve been here, I have been advocating for the safety of my parents. I have been trying to highlight their case, so that the world is aware. If there’s more awareness, it will help them. I know it will not end the persecution, but it might reduce it and it will improve their situation. In the meantime, it will also highlight the larger cause of decreasing civic spaces in Pakistan, and the increasing threats to human rights defenders. 

But one thing I feel in terms of liberation is that I have been using my social media to express solidarity and my opinion to different causes more freely because I know that I cannot be directly harmed, though the harm to my parents is also a direct harm. But I still feel more free in terms of how I write and how I express myself. 

Q: Can you tell us the current situation your father is in Pakistan? 

As of now my father is in the prison because he was not granted a bail after the case was reopened. My mother was granted bail in the same case. So after the arrest, he was given in remand to the counterterrorism police for three days. The counterterrorism police used those three days to generate evidence, because there was no evidence, to prove that I or my father have been involved in terrorist attacks. 

The police raided our home without the permission of the court, without any search warrants, they brought forged receipts with them, they kept it in our files and made a report out of it. Similarly, they raided our house in Islamabad, where we had stored some files of our organization in the basement. They went there and took some of our files, again without any receipt, without any search warrant, so it was an illegal raid. They went and raided the houses of our relatives as well, for no reason. 

Gulalai with Aware Girls, an organization she co-founded at age 16, which advocates peace building and the rights of young women.

In court, most of the people who went to observe the hearing informed me that the arguments of our lawyers were very strong, they were very well prepared, while the prosecution lawyers, on the other hand, were not prepared, they didn’t have any new argument to present. But despite how strong our points were legally, the judge refused the bail. Most of the people who observed the hearing were of the opinion that it was the result of some kind of external pressure due to which the bail of my father was refused. 

Initially he was kept in miserable conditions; he was made to sleep on the cold floor, in the name of quarantine, he was kept with drug addicts, he was denied food, medicine. As a result he got very fragile. He was  recovering from COVID-19, so he got more sick. He was admitted to the hospital because of his health conditions.

Q: Do you ever regret leaving Pakistan?

If I was there, all three of us would’ve been in prison. If I was there, I wouldn’t have been alive. Had I been alive, I wouldn’t have been a free person. I was at high risk of sexual assault, I would have been in some dungeon. So if I was there, my parents would have been much more miserable with a missing daughter, or a daughter who was raped or sexually assaulted, or a daughter who was judicially harassed. So for our family, it would’ve still been a difficult time. 

My father has seen the prisons of Pakistan; this is not the first time that he’s been imprisoned. He has spoken against military dictator Zia-ul-Haq, he was put in prison. He was active in the struggle against Pervaiz Musharraf, male fide cases were made against him. So he has been there and we as a family know what it means to be trapped in a system where the judiciary is not free, where the hands of the judiciary are twisted and the system is used to harass people. 

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My father has seen the prisons of Pakistan; this is not the first time that he’s been imprisoned. He has spoken against military dictator Zia-ul-Haq, he was put in prison. He was active in the struggle against Pervaiz Musharraf.

But there was a time when I thought that it was happening because I am not there. Had I been there, maybe it would’ve been me, not my parents. So I did talk about it to my mentors like Afrasiab Khattak [a Pashtun rights activist], Farhatullah Babar [former politician] and activist Bushra Gohar. I would talk to them for hours, and they would always tell me that no, it’s not about me being here, it’s the anger of me speaking out, especially the anger of the military establishment of Pakistan, which amplified when I started speaking about the issue of sexual harassment and sexual abuse by the military of Pakistan in the tribal area.

Q: When did the persecution begin?

Most of the leaders of movements, especially which work in very conservative and patriarchal society, speak very carefully. They don’t touch upon issues which can cause backlash. Sexual abuse or rape is one such issue. And because sexual issue is a feminist issue and because I was speaking about it, I was the target. 

When I look at the pattern of my persecution, which started in 2017, before the [PTM] movement, it increased after I spoke about sexual harassment. The first complaint against me was that of blasphemy, because of my human rights work. Apart from working on women’ right, such as young women’s leadership, political empowerment of young women, I was also working on countering violent extremism, and preventing young people from joining militant organizations. I was working on providing alternative narratives on nonviolence, tolerance and pluralism, to counter the ideology of extremism. Of course many sections of the Pakistani society are with the state, especially a state that thrives on an economy of war, so they didn’t like people who work on anti-Taliban projects, anti-extremism projects. So I think this dislike for me came out from there. 

In November 2017, a young man, who I had never seen before, started an online blasphemy campaign against me. A protest was organized near my office, and I was called anti-culture, anti-Islam and anti-Pakistan. They called for banning me. None of us knew then what banning a person meant. In a video, I was called ‘a tumor of the society which needs to be killed.’ 

It was a direct life threat. That was a really scary campaign because many people gave me life threats after it, some people started crowdsourcing money to hire someone to kill me. People threatened that they would throw acid on my face, so I will be unable to say anything against purdah. I stood my ground. Most of my colleagues told me that I should leave the country at that time because my life was at threat. However, I decided against it. I went to the police station and filed a case against that person. I took him to court. Initially, his bail was refused and he was in prison for seven to 10 days. I turned the tables on him. The case is still going on in the court.

Q: What drew you to women’s issues?

Till I was about 9, I grew up in Swabi [in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan.] I had seen how women were mistreated. My mother was the only entrepreneur in the entire village. She used to do embroidery using a machine. So women from the neighboring villages would come see her. 

There I heard stories of women who were abused by their husbands and their in-laws, and also stories about how women who would go to the maaika (parents’ home) after being beaten by their husbands or how some women would shout while being beaten. These women were looked down upon as they were badmouthing their husbands and telling the stories of their abuse to their parents, whereas women who would silently suffer the abuse were considered to be good. 

That always bothered me as a young girl. My father was a teacher, he was very fond of education and was also a political activist. Though he was from the same village, his  political exposure changed his mindset. He had seen empowered women, women who were leading politicians and he believed that his daughters could also be those persons. We were very privileged, we went to school. But when one of my cousins who wanted to be a pilot, was taken out of school and married to someone who was twice her age, it shattered me. I was helpless, but I didn’t want to continue being a helpless girl who won’t be able to do anything. 

So me and my sister, we started talking to girls about gender equality and human rights. But not many girls were buying our agenda. We thought it was due to lack of awareness, and we thought if we raise their awareness, they will start speaking out for their rights. That’s when we started our campaign and we called it Aware Girls. It later transformed into an organization working for the empowerment of young women and girls.

Soon after I came to the U.S., we started Voices for Peace and Democracy, under the umbrella of Aware Girls. With this we aim to bridge local voices for peace building with the global policy makers. So many decisions which affect our region, especially in the Pak-Afghan region, are made internationally. But most of the think-tanks which influence those decisions or experts who are able to influence those decisions are not local. So our aim is to bridge the international policy makers with the local peace builders, especially local women, and amplify their voices. I want to use my experience of working with different international organizations like the United Network of Young Peacebuilders. 

A few month ago, we started an initiative named The Exile, with the purpose of connecting people in exile, like me, to different sources which we needed and also to project impact back home to the issues that caused our exile. Soon when we formed this group, the issue of Karima Baloch happened [The Pakistani human rights activist was found dead in Toronto in December.]

We came together, we held protests in front of the Canadian consulate, we wrote letters to the Canadian authorities. Similarly, the group is also concerned about the issue of blasphemy and persecution of minorities and activists through blasphemy law. Now we are in the process of designing a campaign for brining the end to the persecution of people through the notion of blasphemy. 

I also realize that to increase my impact, I need to build my own skills, knowledge and expertise, so I can be in positions of power, where I can have an international impact, especially in the issue of sexual violence and conflict, because that’s what caused my exile. I know there are some international mechanisms and policies on sexual violence and conflict, however, there is a huge gap in implementation. I want to work on that, and also on bringing the perpetrators to justice. I am also planning on going back to university, doing a masters or a PhD in human rights studies.

Q: Do you miss Pakistan?

Missing home and home-cooked food is a privilege. I might miss home when I am relaxed. Right now I am in fight zone. I have to fight. I have to save all my emotions for fighting because I really want my parents to be out of Pakistan. They trusted that system for their entire life, but the more we are exposed to that system, the more I lose hope in it, and I just don’t want my parents to be guinea pigs of that system. They are not in the age where they should be going to court or they should be behind bars. They are above 65, and can’t live independently. They need their children to take care of them. So they don’t deserve what’s happening to them. And I think that should not be the cost of activism. My parents’ miseries should not be the cost of activism. My focus is now to use any means and ways to bring my parents out of Pakistan. I don’t want to live with the guilt later that I didn’t do anything to save my parents even when I could’ve done something. 

Bhargavi Kulkarni has been a journalist for nearly two decades. She has a degree in English literature and French. She is also an adventure sport enthusiast, and in her free time, she likes to cook, bake, bike and hike.

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