A respected human rights activist from Pakistan who visited Scotland several times to speak about peace building and countering extremism has fled to the US to seek political asylum.

Gulalai Ismail runs an organisation called Aware Girls and has won a number of international awards for her work in promoting women’s rights, peace building and preventing extremism.

We reported in July that Ismail had been forced into hiding in Pakistan after she and her parents were accused of links to terror groups, allegations they deny.

Her sister, Saba, said then that the allegations were false, claiming they were a tactic by the Pakistan state to silence Ismail who highlighted alleged human rights abuses by Pakistan’s military this year.

Ismail is now in the US after months of hiding in Pakistan fearing for her life and having eluded a travel ban imposed by Pakistan’s authorities, which we reported in 2018. She was arrested at Islamabad airport while returning from London in October 2018 and banned from travelling abroad.

When a man stands up, he is mostly against the state oppression. But when a woman stands up, she is fighting oppression on many levels. Gulalai Ismail

The 32-year-old has requested political asylum in the US and is reportedly living in New York. She posted a message on Facebook today thanking people for helping her to escape Pakistan.

She said: “I am very thankful to every person, organisation, and movement which raised a voice for me and stood with me, despite the fact that an environment of fear was created. I knew that to raise a voice for me had become life-risking in Pakistan, as people associated with me were raided, threatened, intimidated, picked up and tortured – either to get information about me or punish them for standing by me. But even then I received huge support.

“The military establishment couldn’t contain its vindictiveness after I highlighted the issue of sexual violence by the security forces in Pakhutnkhwa – including ex-tribal areas – an issue which came to surface at the beginning of the year 2019. After they failed to arrest me, my parents were booked in terrorism case to punish them for raising me.

“Leaving Pakistan was an act of defiance. I owe this life to PTM (Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement) and will continue raising my voice for human rights and the Pashtuns’ plight. Thank you for all the support and well wishes.”

Aware Girls was initially founded by Ismail when she was aged 16, to advance women’s rights in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in north-west Pakistan. Her sister is co-founder of Aware Girls.

They later launched a peacebuilding programme called Seeds of Peace to help young people resist recruitment by extremist groups and to promote peace in their communities.

In 2015 they assisted journalists working for The Ferret on a visit to northwest Pakistan for a series of reports. They including a report called Living In The Shadow of Pakistan’s Suicide Bombers which highlighted the impact of terrorism on people living in and around the city of Peshawar.

Ismail also arranged interviews with bereaved families who had lost children when the Pakistan Taliban massacred 132 schoolchildren in Peshawar in December 2014.

She visited Scotland in 2016 to give talks in Findhorn and Edinburgh on challenging Islamist militancy and violence against women.

Pakistani human rights defender in hiding after parents charged with terrorism

Bill Kidd, Glasgow Anniesland MSP, welcomed news that Ismail had made it to the US and said: “It is great news that Gulalai Ismail has escaped safely from having to hide away from threats to her life. She is someone who should be celebrated in Pakistan for her honesty and courage in the face of regressive forces who are an embarrassment to their own country.

“The people who attack Ms Ismail are certainly not Muslims, indeed they do a grave disservice to Islam, they are nothing more than gangsters who attack women and children for their own ends.”

Photo thanks to Peter Harrison, CC BY-SA 2.0

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