An acclaimed human rights activist who helped The Ferret investigate Islamist extremism in Pakistan is in hiding after her family was accused of working for a terrorist organisation.

Gulalai Ismail runs a respected human rights group called Aware Girls which promotes peace and human rights.

She is one of Pakistan’s best-known women’s rights crusaders, having spoken out against out forced marriages, gang rapes and honour killings.

The 33-year-old has won a number of major international awards for her work and travels across the world to speak on preventing violent extremism.

Gulalai – who was 16 when she founded Aware Girls in 2002 with her younger sister, Saba – has visited Scotland several times and spoken at the Scottish Parliament.


Gulalai Ismail
Gulalai Ismail addressing a meeting

Photo thanks to Angie Catlin

Both women have suffered death threats due to their work to promote peace.

Saba said that her parents were charged on the 12 July and accused of working for a terrorist organisation.

Pakistani security services have also accused Gulalai of a litany of serious offences including sedition, financing terrorism and defaming state institutions, though the authorities have not filed formal charges against her.

Saba said there is no evidence to support the charges, however, and claimed that the Pakistani state – led by former cricketer Imran Khan – is trying to silence her sister by targeting the family.

Saba said:  “After the state actors failed to silence her through harassment it booked her parents under terrorism charges on 12th July, 2019 accusing Gulalai, her mother and father of terrorism. Through charging her parents of terrorism, they are being punished for raising a brave daughter like Gulalai. It is tactic to force Gulalai Ismail into silence through harassing her parents.”

Through charging her parents of terrorism, they are being punished for raising a brave daughter like Gulalai. It is tactic to force Gulalai Ismail into silence through harassing her parents. Saba Ismail

Her father, Muhammed, is also a human rights activist while their mother, Uzlifat, is a housewife.

Gulalai had spoken out this year to highlight sexual assaults by the Pakistan army against women.

In January, she aired allegations on Facebook and Twitter that government soldiers had raped or sexually abused many Pashtun women.

In May, she protested against the rape and murder of an 10 year old girl called Farishta Mohmand.

Human Rights Watch says that Pakistan misuses counter-terrorism laws as an instrument of political coercion.

Bill Kidd MSP, of the SNP, said: “I’m genuinely shocked that Gulalai and her family are still being subjected to this type of immoral behaviour for speaking out in support of the kind of human rights which are accepted as standard across member states of the United Nations.

“We all accept that every society has its own rules and standards, but everyday Pakistani-life can only be enhanced by the honest and caring statements of the highly-respected Gulalai Ismail. Again I call on the internationally-respected Prime Minister Imran Khan to intervene in this case.”

Living in the shadow of Pakistan’s suicide bombers

Ahead of Imran Khan’s visit to the US this week to meet President Trump, members of the US Congress were asked to sign a letter organised by the Alliance for Peacebuilding to highlight Gulalai’s case.

It says: “The letter expresses concern over the growing crackdown on peacebuilders and human rights defenders in Pakistan, in particular the case of Aware Girls co-founder and AfP member Gulalai Ismail.”

Khan held talks on Monday with President Trump at the White House.

In 2015, The Ferret published a report on extremist violence in north-west Pakistan after assistance from Gulalai. During that trip, she also arranged interviews with bereaved families in Peshawar whose children were murdered by the Taliban in a massacre that killed 132 school pupils.

Last year Pakistan’s government banned Gulalai from travelling abroad.

The Pakistan Embassy in London declined to comment.

Photos thanks to Angie Catlin. This story was also published in the Sunday Mail on 21 July 2019.


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