|Born||1986 (age 32–33)|
|Education||Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad|
|Occupation||human rights activist|
|Movement||Pashtun Tahafuz Movement|
|Awards||International Humanist of the Year Award (2014)|
Commonwealth Youth Award for Asia (2015)
Chirac Prize for Conflict Prevention (2016)
Anna Politkovskaya Award (2017)
Gulalai Ismail (Pashto: ګلالۍ اسماعیل, Urdu: گلالئی اسماعیل; born c. 1986) is a Pashtun human rights activist from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan and chairperson of Aware Girls and the Seeds of Peace network. She speaks on the subject of promoting peace and women's empowerment at conferences internationally and is the recipient of the International Humanist of the Year Award from the International Humanist and Ethical Union, and of the Fondation Chirac Peace Prize for the Prevention of Conflict. She is an activist in the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) campaigning for Pashtun human rights, and is a board member of Humanists International.
Early life and activism
Ismail was born in Swabi and from the age of nine was brought up in Peshawar, Pakistan. The daughter of teacher and human rights activist Muhammad Ismail, she was educated from a young age about gender discrimination and women's rights. Ismail graduated from Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad in 2012 with a Master of philosophy degree in biotechnology. At the age of 16, she founded Non-governmental organization Aware Girls with her sister Saba Ismail, aiming to challenge the culture of violence and the oppression of women in the rural Khyber Pakhtunkhwa area in the north west of Pakistan. In an interview in 2011, she said:
|“||I set up Aware Girls when I was 16 because all around me I saw girls being treated differently to boys. My girl cousin was 15 when her marriage was arranged to someone twice her age; she couldn't finish her education while my boy cousins were [doing so]. This was considered normal. Girls have internalised all this discrimination – a woman who suffers violence but doesn't say anything is much admired in the village as a role model. A good woman submits to her husband or father. Aware Girls raised awareness of equal status. We did training that women have human rights and taught leadership skills and how to negotiate with their families and with their parents to get an education and to have control over their own lives.||”|
Ismail aims to get peace activists together to discuss ways to promote peaceful resistance to the Taliban and encourage more woman into politics, as well as investigating the psychological impact of terrorism on children and families. Malala Yousafzai was an attendee of Aware Girls in 2011. She has criticised the British government's Prevent strategy saying it can lead to alienation of Muslims and could turn vulnerable individuals towards extremism. Ismail has also spoken out against blasphemy laws in Pakistan and the effect this has had on progressive speech, secular activism, and the safety of secular activists. She said: "I am convinced that without a secular democracy, we will not achieve peace in Pakistan."
In addition to Aware Girls, which she continues to chair, Ismail set up the Seeds of Peace network in 2010, training young people in human rights and political leadership, encouraging the participation of women in politics in Pakistan, and encouraging tolerance between people of differing faiths. Seeds of Peace was a response to what Ismail saw as the increased 'Talibanisation' of young men and women vulnerable to militants in the Swabi district and other rural areas. According to the World Humanist Congress, "her work is characterised by promoting peace and pluralism; challenging religious extremism and militancy; promoting good governance in areas stricken by militancy, providing civic education to young people; strengthening democracy; and political mainstreaming of young women."
Between 2009 and 2011, Ismail was on the Executive Committee of the Young Humanists International, and between 2010 and 2012 she was a Board Member of the Women's Global Network for Reproductive Rights. She also works for the Gender Working Group of the United Network of Young Peacebuilders (UNOY), and is a member of the Asian Democracy Network. Ismail is currently a board member of Humanists International.
Ismail's organisation has widened its scope to include education on topics such as access to safe abortions, HIV and AIDS, and she continues to speak at international conferences to promote awareness of peace-building, tolerance and women's rights. Both Gulalai and her sister Saba have also acted as adviser on peace and women's rights to the United Nations and US governmental departments. She has been threatened for her activism and has been forced to flee her home in the past. On May 16, 2014, four armed gunmen attempted to force their way into the family home, shouting for Ismail who had been delayed by lost baggage at the airport. In an interview with the BBC she said,
|“||I am aware that the security risks are high...at times I am afraid for the lives of my family...we had to relocate ourselves, again and again, we had to change our home because of the insecurities...One of the positive messages which it gives me is that the impact of my work is huge and they want to create fear in my heart so that I become silenced.||”|
In 2013 Ismail set up the Marastyal Helpline to give advice and assistance to women at risk from, and victims of, gender-based violence. The service gives advice on legal and medical aid as well as emergency ambulance information and emotional counseling and operates from Peshawar.
In November 2017, the head of a youth parliament, Hamza Khan, uploaded her photo to social media and a video accusing Ismail of blasphemy, a charge which in Pakistan carries the death penalty, and urged his followers to kill her as an infidel. In February 2018 Ismail, refusing to be intimidated, filed a legal case against Khan who was arrested without bail. In a statement Ismail said,
|“||I stand not only for myself, this legal move will give voice to other people...who are falsely charged with blasphemy. I will not be silenced. I am not afraid of these cowards. I will fight against them and prove them wrong.”||”|
In August 2018 Ismail was arrested and charged in Swabi for "making anti-state comments and using inflammatory language" following a protest organised by the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement demonstrating against alleged human rights abuses by the Pakistan military against Pashtuns. Ismail was charged along side 18 other people and denied the charges.
In October 2018 Ismail was detained by airport officials in Islamabad and her passport held after attending a Humanists UK conference in the United Kingdom. After detention she was released on interim bail and officials at Islamabad International Airport confirmed Ismail's name was on the Exit Control List. Her legal representative then petitioned the Islamabad High Court to have her passport and travel documents returned and her name removed on the grounds that it was a violation of basic human rights. Gulalai's counsel argued that her arrest and the confiscation of her passport had taken place even though she had not been named in the First Information Report (FIR) registered against some Pakhtun activists. During the proceedings, it was revealed that Pakistan's national intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence, had instructed the Federal Investigation Agency to place her name on the list. On March 14th, 2019, the court set aside the decision to place her on the ECL as she had not been given an opportunity of a hearing as required by Section 8 of the Passport Act 1974 and directed that her passport be returned to her. The court, however, allowed that her passport might be confiscated at a later date if the correct procedures are followed.
On February 6th 2019 Ismail was arrested at an event protesting the murder of Pashtun rights activist Arman Loni earlier that month. She was taken along with over 20 other PTM activists, including Abdullah Nangyal, and held at an undisclosed location. The arrests received widespread criticism in Pakistan and internationally, including condemnation from the President of Afghanistan Ashraf Ghani, Amnesty International, and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP).
Awards and recognition
Ismail won the 2009 YouthActionNet Fellowship.
In August 2014, she was awarded the International Humanist of the Year Award by the International Humanist and Ethical Union at the World Humanist Congress in Oxford, England. She was elected to IHEU's Board of Directors in 2017.
In recognition of her efforts to further women’s empowerment, she received the 2015 Asia Region Commonwealth Youth Award for Excellence in Development, under the theme of Democracy and Human Rights.
In 2017, Ismail was joint winner, with murdered journalist and activist Gauri Lankesh, of the Anna Politkovskaya Award, Reach All Women in WAR (RAW in WAR) award for campaigning against religious extremism.
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- "I Advocated for Women’s Equality in Pakistan. Then I Was Attacked.", article by Gulalai Ismail, TheHumanist.com, 29 May 2014
- Tribute to Gulalai Ismail at the 2013 Democracy Award, National Endowment for Democracy, 17 July 2013