The award-winning founder of Aware Girls, Gulalai Ismail, and her family, have been forced to relocate, after facing rising threats of violence and intimidation.
As her work for girl’s education, women’s rights and democracy has become more well-known, threats from suspected Talibani and others have increased. When gunmen turned up at her family home, it was the final straw.
“Along with my sister, Saba, I co-founded Aware Girls, an organization dedicated to women empowerment, gender equality, and peace in Pakistan. We are working as human rights defenders for more than a decade now,” said Gulalai.
“But in many parts of the world human rights and peace work is often seen as threatening by those in power and the extremist groups. Due to my increasing visibility, recognition and impact, I was aware that sooner or later I would be attacked, but I never thought it would extend to my family.”
At midnight on May 16, four armed men attacked her family home asking about Gulalai, and claiming to be security officers who had come to search the home. They tried to enter the house forcefully, but Gulalai’s father refused to open the door. “They kept on banging the door, shouting and threatening us, and shooting guns into the air outside our house”, said Gulalai. “Eventually, they left the place but threatened that they would come again soon. We don’t know if they came with the intention to murder or kidnap.”
Gulalai had been out of the country at the time since April, but would have been back at the family home that very night if her baggage hadn’t been lost, delaying her at the airport.
“We immediately reported the incident to the police, but we have no information about who these gunned men were. For now, we are immediately relocating ourselves to avoid a further attack — one that could be more organized and lethal.”
The gunmen at the door were the culmination of a series of incidents, with suspicious people loitering at their office and home for several weeks, appearing to gather information, sometimes trying to enter the home.
“My family and I have been under surveillance of the Intelligence agencies of Pakistan for many years,” said Gulalai, “but in December we began having regular encounters with which my family started feeling harassed. The encounters increased after our Organization established 12 Youth Groups in Swat and FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) to promote peace and counter extremism through non-violent approach. Two months ago, Aware Girls was listed as one of five ‘agents of the CIA’ on a television show. Threats and surveillance significantly increased after the show aired.
“In our home village (with a large number of Taliban militants), my family hosted a party in hour of the Democracy Award that I received. Our friends across the province attended along with local musicians who performed at the reception. A few days later, we received the news that the local Taliban leader, if he had known about the party, it would have definitely been attacked, and that my family and I have been placed on their ‘hit list.’
“Though I regularly receive threatening messages on social media, my youngest sister (who looks a lot like me) received a message on Facebook where she was warned that she, and her family members, are under threat and that she must save herself.
“As you can imagine, it is a very difficult time for us. I was aware that defending human rights and countering extremism is a life-risking job, and anything can happen to us anywhere, at any time. But now my family has become the center of these risks and harassment. Remember us in your thoughts — we need strength and encouragement to face this situation. And we are determined as ever to continue our struggle for the betterment of society and peace around the world — even at the cost of my life.”
Sonja Eggerickx, president of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), said “We are shocked and saddened by news of increased pressure and threats to the safety of Gulalai and her family. The cowardice and ignorance of those who threaten her welfare will be seen for what it is, right around the world.”
IHEU is calling on the government of Pakistan to increase protection to the civil society and human rights activists and organizations, making counter-extremism a higher priority. The conditions conductive to the growth of the terrorist organizations should be addressed, so in the long-term development and governance should be a priority besides military operations.
Gulalai Ismail co-founded Aware Girls at just 16. She won a 2009 YouthActionNet Fellowship, a 2010 Paragon Fellowship, and the 2013 Democracy Award. She has been recognized as Agent of Change by the British High Commission in Pakistan. She has been acknowledged as one of “30 Under 30” leading young activists working for democracy by the National Endowment for Democracy and one of the 100 Leading Global Thinkers of 2013 by Foreign Policy Magazine.
For more information about Aware Girls, visit awaregirls.org.