Sisters Gulalai (left) and Saba Ismail founded Aware Girls 10 years ago, when they were in their teens. Photo / Angela Catlin
Gulalai Ismail is used to death threats. She’s also been falsely
denounced on television as a “CIA spy” and Pakistan intelligence once
threatened the 29-year-old she would “disappear” if her efforts to
promote human rights did not stop.
Last spring, Gulalai had a
lucky escape when lost luggage after a flight meant she wasn’t at home
in Peshawar when four armed men turned up at her door.
claimed to be security officers who had come to search our home,”
Gulalai explained. “They tried to enter forcefully but my father refused
to open the door.
“They were shouting and making threats. They
started shooting guns into the air. I thought that sooner or later I’d
be attacked, but I never thought it would happen to my family.”
doesn’t know who the gunmen were, saying they could have been Taliban
or Pakistan’s security services, or even a criminal gang trying to
kidnap her for ransom. “We cannot trust anyone,” she said.
Gulalai’s life is at risk because of her work in Pakistan with
Aware Girls, a human rights organisation she formed about 10 years ago
with her younger sister, Saba.
In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where they
were born and raised, the women work to promote peace in a benighted
province bordering Afghanistan where an estimated 4000 people have been
killed in suicide attacks since 2010. The security situation is
desperate and we met Gulalai and Saba after an atrocity in Peshawar when
the Taliban entered a school just before Christmas and murdered 132
children and 18 adults; a barbaric act that appalled the world.
Saba Ismail, co-founder of Aware Girls,
answers questions from women after female community event in Mardan.
Photo / Angela Catlin
“Each day, we never know when we leave our homes if we will be killed
or [will] come back to our home,” Gulalai said. “It is so common and
these things are causing so much fear in the minds and hearts of the
Aware Girls operates at grassroots to peacefully oppose
religious extremists, often in the face of severe violence, not just in
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa but also in Pakistan’s federally-administered tribal
areas and other dangerous parts of the nation.
Saba, 27, was 15
when she started Aware Girls with Gulalai, who is 29. Their initial goal
was to advance women’s rights in a culture where many females are
denied basic rights and suffer discrimination.
Said Saba: “There
were so many human rights violations, such as rape and murder, happening
to women in our community but no platforms for women to raise their
voices. We want women to have equal rights to justice, legal support,
financial resources, and access to education and other social services.”
Girls has since broadened and developed programmes to support
impoverished domestic workers, and there are around 300 young people
involved in a project called Youth Peace Network that stretches into
rural parts of South Waziristan and Afghanistan, among other places.
The aim is to promote peace, tolerance and human rights but this work often comes at a high cost.
December 2011, for example, Nobel Peace Prize Winner Malala Yousafzai
attended an Aware Girls project to learn about human rights but her
efforts in Swat Valley were later rewarded by the Taliban with a bullet
to the head.
Malala survived, and Saba said her friend had helped
greatly to highlight the issue of violence against women in Pakistan
although assaults were endemic.
Gulalai Ismail, one of the founders of Aware
Girls, addresses women at a community HIV/AIDS education session in
Peshawar, Pakistan. Photo / Angela Catlin
“She is a symbol of honour for us. Violent attacks are happening to
many women in Pakistan. The Taliban fear women being educated. This is
the biggest threat to the Taliban because they know that if women have
power and information, then they can bring positive change. The Taliban
are afraid of young women even though they are only 14 to 15 years old.”
main battle against extremism centres on education and Aware Girls also
tries to prevent youngsters being radicalised by the Taliban.
This was an increasing problem, Saba said.
the Peshawar school attack, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif
ordered a crackdown on seminaries linked to militants and Gulalai says
there are many such schools in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
With her help, and working undercover, we gained access to two madrassas alleged to have strong links to extremism.
visited a religious school in Swabi district where boys rise at 4.30am
six days a week, to memorise the Koran. They do this until 10pm each
night. Gulalai explains that the school has pledged allegiance to Jamiat
Ulama-e-Islam, a religious political party calling for a pure Islamic
state and closely linked to the Taliban.
“This is well known in Swabi as a militant madrassa that gives young men ideologicial training for jihad,” she said.
We also visited Panjpir madrassa, which controls a network of seminaries across Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
Boys study at Jami Gasmia, a militant
madrassa where boys as young as 6 years old rise at 4.30am six days a
week to recite and learn the Koran. They do this until 10pm. Photo /
Panjpir is where Maulana Fazlullah, the leader of the
Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), received religious education. He is the
man who ordered the shooting of Malala and the attack on the school in
We were given a short tour and obtain some official newsletters which Gulalai later translates.
says: “Although TTP claimed responsibility for the Army Public School
attack the [Panjpir] newsletter says the Taliban and Pakistan Army are
all one people, and that external factors and agencies are trying to
create an internal conflict within Pakistan by portraying the Taliban as
the enemies of Pakistan.”
Gulalai says this newsletter is a very clear apologist stance for the Taliban.
narrative of this madrassa is to take the responsibility away from the
Taliban and blame other countries such as Israel and India. There is
also an article on blasphemy saying that if someone says something
against the Prophet then they should be killed … so again this is a
very militant perspective instead of talking about tolerance and leaving
alleged offences to the rule of law. They are telling people it is OK
to kill someone involved in blasphemy or other religious offences.”
After finishing translating, Gulalai says the fight for Pakistan will continue, no matter what the threat.