In May, one of Pakistan’s most controversial women’s-rights activists vanished.
Gulalai Ismail, 32, had spent much of her life organizing young women and girls to push back against child marriage and assert their rights in a male-dominated society. She founded an organization, Aware Girls, that provided leadership training and produced one alumna who went on to become the world’s best-known girls’ education advocate and youngest-ever Nobel laureate: Malala Yousafzai.
Ismail was used to making enemies, ranging from anonymous Facebook trolls to Taliban militants. But early last year, when she began to draw attention to the stories of women who claimed to have been raped or sexually assaulted by Pakistani security forces, she attracted the ire of her most formidable opponent yet: The country’s all-powerful military and intelligence agencies.
Over the next year, she says she faced an escalating series of reprisals from the police and security officials, including intimidation, treason and terrorism charges, arrests and death threats. By the spring, after what she says was an especially harrowing 40-hour detention Pakistani intelligence officers without food, water or communication with her lawyer or family, Ismail began to fear for her life. She had good reason: Activists in Pakistan who anger the government have long been known to mysteriously disappear and never be seen alive again.
So in May, when a friend tipped her off that a police team was on its way to her house, she said goodbye to her parents and slipped out the door. She wasn’t seen publicly again for four months.
Then, on September 19, Ismail resurfaced in New York City, having slipped out of Pakistan and leveraged her activism network to secure the support of Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer for an asylum claim.
“It is clear that her life would be in danger if she were to return to Pakistan,” Schumer told The New York Times.
Ismail met with NPR in Brooklyn, near the home where she’s staying with two brothers and two sisters who have lived in the U.S. for several years. She chose to keep many details of her journey secret, to protect people who helped her along the way. But she discussed her high-stakes escape and her plans to redouble her fight against gender-based violence.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How does it feel to be in New York?
I had remained without any communication for four months, so it’s been a bit overwhelming.
And when you live for so long in a state of insecurity it’s not a magic bullet where all of a sudden you start feeling safe. Even today, if I go outside and someone is holding a camera I get a bit paranoid.
Let’s back up — when did your situation with the Pakistani authorities escalate enough that you felt you had to leave the country?
In January 2018, I got involved with this group, Pashtun Tahafuz Movement. Young people from all over Pakistan had come to Islamabad protesting against extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances.
But only a few were women, and so with some of my friends we decided that we are going to reach out to women. It became a movement about everyone who was persecuted by despotism and the military establishment. But the moment my support for the movement started, the state of Pakistan started persecuting me.
In November, I was taken to ISI headquarters [Pakistan’s equivalent to the CIA]. They told my father that if you do not make sure that your daughter is silenced, we are going to kill her.
I was glad I am seen as a threat to all these institutions of oppression. Why not? The system should feel threatened by a woman. But when I started raising the issue of sexual violence by the security forces, the situation became much more difficult for me. Many women had shared their stories of sexual violence by Pakistan’s security forces. And the military did its best to silence the issue.
By that time my friends told me, ‘Initially they were just intimidating you, and now it seems that they really want to harm you. And then one day they will not leave you alive.’
One morning, very early, I received a call from a friend, and she said the local media is reporting that police raid teams are prepared to come and arrest you. I went and woke my mother and father, and I told them, and I just left. I didn’t know that this is my farewell to home. That was the last time I saw my parents, my sister.
Our home was raided. Dozens of police and counter-terrorism people came to arrest me. My relatives’ homes were raided, my friends’ homes were raided.
So where were you?
We made a list of people who could provide me protection, who were not very close to me because we knew that my family and close friends would be under surveillance.
I would usually live with them for around ten days, and then I would go to another location, so I lived in different cities of Pakistan. I did not have any mobile phone or social media.
While I was in hiding, the Pakistan state was using all its machinery to find me. Once my driver was abducted and he was tortured for eight hours to get information about me, but he didn’t know anything. Then a friend was picked up. He was beaten brutally, just because he is a friend.
So in that situation, now this is not a legal battle. Now it is a battle for life. So I and my friends decided that now it’s time to leave the country. But my name was on an exit control list. My pictures were pasted on all borders of Pakistan. During all this time I crossed hundreds of checkpoints, and I was just making sure they would not recognize me. I was given identity documents of different women, so I would have like a fake identity.
What can you tell me about how you managed to get to America?
I was in hiding for four months. I cannot speak about exactly when I came here. Going outside of Pakistan was a life-risking journey. There were huge chances of not just me being arrested, but also people who had been supporting me.
Once the journey started, I was among people who I had never met before, and I was the only woman. I was given a lot of respect, but I was always extremely worried about my safety. Every few days I would be among new people, and I had no other choice but to trust them.
I had a U.S. visa, it was the only visa I had. Once I moved to a country where I was safe, I took a flight to the U.S. and I landed in New York.
What did it feel like when you finally managed to leave Pakistan?
I was in a state of uncertainty and disbelief. Those strangers sat in a circle and said a prayer. They said that the world may see this journey as illegal, but for us this is not illegal, it’s a battle of survival. So we just pray that we are forgiven. They kept their hands on my head, and said may God protect you. And I bent, and I touched my soil, and you know it was so painful to leave soil where you have roots.
What happened with your family after you left?
My whole family had become at risk. One day a guy came out from the car and told my sister, ‘You know, you’re a look-alike of Gulalai and I’m afraid that one day we will shoot you instead of her mistakenly.’ I’m afraid that my parents will be tortured or harassed or arrested.
When was when was the next time you were able to speak to them?
I couldn’t speak to them even when I landed in the U.S. because I was just not sure if their communication is tapped.
But when I was able to do it, it was a very brief video call and my mother and father were crying when they looked at me. I had never seen my father crying — in our culture men are not supposed to cry. They were just so glad to see me alive, because I think that they had stopped believing that I will ever manage to stay alive.
Now that you’re out, what happens next?
I have paid a huge price for speaking out and for not silencing myself. In speaking about sexual violence in armed conflict, there’s so much that the state is afraid of. And they would even kill people so that this crime is not exposed to the world.
I am going to speak out about it as much as I can. I will continue empowering young women, because I know that when women human rights defenders are at risk there is very little support for them. I will continue raising my voice about the human rights abuses committed by state actors in conflict zones.
When I was working in Pakistan I was able to work directly with young women, and it would give me a lot of inspiration. But the advantage that I have here is that I’m in a position where I can act as a bridge between the women of Pakistan and international policymakers.
As we’re speaking, many of Pakistan’s leaders are here in New York for the U.N. General Assembly. In his speech on Friday, Prime Minister Imran Khan accused India of committing human rights abuses in Kashmir, a subject he has raised before. How does that jibe with your story?
It’s such hypocrisy. Pakistan has no moral authority, no credibility to point towards any country about their human rights abuses, when they themselves are being more authoritative and more oppressive against their own citizens.
I was one lucky person who could leave the country. But dozens of activists of the same movement are still in jail.
I condemn every human rights abuse committed in Kashmir. But what will happen in Kashmir should be decided by the people of Kashmir. If the Pakistani prime minister tries to lead the campaign for Kashmir, it harms the movement more than benefiting it.
One of the young women you worked with, Malala, became an international superstar. But her reputation within Pakistan is mixed. Some people were very opposed to her, for promoting what they see as Western, anti-Islamic values. Do you think attitudes in Pakistan toward women activists are changing?
Malala is a good friend, and I really admire what she’s doing. Women activists have many more challenges than men activists. When a woman speaks up, she’s not just speaking against one system of oppression. She is fighting the cultural norms, religion, the patriarchy. Many women have to fight the institution of family as well. Because she is challenging so many systems, by just existing she is seen as a threat.
Take the example of sexual violence in armed conflict. Some other men also had mentioned these incidents, but no one charged them in cases of terrorism, sedition and treason. I said the same things and I was charged. So the system feels more challenged by a woman.
However, the support that I have received back from my home is also immense. On the internet we see a lot of hate, but there is a lot of love out there as well. And I would not be alive today if people were not supporting me. So I think the attitudes are changing and people are gradually acknowledging the role of women activists.
Every time you’ve been arrested or intimidated, you keep coming back to protests, you keep organizing. What keeps you going?
When the most cruel forces unite to silence you, then living is resistance. Stay alive, because if you don’t stay alive, you will not be able to resist. That is what I learned.
If I was arrested, if I was killed, then it would block the path for many other young women. It would have sent a message of fear, and no parents would have ever dared to raise an independent daughter, because they might face torture and death.