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Peacebuilder Gulalai Ismail Fights For Girls’ Rights In Pakistan

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Gulalai Ismail with flood victims in Nowshehra, Pakistan

Gulalai Ismail with women affected by the flood in Nowshera, Pakistan

Interview by Farzana Ali/September 30, 2014
Intro by Pamela Burke/TWE

Twitter: Gulalai_Ismail

As we know from previous reports from TWE contributor Farzana Ali, northwestern Pakistan is a region strife with religious extremism and violent activity, particularly against women. One brave peacemaker, Gulalai Ismail, decided to face these dangerous forces when she was 16-years-old and found ways to empower girls by setting up Aware Girls with her sister, Saba.

“Being a girl in a culture, which discriminated against girls in every aspect of their life, created this urge in me to speak for equality.”  Gulalai Ismail

Farzana, Bureau Chief for Aaj TV in Peshawar, Pakistan, interviewed this remarkable changemaker exclusively for TWE recently about her continuing efforts to improve the lives of girls and children who are living in a culture of intolerance and given few choices …


FARZANA: Why did you decide to found Aware Girls? What was your motivation?

Gulalai Ismail/founder AWARE GIRLS in Pakistan

Gulalai with children in Nowshera

GULALAI: I grew up in a culture where women are respected no more than men’s property; where girls are taught to have the only dream of getting married and are brought up in a way which makes them a perfect wife and daughter-in-law.

Women are dehumanized in the name of ‘Honor, Respect, and Culture.’ They are subjugated to men. The relation of men to women is more like master and slave, so men think they have every right to exploit and oppress women.

Being a girl, I think no one can easily accept it. Everyone wants a life of their own but girls are not given the choices.

FARZANA: What was it like for you growing up?

GULALAI: I was fortunate to have a father who was determined to educate his daughters. He was a teacher and a human rights activist.

My father brought us story books which were about equality and also newsletters which had research about the human rights situation in Pakistan.

He was a human rights activist so I was able to meet women who were very strong, inspirational and who were leading the women’s rights movement of Pakistan.

“There were few well-known women in politics, but I believe it’s possible to build communities where women can take leadership roles and can make decisions about their own lives.”

Being a girl in a culture, which discriminated against girls in every aspect of their life, created this urge in me to speak for equality. I started by writing poetry and making drawings on the issue of discrimination against girls. My family was thrilled to see me speaking up against gender discrimination.

Gulalai Ismail from the National Endowment for Democracy/9-2013

FARZANA: When did you start to become involved in issues involving girls?

GULALAI: My father mentored me and linked me to opportunities which I could use to strengthen my leadership skills and knowledge. I became part of Child Rights Advocate Forum (a group of children who were part of a program at a local organization), which was an opportunity for me to reach out to other girls.

I soon realized that many girls have internalized the discriminatory norms and values and find little space to raise their voices. It gave me the motivation to create a platform for young women and girls from where they can raise their voices for their rights.

As soon as I started high school I, my sister, and other friends decided to establish Aware Girls.

Gulalai Ismail at a community meeting

Gulalai at a community meeting

FARZANA: Tell us about the problem with extremism and young people in Pakistan.

GULALAI: Our youth are victims of indoctrination and terrorism. They need unbiased, unprejudiced education that can give them the skills to think rationally, rather than fall for propaganda. Our education system and political propaganda has indoctrinated youth and made them the victim of terrorist groups.

To find the extent of the problem, Aware Girls conducted a survey among the youth of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (mainly FATA and Swat) and asked some questions. Here are ten key findings of the survey:

• Every 2nd person thinks that use of violence as a political tool is OK

• 1 in 3 people believe that Taliban are foreign agents who are working for promoting Islamic way of living

• 2.7 in 4 believe Taliban are working for promoting Sharia, while only 4 in 25 are of the view that Taliban are working for protecting the country

• 1 in 2 respondents think Jihad means fighting against Non-Muslims, and every 3.4 in 5 believe Jihad means sacrificing life for Islam

• 46.50 of the respondents show complete or limited support to the ideology of Taliban

• 2.2 in 5 think it’s not OK to have friendship with people from different religions

• Around 8 in 10 people think the assassination of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer was done rightly

• 7.8%  in 10 believe in the use of power for imposition of religion

• 52% do not believe in the equal rights of people of other religions to build their worship places

• Around 36% of the youth claimed they have access to weapons

Gulalai Ismail protesting against Talibanization in New York in front of UN

Protesting against Taliban in front of the United Nations in New York

FARZANAHow do you protect girls from violence especially after the attack on Malala Yousafzai?

GULALAI: In our culture women are victims of both patriarchy and extremism. Research shows that young women under the age of 18 are the ones who mostly become victims of domestic abuse. Violence against women in Pakistan varies from early and forced marriages, domestic abuse, to cultural practices and honor killing.

We at Aware Girls are working to prevent women from becoming victims of violence by advocating with the state (both provincial and federal) to set in place systems which protect the right of women to live with dignity and be free from violence.

“We strongly advocate for laws against sexual harassment, domestic abuse, and to protect reproductive health rights of women.”

FARZANA: What are some of the ways you reach out to provide assistance to women and girls?

GULALAI: We are running a helpline (Marastyal) which provides information, counseling, referral services to shelter homes and legal aid to women who are victims of gender-based violence.

We also engage girls in initatives such as Digital Story Telling for addressing violence against women. The purpose is to highlight the plight of Pakistani women using social and digital media innovatively.

Gulalai Ismail speaking at Naional Endowment for DemocracyFARZANA: What is the secret to turning the youth towards productive activities and away from extremism?

GULALAI: We don’t see young people as “terrorists”; we see them as victims of prejudice and indoctrination. The secret is to understand where the hate, bigotry and violence come from.

Young people who have access to information, who have an understanding of the progressive face of religion, who are aware how religion is used by terrorists and some political groups to grab power are less vulnerable to the militant groups.

FARZANA: How have you been able to get young people access to positive information?

GULALAI: Through our peacebuilding work which we started five years back with the name “Youth Peace Network,” we have developed 12 groups of young peace activists. We have provided them training in skills for countering extremism and building peace in their communities.

More than 300 young people are members of the network from different parts of the North West of Pakistan such as FATA, Swat, Dir, Buner, Shangla, Chitral, Peshawar, Swabi and Charsadda. Through education on non-violence, pluralism, and peace they counter extremism and promote peace.

“These young people are our partners in promoting non-violence and peace in their communities and preventing young people from joining militant groups.”

FARZANA: The Daily Beast reports that five million people have been displaced by violence in Pakistan, 33,000 people killed since 2003. What is it going to take to turn the country away from this senseless brutality?

GULALAI: We need a multi-winged strategy to address violent extremism in Pakistan. As a youth activist, I believe peace is not possible without engaging young people as equal partners in peacebuilding. Instead of seeing young people as problems and trouble creators we have to see them as part of the solution.

The government and civil society have to engage young people in the peace initiatives as peacebuilders. And we have to teach love in schools instead of bigotry and hate.

Gulalai Ismail/Photo: Scott Henrichsen/Cannon

Photo of Gulalai: Scott Henrichsen/Cannon

FARZANA: How do you have the courage to drive to the dangerous northern part of the country through checkpoints in the middle of the night to meet with young people?

GULALAI: I and my family have been under surveillance and have been attacked for the peace and human rights work I am doing. We have been accused of being western puppets and CIA agents but all these attacks and accusation speak of the impact of my work.

It means the work I am doing is having an impact on young people and therefore there are groups who feel threatened and try to create hurdles for me. It gives me strength. I get my motivation and my hope in the stories of young people who learn non-violence through our peace work.

We commit never to engage with any violent group who imposes their ideology and who vows to promote intolerance in Pakistan. There are thousands of stories in our work which give me strength and courage. I seek my motivation in these positive actions of young people for a better Pakistan.

“I will continue my work for peace and prosperity, no matter how risky it is, because I believe change is not possible without us speaking up and taking action.”

FARZANA: How do you persuade mothers to get involved? Are many afraid?

GULALAI: Aware Girls mostly works with young women in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province. They are mothers, daughters, sisters and wives, but they are human beings too. Through our work we have learned that they are brave and knowledgeable.

They have the passion to work for their communities and to make them peaceful. Every year hundreds of girls join our programs with the hope to contribute meaningfully to their communities by acting as agents of change.

Gulalai Ismail, Co-Founder Aware Girls in PakistanFARZANA: You visited Washington, DC, last year and met with President Obama and members of the Administration. How did that help you?

GULALAI: In 2013 I received the Democracy Award in the US Congress by National Endowment for Democracy, and was then invited by the White House to attend a meeting with President Obama on the shrinking spaces for civil society around the globe.

I also got the opportunity to meet Samantha Power, the Ambassador of the United States to the UN Security Council. She was supportive of the civil society. Later in the year I was recognized as one of  the 100 Leading Global Thinkers by Foreign Policy Magazine of USA.

These meetings have helped me to convey my messages of peace, shared responsibility and accountability to the global community, which is equally important to local struggles for peace and human rights.

FARZANA: Do you see change happening within the youth of Pakistan to form a more peaceful country?

GULALAI: Change is a slow process. I am very glad to see that they are now politically more active. They are concerned about what’s happening in their communities and they want to play their role in making the situation better.

For our programs, we receive applications of hundreds of youth who want to join our peace and human rights programs. It shows the interest of young people in playing their role as agents of change.

Gulalai Ismail, co-founder Aware Girls

Gulalai in Nowshera helping women and families

FARZANA:  What are your goals for the future?

GULALAI: For now, non-violence and tolerance are the most needed in Pakistan. These are our indicators to prosperity. Educated (un-biased educated rather than indoctrinated in the name of education) and empowered young people, especially young women, can change the fate of Pakistan.

Here are my goals:

  1. Educating young people especially girls about their human rights and strengthening the leadership skills of girls
  2. Young women taking active parts in the civic and political processes of Pakistan
  3. State systems and laws which protect the rights of women
  4. Making the environment conducive for peace rather than violent extremism
  5. Promoting tolerance, non-violence and pluralism among young people of Pakistan

FARZANA: Thank you, Gulalai. You are an amazing role model for women all over the world!

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