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Peacebuilder Gulalai Ismail Fights For Girls’ Rights In Pakistan

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 …

[Read more…]

Farzana’s Blog from Pakistan on Malala: This Time History Will Never Forgive Us

Malala Yousafzai | Photo: nation.com.pk

Malala Yousafzai | Photo: nation.com.pk

UPDATE 10/10/14: Malala Yousafzai Becomes Youngest-Ever Nobel Prize Winner

On a day when CNN is reporting that nine people have been arrested for the vicious attack on Malala Yousafzai in Pakistan, our Women’s Eye contributor Farzana Ali, a correspondent for Aaj TV in Peshawar, has sent us her blog about meeting this courageous young student:

Farzana Ali/correspondent for Aaj TV

Journalist Farzana Ali

In early 2009 when I went to Swat in the north-western part of Khyber Pukhtun Khwa, to report on a situation there, the Taliban held control of Swat.  The civil administration just stayed in their offices.  And after the ban on girls’ education, the Taliban continued to destroy schools in the area.

I was searching for my interviewee but no one agreed to say anything about the situation, especially the destruction of schools and women’s education.  At that time my Swat reporter, Fyaz Zafer, told me about a girl living in Mangora, Swat. Maybe she would talk about the situation because she was against what was going  on there.

Malala Yousafzai/Photo from Farzana Ali/Aaj TVSo Fayaz and I went to her home but our camera-man took another way because he didn’t want to take any risk with the Taliban.  At that time reporters were not allowed to do anything against them so they avoided doing things that would make an issue.

When we  reached her home, a little 11-year-old girl came to me and said,  “I am Malala Yousafzai.”  Her face and intellectual attitude seemed very bright. I was happy to find a very brave girl who had the courage to face all the challenges and do everything for education.

But at the same time I was afraid for her because I knew she was living in a place where women can’t express their views.  She told me that education is the right of every human being.  Why, she asked, were these people trying to stop her from her basic right?  Why were they trying to impose their evil thoughts which were against humanity and also Islam?

I came to realize in my first meeting with Malala that she was very clear about her dreams and future.  To me she was the hope for our future. When I came back, I made a report about Swat and included her interview. People liked her views and her bravery.

Malala on cover of NewsweekDuring and after the army’s “Operation Rah-E-Rast against terrorists in Swat,I met with her and her father many times, but in every meeting her boldness and  intelligence made me little bit worried.  She told me she was ready for every sacrifice but would not bow her head in front of people who were the enemy of  humanity.

That was the time when Malala gained the attention of the world.  She started writing a diary for BBC Urdu about life under the Taliban.  Using the pen-name Gul Makai, she wrote about the suffering caused by the Taliban who had taken control of the Swat Valley in 2007 and ordered girls’ schools to close.

During these three years, she and her father did a lot for the education of their homeland people, especially for girls.  People always were saying that her father was trying to use this little girl for his own interest, but I disagreed because to me everybody who is working for big causes or on the way of truth are always blamed for their honesty and hard work.

Malala and her father never cared about, or were afraid of, these personal attacks.  During these three critical years, they not only faced the people who blamed them but also got many threats from the Taliban. But they did not stop working  for education.

Although the Taliban were ousted from Swat after “Operation Rah-e-Rast,” her family had regularly received death threats. Many people told them to leave this town, but they believed they would be safe among their own community.

Malala Yousafzai in hospital

Photo: Ispr Handout

But they were wrong, and my fears came true.  On Oct. 9, 2012,  she was stopped as she returned home from school in Mingora and shot in the head.  To me that attack was not just on Malala but on  the ideology of Islam because in Islam the first lesson was to learn, which was also Malala’s dream.

That’s why after that attack, the respect, fame, sympathy, and love for Malala was indeed something beyond imagination. I was satisfied, also, that at least Malala’s sacrifices united the nation on one point, standing together in outrage.

Everybody was blaming the Taliban and defending this little brave girl, but after three days the situation totally changed. Malala became a spy and agent of  America in their minds, and the nation was divided into two portions.

One part was in favor of Malala but other part was against her.  The Taliban issued a detailed statement against her and although a large number of people in the country did not agree with it, they became silenced due to their fear of them.

Malala Yousafzai in recovery

Courtesy: QEHE Charity

I don’t know what will be the fate of Malala but for me Malala is the mirror which shows us our real face and how ugly we are.  Unfortunately, again we have made a shadow on that mirror and given safety to the enemy of our generation.  But this time history will never forgive us.


Farzana has been involved with giving seminars in Peshawar and Islamabad on the Malala attack.  She’s now in Berlin attending the 10th International Dialogue on Population and Sustainable Development.

Below is part of the documentary the New York Times did on Malala in 2009 that includes her father and shows the dangerous situation they both faced in getting and giving an education.

GUEST BLOG — Is This Honor? By Pakistani Journalist Farzana Ali

Farzana Ali, Pakistani journalist: photo from Farzana Ali

This blog is from Farzana Ali, a contributor to The Women’s Eye and Bureau Chief for Aaj TV in Peshawar, Pakistan. The following is her editorial about the ‘honor’ killings that are escalating in her country.

Videographers and reporters Habiba Noseen and Hilke Schellman have given us permission to use the photos of the women’s shelter in Lahore, Pakistan. They were published at the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

By Farzana Ali, March 29, 2012

More than 900 Pakistani women and girls were killed in the name of ‘honor’ in 2011 …Human Rights Commission of Pakistan Report, March /2012

During my usual work, I was editing my report, but all of a sudden I received a call from my Kohistan ( a district of Khyber Pukhtunkhwa in northwest Pakistan) correspondent informing me that a girl and her alleged lover were shot dead in a village in Palas Kohistan Tehsil.

However, he shared that no FIR (First Information Report) was registered in the police station by the families of either victim as tribal culture does not allow them to seek justice through the authorities. Rather, he said, they opt to take revenge on their own. This was the second incident of honor killing in the same week in the same area.

Twenty-five-year-old Kamalur Rehman, alias Kama, from the Jadoon Khel tribe, allegedly developed a romantic relationship with 21-year-old Bano Bibi from the Badar Sher tribe. According to a report in The Express Tribune, Bibi’s father, Habibur Rehman, a medical technician from the Kohistan Health Department, had fixed her marriage with a relative.

After learning of Bibi’s relationship with Kama, her father is reported to have shot and killed him. Later he went home and allegedly killed his daughter Bibi. He was on the run until last reports came in. According to police, no party has lodged an FIR so far. However the police have started their own investigation.

Woman in Lahore, Pakistan Shelter

Woman in the shelter where Hina Jilani works in Lahore, Pakistan (2011). She was afraid that her family was still hunting her down. Her husband had been killed./Credit: Hilke Schellman/H2H Films

This was not a ‘new’ story for me but these types of stories always bring me back to my previous job when I was working as a magazine editor. There I wrote a feature on the honor killing of 29-year-old Saima Sarwar’s cold-blooded murder in April 1999.

This article aroused a great deal of publicity and outrage both at home and internationally. Before Saima’s case, it was believed that honor killings only occurred among rural or uneducated groups. Her mother was a doctor and father, a wealthy businessman.

Saima was the mother of two boys who lived with her parents for four years after leaving her husband. She fled to Lahore after her family threatened to kill her if she tried to divorce her husband. She was given shelter by Dastak, an organization run by the legal aid team headed by Hina Jilani and her sister Asma Jahangir, also a leading Pakistani human rights lawyer. Jilani was representing her in her divorce procedure.

She agreed to see her mother in the Dastak office but before the meeting began, she was shot there by her uncle and died instantly. After the terrible incident, Jilani went to court to prosecute the case. When the FIR was lodged, Saima’s uncle was prosecuted and fined, and the case was sent for trial.

Hina Jilani, runs women's shelter in Lahore, Pakistan

Hina Jilani

But even before the hearings could begin, Saima’s parents used the Qisas and Diyat Law where the victim or heir has the right to determine whether to exact retribution or compensation or to pardon the accused. Another option is to thrash out a compromise amongst the parties and escape prosecution.

After that brutal incident, certain sections of society and several religious organizations sided with Saima’s parents and accused Jilani and her sister of misleading women in Pakistan and contributing to the country’s bad image abroad.

Fatwas were issued against the sisters declaring them “kafirs” and instigating the “believers” to kill the two women. I was the first journalist who wrote a feature on that incident. After publishing that story, I was also strongly criticized by certain sections of society including my colleagues for writing against their traditions and cultural values.

I also remember the conversation in the Senate ( Upper House) when a senator tabled a resolution condemning the killing. In response to the resolution, the morals of Jilani and Jahangir were questioned: “We have fought for human rights and civil liberties all our lives but wonder what sort of human rights are being claimed by these girls in jeans.”

Hina Jilani Dastak Shelter being guarded

The staff and women receive death threats at the Lahore shelter which is protected by armed guards at all times./Photo: Hilke Schellman/H2H Films

Out of 87 Senators, only four supported the resolution, and I believe Saima did not get justice because of the flaws in the laws. In 2004, the Criminal Law (Amendment)Act, otherwise known as the ‘Honor Killing Act,’ was put into force to criminalize all murders committed under the name of honor.

However justice is still not provided to Saima and others as many women are still being brutally murdered in the name of honor. Although the government has passed several bills to prosecute discriminatory practices, violence against women continues to rise with each passing day.

According to information in the recent annual report from the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), at least 943 Pakistani women and girls were callously murdered in the name of honor in 2011. Hundreds were killed by their fathers, husbands, or brothers for damaging their family name. There were 791 such killings in 2010.

Aurat Foundation, the women rights organization, launched a study in January on honor killings in Pakistan, which focused on legislation to counter the trend. Conducted by advocate Maleeha Zia, it showed that many cases featured in the media were not reported to police.

The study also said that if other cases were reported, they had not been classified as honor killing. The study claimed that the courts usually issued verdicts in favor of the killers by using the provision of ‘grave and sudden provocation.’ Zia added that responsible institutions lack the commitment to implement the law.

Woman signing into Hina Jilani center

This woman is signing out and leaving her fingerprints at the shelter before going to

Many lawmakers have the opinion that major shortcomings in the ‘Honor Killing Act’ have rendered the law useless. It did not remove the option of Qisas and Diyat leaving one of the biggest loopholes in the law. It fails to provide protection to victims and punishment for the perpetrators and supporters of this heinous crime.

There are also many flaws in recording data. Another factor is that most of the honor crimes are committed by family members who are “unwilling” to lose another family member. Almost 77% of cases end in acquittal of the perpetrators. As a result, most of the cases end without justice.

Field officer for Human Rights Commission in Pakistan who says incidences of "honor killings" are much higher than reported./Photo: Hilke Schellman/H2H Films

Field officer for Human Rights Commission in Pakistan who says incidences of “honor killings” are much higher than reported./Photo: Hilke Schellman/H2H Films

While writing this article, I received news from Nowshera, a District of Khyber Pukhtunkhwa, that a mother and her two children were killed. In this case, the cause of murder was that the woman defied her family by marrying a man of her choosing. After five years, her uncle allegedly took revenge and killed three innocent people.

Saima died and so have other women in the name of honor, but justice is still being denied to them through customary practices and discriminatory laws which should be repealed.


About the author:

Farzana Ali has just completed a documentary about the River Indus, which flows through Pakistan, and the life of the people who live along it. It calls attention to the devastation caused by the 2010 floods. She says the film tries to deepen the understanding and consciousness around such large scale destruction and to show the challenges of the rehabilitation process. It will be screened in Islamabad in early April.

The Women’s Eye Reflections for the New Year 2012–#2

2012 I stock photo paid for by TWE

We wanted to share more quotes from our TWE Interviews during the past year. Our subjects had a lot to say about their lives and conditions around the world. Here are words to ponder from some of our articles… [Read more…]

Farzana Ali On Reporting From The Danger Zone In Northwest Pakistan

Farzana Ali

Farzana Ali covering the Af-Pak peace talks in Kabul/April 2011

By Pamela Burke

UPDATE: 5/2/11 with Osama Bin Laden’s Death

EYE: Are you shocked at the killing of Bin Laden?

FARZANA ALI: Nobody would believe it, but history shows that Al-Qaida’s top leaders tried to hide themselves in such safer urban places. Almost three months earlier Umar Patek, alleged Bali bombing plotter, was captured from this city but the news was made public only in March. Likewise, the city is on the Silk Route, a road to China. So we journalists are expecting more news like this in the future.

EYE: Are people surprised that he was living in Abbottabad?

FARZANA ALI: Yes, of course. There is an atmosphere of uncertainty throughout the country’s urban areas.

EYE: Will this make your country a safer place?

FARZANA ALI: As far as Al-Qaeda, yes. I think they are no more of a threat, but the situation now is different. We have a lot of problems regarding extremism not terrorism. Likewise we have a lot of geo-economic, geo-strategic, and geo-political crises added by the offspring of Al-Qaeda. So I expect worst days coming ahead.

EYE: Do you see a change now in the power of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in your country?

FARZANA ALI: Yes, but who will fill the vacuum is the big question.


When journalist Farzana Ali leaves her home in the morning, she says she doesn’t know whether she will see her family again. The territory she covers in Pakistan is considered one of the most dangerous in the world.

“I want to be a hope for present and future female journalists as well as a symbol of courage…” Farzana Ali

She has seen it all reporting for newspapers and television in this northwestern region for the past 14 years. From the caves in Kotkai where the head of the suicide bombers is reported to have lived to Tank and South Waziristan covering the case of a future bride who was allegedly killed for cutting her hair, she has traveled all over in search of important stories.

Farzana Ali in Bajor Agency

Reporting in Bajaur Agency at a girls' degree college/2010

Farzana reached out to The Women’s Eye recently after reading the website. She thought it might connect the women of her region to the outer world. Her desire is that her voice be heard, and we wanted to listen. Here is our candid exchange… [Read more…]