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Pakistan women’s rights activist who highlighted atrocities by military escapes to US

Gulalai Ismail. Photograph:( AFP )

AFP Washington, United States Sep 20, 2019, 02.00 PM (IST)

Gulalai Ismail's campaigns to empower Pakistani girls have won her international awards and recognition as one of her country's foremost activists.

But when she spoke out against sexual violence and disappearances allegedly carried out by the army in northwestern Pakistan, her fortunes quickly changed.

The 32-year-old said she feared for her life. After four months on the run, she succeeded in eluding a vast hunt and has turned up in the United States, where she is seeking asylum.

Ismail said she never sought to become an overseas dissident but sees a closing of the political space in Pakistan, where the army has remained the dominant power-broker for most of the country's history.

"I never wanted to leave Pakistan," she told AFP in an interview in Washington. "I believe that I can better work towards democracy and civil supremacy and peace in Pakistan."

But she concluded she would be more effective abroad, saying: "If I had ended up in prison and tortured for many years, my voice would have been silenced."

Ismail, who speaks with poise and passion though she remains afraid, believed she posed a special threat as a vocal woman.

"When a man stands up, he is mostly against the state oppression," she said. "But when a woman stands up, she is fighting oppression on many levels -- fighting cultural norms, fighting the patriarchy and the state oppression."

Taking up an unpopular cause

Ismail was still a teenager when she co-founded Aware Girls in 2002, which promotes gender equality in the deeply conservative northwestern district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

In 2017, she won the prestigious Anna Politkovskaya Award for human rights advocacy. The year before, she was honoured for conflict prevention by France's Chirac Foundation and has been welcomed by former first lady Michelle Obama.

But she came under greater scrutiny last year when she started speaking in support of the Pashtun Protection Movement, which defends the rights of the Pashtun tribal population in the northwest.

Quoting witnesses, Ismail said the army crackdown on Pashtun militants near the border with Afghanistan had led to frequent disappearances as well as sexual assaults.

Most women stay silent due to stigma, she said, but when a boy came forward about how security forces were barging into their home and harassing his mother, she went to investigate.

"Dozens of women had come to tell us that the incident of sexual harassment was not unique. It is systematic. It had been happening for years."

Eluding intense search

Ismail was detained briefly in 2018 but her fears mounted in February when she was taken into custody for two days after attempting to hold a news conference.

She said that she was held in a cold, dirty room with a urine-soaked sheet on the ground. She said she was denied food and water, with other female inmates warned against talking to the "high-profile terrorist."

In May, police filed a complaint against Ismail under an anti-terrorism law after she spoke out about the rape and murder of a 10-year-old girl. 

Ismail declined to discuss how she escaped Pakistan, saying she did not want to put others at risk.

Authorities widely circulated her name to seek her arrest, with airport authorities told not to let her leave.

"There were videos created online by military trolls which were clearly saying that the moment I'm in custody they will teach me a lesson. I spoke about the issue of rape -- now they will 'teach me' what rape is," she said.

She said security forces roughed up both her driver and a friend who she said was handcuffed, beaten and administered electric shocks for 14 hours in a bid to extract information on her whereabouts.

Ismail is living for now with her sister in New York. She said her initial fears of being sent back to Pakistan, a historic ally of the United States, were eased after she held meetings in Washington at the State Department and with staff of lawmakers including Chuck Schumer, who represents New York and is the top Democrat in the Senate.

"I was told that there was no chance that the US will ever take such action as extraditing me or handing me over because they know that it is a case of political revenge," she said.

But she remains worried for her parents in Pakistan. She said that they have become socially isolated, with security forces interrogating anyone who does so much as text them.

"I wanted to speak freely and that's why I'm here," she said.

"However, when it comes to the future of Pakistan, I do not see a prosperous Pakistan until the military establishment decides it needs to go back to its barracks."

Story highlights

The 32-year-old said she feared for her life. After four months on the run, she succeeded in eluding a vast hunt and has turned up in the United States, where she is seeking asylum.