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Conversation with Gulalai Ismail on Father’s Rights Activism in Pakistan, Humanism, and the International Humanist and Ethical Union/Humanists International: Co-Founder, Aware Girls (1)


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2021/03/22


Gulalai Ismail is a Co-Founder of Aware Girls. She has been awarded the Democracy Award from the National Endowment for Democracy, the Anna Politkovskaya Award, and recognized as one of the 100 Leading Global Thinkers of 2013 by Foreign Policy. She discusses: rights activism and her father; Humanism; and the International Humanist and Ethical Union/Humanists International.

Keywords: Aware Girls, blasphemy, Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, Convention of the Rights of the Child, Gulalai Ismail, Humanism, Islam, Pakistan, Sunni, Wahhabi, Zia-ul-Haq.

Conversation with Gulalai Ismail on Father’s Rights Activism in Pakistan, Humanism, and the International Humanist and Ethical Union/Humanists International: Co-Founder, Aware Girls (1)

*Please see the footnotes, bibliography, and citation style listing after the interview.*

*Interview conducted April 24, 2020.*

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: So, let’s start from very early age, even before, your father was – and is – a human rights activist well-known in Pakistan. What kinds of rights activism was he involved in while growing up and while you were also observing him as a youngster?

Gulalai Ismail[1],[2]: As a child, I saw my father as a human rights activist. He was working on the issues of democracy, even before I was born. He was involved in resistance against the military dictatorship of Zia-ul-Haq in Pakistan.

He is in political history as one of the darkest military dictatorships of Pakistan. My father worked for democracy, even during the military dictatorship there. He was put in prison many times.

Growing up, I saw him working on economic inequality and the economic empowerment of women. He was running a program to economically empower women through small loans. It was a fabulous program. You could see how it was helping women in the rural areas to run their own businesses and become economically empowered.

He was working against terrorism and violent religious extremism. He was very vocal against extremism. I was very young, maybe 10-years-old. We had to leave our village. He was attacked for his beliefs, his ideas, and issues related to blasphemy and religious extremism.

Because of that situation, my father decided to move to Peshawar. He didn’t want us to live in an environment where there are risks to life and livelihood based on your opinion. He moved to Peshawar and continued to work for democracy and human rights.

A lot of his work was around peacebuilding and strengthening democracy and local governments. He worked on issues of domestic abuse. He worked on issues of child marriages. He worked on a range of issues.

I remember when he was working on corporal punishment. He was doing research. My father used to run an NGO for children’s rights. It was working on child rights and doing research on corporal punishment.

Right as my father was working on it, my brother was badly beaten in his school. It was all over the news. My father made sure to not let this go; a child should not get beaten in school.

As a child, I viewed my father resisting oppression, resisting against class oppression. If his children were badly treated, then he was not simply letting this go away. He was making the world better for women, children, and other people.

He was vocal on the state’s policies regarding extremism and jihad. It was a time after 9/11. Now, Jihad is known as terrorism around the whole world. Back then, it was not viewed as terrorism as the whole world.

When it happened in Afghanistan, it was in the 1990s when the Taliban were ruling Afghanistan. Pakistan as a state had been supporting the Taliban and the jihadis. My father used to speak out against this saying the jihadism is terrorism. He was given a blasphemy case.

This was the most difficult time for us. Our father was booked for blasphemy. He was put in prison. He got released on bail later. He fought the case for seven years. After 9/11, of course, many things changed in the world. The Taliban were no longer seen as religious leaders, but as terrorist leaders.

My father’s case was dropped as a result. He was released. But it continues. One thing he taught us. You have to speak up for your rights. If you do not get your rights, in communities like this, you have to fight hard and speak for your rights. I was living in this kind of household.

My father was engaged in political movements, in civil society movements. He was working against class inequalities. He was working against religious extremism and for human rights. I was a child grown in an environment of human rights.

Our childhood story books were about equality. They were about rights. I read the Convention of the Rights of the Child when I was 11 years old or 12-years-old. I learned the CEDAW, the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, from a very young age. My father taught the human rights perspective. This helped a lot in what I am doing today.

Jacobsen: Was the word “humanism” floating around at all?

Ismail: The word “humanist” has been known in different connotations in Pakistan. My father introduced me to the word “humanist.” I do not know when this word was floating in Pakistan. It was not an era of social media. It was not a tech-savvy time.

My father introduced me in 2005. I attended a human rights leadership course organized by an organization for women and girls. This course helped me unlearn so many things and boxes; I had learned or internalized growing up in my community.

This helped me unlearn stereotypes and vices. It was an amazing human rights course. Also, the course gave the questioning of everything, even questioning religion, questioning status quo, questioning institutions. I engaged in a lot of debates on religion with my father.

He was like, ‘It is time to introduce Humanism.’ He introduced me to the website. Now, it is known as Humanists International. Before, it was known as the International Humanist and Ethical Union or IHEU. He introduced me to the website of IHEU.

That’s when I was introduced to Humanism. Also, I became a member of the organization. I was running an organization called Aware Girls. We became a part of IHEU. That’s how I became introduced to the word Humanism.

In online spaces, the word may have been floating. These are very difficult times in Pakistan. These are the times when the religious extremism was increasingly growing in Pakistan. It was a time when 9/11 happened.

It was a time when the militant organizations were organizations themselves in Pakistan and organized themselves. It is not simply extremist organizations advanced narratives. Our state policy has been actively promoting religious intolerance and religious parties.

The Taliban were organizing, targeting, and killing people. By 2007, the Taliban had already occupied parts of Pakistan. Their suicide attacks already began in Pakistan. By 2007, our city was almost facing daily suicide attacks. Targeted killings were happening. Abductions were happening.

It was really a non-peaceful decade in our region. It was not an easy time to be there, to be openly a humanist or openly a non-religious person. Because if you’re openly a humanist, you could easily have been killed.

Even now, if you look at the statistics of Pakistan, you cannot come out as a non-religious person in Pakistan. You will be accused of blasphemy. You can be killed in mob violence. Many people have lost their lives in mob violence. The blasphemy laws in Pakistan are very regressive laws.

They are used against people who are critical of religion or who do not fit into the box of Wahhabi Islam, Wahhabi Sunni Islam. Sometimes, even to settle some scores, the law is used there. Then it was not easy to be a humanist and talk about it. It has never been easy.

There weren’t any humanist networks. It was much later when social media became very common. People started using Facebook and social media. Different social media groups were formed. We started connecting with other humanists and other non-religious people.

A few years ago, the person was behind – you know the story Scott – who was protesting and then was later arrested. The networks were disrupted later as well.

Jacobsen: When people think about the term atheist or agnostic, they more readily assume: if something negative is happening, then it is more serious. When people hear the term humanist and something negative happening to a humanist, my sense is there is less urgency around it.

Even though, there can be as much or more discrimination against them. You’re perfectly well-aware of this on a personal level. Why is that?

Ismail: In Pakistan, it doesn’t matter if you identify agnostic, atheist, or humanist. It doesn’t matter. You will face similar kinds of hostility. Mashal Khan who was killed in mob violence in university. He was killed three years ago. This young student, his Facebook profile is online to this day saying, “Humanist.”

He was accused of blasphemy. He was killed in mob violence by his own class fellows, by his own university fellows, brutally. It doesn’t matter as long as the box is non-religious, and the box is not Wahhabi Sunni Muslim. Then you are in danger in Pakistan.

Even if you are from a minority sect of Muslim, your life will be in danger. Ahmadi community in Pakistan recognize themselves as Muslim. The constitution of Pakistan states the Ahmadi sect is non-Muslim. It forbids them from saying that they are Muslims.

It forbids them from reading the Quran. They can be charged with blasphemy. There have been many riots in Pakistan against the Ahmadi community where the houses were burned, the Ahmadis were killed.

There were labels on shops in some parts of Pakistan saying, “Anyone, but Ahmadis and dogs, can enter here.” There is a huge persecution of Ahmadi Muslim communities in Pakistan. There are terrorist organizations, which can be banned terrorist organizations.

Nonetheless, they keep declaring the minority Muslim sect, Shia Islam, as non-Muslims. They keep saying, “They are non-Muslims. Therefore, they are apostates. Since they are apostates, they can be killed.” If you are in Pakistan in this box of Wahhabi Sunni Muslims, you are okay.

If any other box, then you are in trouble. If you are in any box that is non-religious, whether humanist, atheist, or agnostic, you will be in a difficult situation in Pakistan. In Pakistan, people are not aware of “humanism” as a term.

They will believe this is someone who believes in human values, human wellbeing, and for the betterment of humanity. They do not necessarily understand the meaning of humanist. If I say, “I am a humanist.” There will be very few people who would understand what the word “humanist” means, actually.

Appendix I: Footnotes

[1] Co-Founder, Aware Girls.

[2] Individual Publication Date: March 22, 2021:; Full Issue Publication Date: May 1, 2021:


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


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