Skip to content

Conversation with Saba Ismail on Family History in Pakistan, Gulalai Ismail, and Aware Girls: 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


Saba Ismail is a Co-Founder of Aware Girls. At the age of 15, she co-founded Aware Girls for the empowerment of young women in leadership capacities and to advance social change. She completed a Masters in Biotechnology from COMSATS University Abbot Asad and the Hurford Youth Fellowship with the National Endowment for Democracy. She has worked as Youth Ambassador for Asia Pacific Youth Network (APYN: 2012-2013), the Steering Committee of UNOY, and is an alumnus of the International Visitors Leadership Program in the United States. Ismail was recognized by Foreign Policy as one of the 100 Leader Global Thinkers in 2013. She is the recipient of the Chirac Prize for Conflict Prevention. She discusses: human rights and the family in Pakistan; and Gulalai Ismail and Aware Girls.

Keywords: Aware Girls, Convention on the Rights of the Child, girls’ rights, Gulalai Ismail, middle-class, Pakistan, Saba Ismail, The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, women’s rights.

Conversation with Saba Ismail on Family History in Pakistan, Gulalai Ismail, and Aware Girls: Co-Founder, Aware Girls (1)

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

*Interview conducted July 2, 2020.*

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: You come from Pakistan. You have a family history there. What is the family history there? What are some other contexts for your family, even farther back than your father for Pakistan and for human rights?

Saba Ismail[1],[2]: Gulalai and I come from a middle-class family. Our grandfather was an artisan. My father became a professor. He and my mother became activists. My mother is a housewife. We were brought up by our parents. We were born in a rural village in the Northwest of Pakistan. When I was 7-years-old, we had to leave the village to live.

My father was accused of liberalism and secularism. With his political ideologies, we had to leave our village. We moved to Peshawar. Since I remember, I have never been told or taught that I was different than my brothers.

My parents ensured equal opportunities with our brothers. We grew up in an environment where gender equality was not only preached. It was practiced, too. For example, as kids, in the area where we grew up, men don’t do the housework and the chores.

However, in our house, my brothers would clean the bathroom or elsewhere. Even for my cousins and other extended family members, it was a different situation. As we were growing up, our childhood stories were not about Cinderella or a prince coming to save the princess.

Our childhood stories were about the CEDAW (The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women), the UDHR or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the Constitution of Pakistan.

Generally, in Pakistan, we don’t read about the Constitution in schools or in academia, or about general strikes, basically. There is nothing like this being taught in schools. At our home, our father taught basic human rights. My father used to have workshops with us.

We learned and were introduced to these concepts, whether the concept of secularism, Humanism, or human rights. Our father would give us a paragraph of a convention to read. We had to read a point and understand it, and interpret it to the rest of our siblings.

So, when people do training in the NGO sector, there are group activities and team-building activities. Our father used to do all of these growing up. While growing up, every day was learning and unlearning.

In our schools, we were taught people who were not Muslims had to be beheaded. It is the duty of Muslims to preach the religion. We were taught to hate people who are from other religious backgrounds.

We were taught a Muslim should not share a cup or anything, e.g., a utensil, with a non-Muslim. Muslims should not shake hands with non-Muslims because non-Muslims are dirty. We were introduced to these concepts in academia, in the schooling system, and in our society, generally.

At home, we were taught everyone is equal. Everyone has rights. You cannot hate someone based on their religious identity. It was difficult for a child to learn a completely different set of values at home; a completely different set of things taught than things taught in society, in school, and in the media.

I remember when I was young. We always had hard print newspapers at home. I remember reading descriptions for the government jobs, a sweeper job, for example.

They would want a non-Muslim. It was a requirement. If someone has to apply for a sweeper position, their religion should not be Muslim. This was the type of thing. These were the kinds of things that we were learning from media.

When they advertised these advertisements for jobs in the newspaper, when you read it, and integrate it, and then get a completely different set of things at home, in the public space, you had to cover up and behave publicly.

Boys would go out in public. But we were not allowed, not by family, but the society. Our family was worried about men dominating society. We lived in completely different worlds at one time.

Because our father knew if he introduced us to these concepts at a young age, only then would we become different human beings. Then these concepts, without them, we wouldn’t be who we are today.

Both of our parents, our mother is a housewife. She has been to school, but only until 3rd or 4th grade. She ended up not continuing her education because there was no girls’ school in her area. Her father didn’t allow girls to go to another village for education.

My mother ended up not going to school and not getting an education. When we were being brought up, like both of our parents gave support, our father had the ideological side, the mind. Our mother was the one more implementing the ideas of the children.

Her focus was on education and learning all these different things from our father. My mother would do the housework at all hours, so we would have enough time on our hands and could do all these different things.

They invested their time. They invested their energy in bringing up all of their children. Also, what our father did differently, in the patriarchal and male dominant society, he would take Gulalai and I to different programs.

He used to work in collaboration with different NGOs, INGOs, etc. We used to go to the events that were organized by our father’s organization and participate in them. We were, actually, exposed to and had the opportunity to meet women who were leading an NGO and were in positions of power.

Also, he showed us. Women don’t have to do what society is telling them. The roles and responsibilities of society. It was, ‘We can be like them.’ He showed us, role models, from a young age.

For us, growing up, it was different compared to other girls and women. Also, we saw that our father also stood up for girls’ education within our family. Our own cousins were not allowed to go to school or to go to college to continue their studies.

What our father did, he would talk to the parents. He would say, “I am a parent. They can come to our house. They can stay for a few days.” Sometimes, he would not tell them about being a professor. He would teach them.

They would spend some time with us and help with household things, or spend time with our cousins. It was excused to let these girls have months, sometimes, at our house. My father would teach them everything.

He would enroll our cousins in colleges or schools. Sometimes, in Pakistan, people can give private exams. If they don’t have to go to school or college to study classes, they study at home and only give the exams and pass.

We saw our parents. If other girls from our family were not allowed to go to schools or colleges, then they became able to develop ideas. They did the best that they could do in their capacity to make sure some girls can have degrees.

I’ve never seen someone standing up for other girls in a way trying to create opportunities for other girls as well in our family. This was the kind of childhood and family for us. As I said earlier, it was not only about teaching us concepts, but showing us.

They showed us. You can stand up for someone’s education and be creative. You can help other women doing this other work. You can be like that. This was early childhood. We grew up and had our own ideologies. Our father drove and mentored us, in our work.

Jacobsen: Your name should be as prominent as Gulalai, but is not as prominent as Gulalai. In light of the fact, you co-founded Aware Girls with her. Which is interesting, when people think of prodigies, they think of some mathematical or scientific pursuit.

But I don’t see prodigy applied to morals or rights-based prodigies as much. Gulalai, your sister, and you seem to me like former moral prodigies. Because you co-founded Aware Girls as adolescents.

In a country, Pakistan, rated among the worst in the world for the status of women and girls, so, what was the driver in the context of all this upbringing and experience with women leaders, and so on, for founding Aware Girls? What was the inspiration there?

Ismail: The inspiration was one of our cousins who dropped out of school one day. She was told that she was not allowed anymore. One day, she was told, “Okay, you can’t go to school. Because you’re getting married to a man who was 15 years an elder to her.”

We were too young. I was 13. Gulalai was 12 at that time. We couldn’t do anything. We were already teenagers. We didn’t understand the contexts of a lot of these. We wanted to help. But we couldn’t at that time.

We were like, “What can we do so other girls do not have to go through this?” We have seen dreams shattered. When our cousin used to come to our house, she used to wear pants and shirts of our brothers and act as a pilot.

You see someone so closely. They’re desperate and passionate about something. Then their dreams were gotten destroyed because of their gender. They have to get married because girls are a burden to their parents, and at a young age as well.

We knew it was wrong. But we didn’t know how to fix it, at that time. We had to do something. That was the inspiration, which led to the foundation of Aware Girls. Now, you mentioned Gulalai is more prominent.

One of the reasons I tell people. It does come across. It is not a competition among sisters. We are best working together as a team. She has certain skills. When she’s passionate, she is seen as a spokesperson who can articulate things.

My set of skills comes at a different level. I’m better at the managerial level, managing finances and office management. I am not saying Gulalai is not organized. I am saying I am more organized and structured at the organizational level.

People with different personalities. We have one sister who is a better storyteller. Gulalai is more like a better storyteller. This is the best fit for us. It worked well in Pakistan. Like I said, I took on certain roles and responsibilities, which I liked.

It was never a competition. Who is more prominent or well-known? It wasn’t there. When Gulalai gets an award, it’s my award. When Gulalai gets recognition, it’s my recognition. We were never separate individuals in that way. My siblings would all tease me. Saying, “You’re her secretary.”

When we were too young, my siblings would say, “How much is your salary because you always take her side, never say anything against her?” We were siblings. We used to fight. Gulalai used to always be on my side. I used to always be on her side.

We are one year apart. We were like twins. We went to the same school. We went to the same university. It happened almost at the same place. Our exposure and travel together to different countries. We were and are a good team; we are good together.

We complement each other so much. Also, we understand each other. We are the closest siblings. This is my answer to this person. It is more important what the organization, Aware Girls, is doing. What work are we doing? Who will it impact?

Rather than focusing on, “Who is the speaker?” People have different skill-sets. Gulalai is good at managing social media and public speaking, and saying opinions on different things. This is the good thing about us. Each has a skill set.

We become strong. It was good for the institution, for the organization. It was one thing. Everything we have achieved; we have achieved together. As I said, she has a different skill-set. I have a different skill-set.

I am working from here. Even with Covid-19, people working remotely. In the US, I used to work with Gulalai remotely. That’s it. That’s the inspiration that we got from our own family, our own cousins.

These are the things that we have done together. We co-founded the organization. We have been through thick and thin together. We had to move places. It all started years ago. We were all being harassed and persecuted, had to relocate ourselves, relocate our office, and so on.

We have been doing it. The impact that we had was really important for us.

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


© Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-Sight Publishing 2012-Present. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-Sight Publishing with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. All interviewees and authors co-copyright their material and may disseminate for their independent purposes.

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: