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Conversation with Gulalai Ismail on Human Rights Defenders, Terror, the “Universal Declaration on Human Rights,” Religion, and Human Nature: Co-Founder, Aware Girls (4)


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

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

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2021/05/22


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: authoritarian governments and women’s rights activists; terror and fear; the United Nations and the Universal Declaration on Human Rights; religion; Pakistani Islamic interpretations; a way out; Iceland; science; biotechnology and genetic engineering; biology and technology; biotechnology interests; becoming tired of a field; children’s rights documents as a youngster; and human nature.

Keywords: Aware Girls, ethics, fear, freethinkers, Gulalai Ismail, human rights, religion, terror, women’s rights.

Conversation with Gulalai Ismail on Human Rights Defenders, Terror, the “Universal Declaration on Human Rights,” Religion, and Human Nature: Co-Founder, Aware Girls (4)

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

*Interview conducted April 24, 2020.*

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Have you see prominent women’s rights activists cave or cater to the whims of authoritarian governments because it is too scary, too dangerous, or, if careerist, too liable of a threat to their stature in the society with the title of them as an activist or a rights defender?

Gulalai Ismail[1],[2]: In Pakistan, it is not easy when the state institutions are after you, start persecuting you. Not many people can still opt to continue their resistance. Pakistan has amazing women’s rights activists who are working for women’s rights. In my case, in my situation, one of them became public in my support. A few of them were very supportive. Those who were supportive were in the background. They would not come in public. They would give me different kind of support. It was the non-Muslim public in public. Very few women’s activists and very few civil society organizations in Pakistan. They stood with me. Because they were very afraid of the Pakistan military establishment. Have I answered the question?

Jacobsen: It is a hard question. Because there are multiple layers to it. On the one hand, you did answer it. On the other hand, on some other levels, you did not answer it. There are some cases. You alluded to them. The cases in which an individual women’s rights activist will support certain things, but will not speak out and will work against the aims of rights out of fear, terror.

Ismail: See, I do not think any woman activist works against the rights. But they stay silent. I find this problematic. When an activist, when you are silent on certain issues, because people responsible for the issues are not so powerful, but then you do not question issues for which institutions are really powerful, they have to be held accountable for the issue; and, you don’t speak out on it. There is selective activism. The activism depends on who is the perpetrator of the rights. If the perpetrator of the rights community are the politicians, then you are okay with it. If the perpetrators are the most powerful military institution in Pakistan, then you choose not to act and speak out on it. But then, in Pakistan, it is our 5th anniversary of Sabeen Mahmud [Ed. who was assassinated on April 24th, 2015, at the age of 40.]. She showed her solidarity on the issues of enforced disappearances and missing persons, and extrajudicial killing. She was killed. Malala Yousafzai is another one. There is another woman from Karachi, whose name I am forgetting. She was working on land rights. She was killed by the mafia. So, I will not judge so harsh. I will not judge harshly Pakistani women activists because I know it is a country where you can get killed. Women activists get killed. There are many cases where women activists have been killed. Not every woman can choose to speak up at the cost of being martyred. It is not an easy choice to flee the country, not everyone can do it. I will not judge them very harshly.

Jacobsen: That is a fair point.

Ismail: Generally, I will judge harshly civil society organizations because individuals can be at much more risk. I think civil society organizations have a huge responsibility in showing solidarity to the movement, to the rights-based movements, who are under attack by the Pakistan establishment. Civil society organizations stay silent. In Pakistan, the funding of NGO sector is strictly controlled. There are many bureaucratic barriers to the NGOs and the civil society organizations to access foreign funding and implement their projects. If you are someone who supports movements like ours, then the Pakistan military establishment, the security agencies, will not give clearance. The NGOs or civil society organizations can be suspended. There will be difficulties in accessing funds. The civil society organizations do not get funds. I think that they need to be judged. They need to be called out, “If you claim to be human rights organizations and civil society, then you cannot stay silent while the state is persecuting activists, abducting activists. You still stay silent.” That is outrageous. Most civil society organizations of Pakistan stay silent. They only stand for certain kinds of rights, which the Pakistan military approves. That is unacceptable for Pakistan civil society to work only for those human rights are acceptable to Pakistan military.

Jacobsen: Starting on December 10, 1948, as we both know, the United Nations founded, or put into force, the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This, to this day, remains a rather universal document, so aptly titled, and continues to maintain a force in international relations for the increase in a more just and equitable world. At the same time, there is an elephant in the room regarding multiple competing ethics in the world today, as they have in the past. One brand comes in Islamic, Jewish, Christian, Hindu, and other ethical systems, religious ethical systems. Another comes in that which can be found in the United Nations in international humanitarian law or international human rights. Either one provides a window into how human beings should be or act in the world in relation to one another based on a particular conception of human nature. With that, it does seem to boil down to transcendental traditional religious ethics versus secular international human rights morality. The latter incorporates freedom for the former with freedom of religion, freedom of belief, freedom of conscience, while the former does not because, as per the Amsterdam Declaration from 2002, if I remember right, stipulates the for-all-timeness [Laughing] of these transcendental traditional religious ethics. So, as you’re fighting for women’s rights or human rights, more generally, incorporative of women’s rights, what do you note as the long-term challenges between, in the big picture, these two different conceptions of ethics that belie two different images of human nature?

Ismail: Scott, for me, it is simple. You cannot use religion as an excuse to deprive people of their human rights. The human rights mentioned in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are the universal guiding document for the states, governments, and for the communities. These are human rights. If any system of ethics, if any faith, if any religion, or any system deprives people from their certain rights, that is not acceptable. In the modern world, religion cannot be used as an excuse to deprive people of certain rights or to give some extra privileges to some of society, to give one dominance to one gender or one class of people. No, I think, you cannot use religion at all. For example, religion is used to curb freedom of expression. Blasphemy laws are used to cut freedom of expression to raise questions on religion. In every country, wherever there are blasphemy laws, or laws cutting freedom of expression, or other human rights of these people because one or another religion is not happy about it, I think religions have no place in any constitution anywhere in the country. We need separation of religion from the state and the constitution because rights should not be defined by religion or as religion. Rights should be defined by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and not according to religion. We need not only a secular constitution and secular rights. We need to reclaim secular spaces. As with the examples of the religious fundamentalist sections of the society have gained our political spaces, we, as secular people, need to reclaim secular spaces because this world belongs to everyone, not just the political power, which religious fundamentalists enjoy. We need to reclaim that space. I think, we must be very clear. It is a time of science, rationality, and technology. Of course, it is people. It must be limited to a private matter.

Jacobsen: Are there any parts of religion that you do like?

Ismail: No.

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Ismail: [Laughing] The festivals, [Laughing] I like. Because now, they are the only festivals. I like the festivals. People, for example, in Pakistan claim the people in Pakistan are giving, because they give a lot of money in charity, but most of the charity money ends up in terrorist organizations. Some people are more giving because of religion. When I was in hiding, my family, most of my family, is very religious. When the whole campaign started against me, it started on 23rd of May. I will be celebrating my anniversary. Maybe, you can publish this article on the 23rd of May. It was when I left home. It all started there. I am completing one year of it. They are deeply religious people. My aunts used to do a lot of Quran recitation. They prayed a lot to God for my safety. They find mental peace; they find hope in religion, in those dark circumstances. They can get some hope. When I look back, there is not anything, except the festivals.

Jacobsen: Why are the men given more power in Pakistani Islamic interpretations in general?

Ismail: In every Islamic interpretation that I have heard of.

Jacobsen: [Laughing] Correction noted.

Ismail: [Laughing] There is not a single Islamic interpretation where there is general equality as a norm.

Jacobsen: For the men, in some of these fundamentalist Islamic communities, they must put on a certain persona, a false self. This leaves them constricted emotionally and otherwise.

Ismail: It is Patriarchy. Scott, it is patriarchy and the expectations of the gender boxes the culture has set for men and women. Women must have a certain person and certain roles. Men are expected certain personas and certain roles. It is patriarchy that has destroyed both men and women.

Jacobsen: What is the way out?

Ismail: The way out is equal distribution of resources among the genders and ownership of the resources. Economic empowerment is key. The chances women will be able to get their rights is if they are economically empowered, and having more women in the political spaces. Women in the decision-making, more equal numbers of women in Parliament and state governments because that is where the decisions are made. If women are not part of the decision-making, of course, men will create laws and policies protecting their status quo and powers. Equal portions of women in the Parliament. Equal numbers of women in the decision-making and economic resources for women, too. It is the key for women. Also, the religious-based constitutions, faith-based constitutions, go against women. For women’s empowerment, we need secular countries, secular states. Not just secular states, we need secular societies. If the constitution is secular, and if the society is not secular, then it will support Patriarchy and sectarian violence. It will instill mob violence on the issue of violence if the society is not secular. We need secular society, secular constitution. Also, we need welfare state, not security state, because security states prioritize or prefer war over human welfare. They use religion to implement their ideas to promote their narratives. In security states, the money is spent on tanks and bombs, and defense, and not on human welfare. We have seen this in the corona pandemic. The ways countries like Pakistan will not be able to fight back because most of the resources were spent on security, not human security. We need to redefine security and shift from national security to human security because human security is more important.

Jacobsen: For those who want a good example of a country most robust in their efforts towards equality, I would highly recommend looking at Iceland.

Ismail: Yes, I think [Laughing] they should look to Iceland and all Nordic countries. They can look at the Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, to see how feminist leadership looks like, because the New Zealand Prime Minister is an example of feminist leadership. They can look to New Zealand too.

Jacobsen: What is your favourite part of science?

Ismail: Biotechnology, genetic engineering.

Jacobsen: Why those two?

Ismail: I was in school when I first heard of human cloning. I fell in love with the idea of human cloning. I fell in love with the idea of human cloning. Because always, we have ben told God is all-powerful. He created human beings. He is the supreme power because he created human beings. I thought the idea of human cloning gave me a sense, “You know, the human brain is so advanced. It can go to the extent of technology. It can do anything. Science is great.” I love the idea of genetic engineering. I love the idea of taking beneficial genes from one organism and bringing it to another organism for the benefit of the other organism. I love genetic engineering. Also, it has played such a huge role in human advancement in fighting against diseases, even in helping with pandemics as well. Biotechnology and genetic engineering have advanced human understanding. Human cloning is the best thing. It gives the idea of a human brain, how we can advance. I am not saying that we should or should not do something. I am not going into the ethics of human cloning. However, in terms of the science and the possibilities, I find this fascinating.

Jacobsen: Do you think there is any distinction, at the end of the day, between the ways in which nature produces functional systems via evolution – human beings and other organisms – and what human beings create with artificial intelligence or various manifestations of conscious design of organisms, whether animal husbandry or the aforementioned genetic engineering? Do you think there is any real distinction between the technology that we make and human beings and other biology as fundamentally just another form of technology? In other words, the line is blurred.

Ismail: I have never thought about it. However, of course, it is different. I am not very aware of the computer technology and the artificial intelligence. I am not that type of technology person. I am the [Laughing] biotechnology person. There are echo chambers. There are proper ecosystems. I am aware of what humans have been doing to the climate, the Earth, causing global warming, how the impacts of industrialization on the ocean and ocean life. Also, we humans have been cruel to the rest of the organisms and the rest of the creatures of the world. We have not quite destroyed the planet. Of course, I cannot make a comparison between human life and artificial intelligence. I am not the right person to talk about it. I am a very naïve person on it. Yet, they seem like quite different things. What do you think, Scott?

Jacobsen: If I look at the natural world as a comprehensive system, the natural world amounts to the animal kingdom and the plant kingdom. Over time, over billions of years, hundreds of millions of years, human beings and other organisms arise. Human beings with opposable thumbs, binocular vision, flat-balled heels, bipedalism, the ability to stand upright, and very large brains in addition to the development of the neocortex, we have this ability to not only think in relatively general ways. We can then physically manifest the cognitive generalism in the environment. The best evidence of this might be the physical dominance of the surface of the Earth by the human species. The things that human beings create, we call tools. We call technology. We get those through a process called science, in general, outside of trial-and-error. Evolution via natural selection among other selection mechanisms develops functional complicated structure. Those structures yield functions. They can be plural functions, not just individual functions. In those plural functions that evolution produces through these structures that it evolves, it amounts to a form of technology. Similarly, human beings develop structures. Those have functions for us. The direction, or the idea of what those structures are for, will depend on the organism or entity using them. However, if one simply takes a designed structure that can function in diverse ways or in a single way, then it amounts to a technology. Similarly, human beings are like a three-and-a-half-billion-year-old or more iPhone. We have a bunch of function centralized in one unit, in one organism. Same with other organisms. My sensibility is such that the distinction between what we call technology and what we call biology is probably an artificial barrier, where one simply comes about via evolution via natural selection and other selection mechanisms and the other comes about by human conscious engineering. But it is all part of the same comprehensive system. So, to me, the line is more blurred than distinct. Biology and human-created things are both technology emergent in different forms. That is what I can come up with off the top [Laughing]. So, your interest in biotechnology. Where did that start?

Ismail: That started right when I was in school and read this article on human cloning. That is where my interested started. I am still into biotechnology. I studied biotechnology for six years. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I love biotechnology. Biotechnology or sciences, too, are dedicated fields of work. You need to work in a lab. If you are a biotechnologist, it was difficult to my human rights activism because my human rights activism was a full-time job. It required travel. It required going to the communities. I was not able to sit in the lab and do human rights work. That is why I continued the work on human rights. Also, in Pakistan, we do not have research institutes as such. We have a few. The most famous research institute is about agriculture. I was not interested in the agriculture part of biotechnology. I was more interested in the human side [Laughing] of biotechnology.

Jacobsen: You know what, I have heard the same from neuroscientists and psychologists. Over time, they got tired of rats, fruit flies, and c elegans. They could not take it anymore. So, they left the field [Laughing].

Ismail: Pakistan is a huge producer of wheat and cotton. Most of the research was around wheat and cotton. I was not interest in spending time on wheat and cotton. If it was about a research institute about genetic diseases or more human, then I would have continued the career in biotechnology. There are very few women who will have the opportunity to work for human rights like me. I felt this is a bigger responsibility to continue the human right activism work.

Jacobsen: Do you think a lot of this interest in science and ethics came about at the same point earlier in life for you? With the interest in biotechnology and cloning on the one hand, and the interest in children’s rights when your father introduced you to the children’s rights documents.

Ismail: Yes, they were around the same time. There was no secret. I wanted to study science and become a scientist. When I was in school, I was in eighth grade in the chemistry class. In the books, we had physics, chemistry, and biology. Chapter 1 or 2 would be about scientists. Lists of scientists who have contributed to biology or physics, or chemistry. All of them were men. So, I was in grade eighth. I raised a question o the chemistry teacher, “Why are you not teaching about women scientists? Why are there only men scientists in the book?” The teacher laughed at me and said, “They are waiting for you to become a scientist to include your name. You have not become a scientist. That’s why we don’t have a woman scientist yet.” Everyone laughed at me. At that point, I was like, “If that is the case, then I am going to become a scientist. There will be women scientists in the book.” It is the thing I wanted too. I was aware. There are fewer women in science than men. Although, at the time, I did not have the access to information and knowledge, which an eighth grader would have today. I was 13 or 14. I was aware of the gender discrimination in academia. I was becoming more aware. I wanted to become a woman scientist. Now, when there is the corona pandemic, I wish I had not disconnected [Laughing] from biotechnology. I wish I could volunteer in a lab. However, it has been 10 years since I studied biotechnology. [Laughing] They would not consider me legible to work in a lab on coronavirus now.

Jacobsen: What do you think is human nature?

Ismail: What is human nature? This is a philosophical question. Mostly, I think, we are a product of our societies. We are mostly the product of our environments. Whatever we learn from our environment, I do not believe people who say, “Conflict is human nature.” I do not think conflict is human nature, or this or that is human nature. We grow in our families, in our communities, in certain cultures. We learn and unlearn. Learning and unlearning is a continuous process, but mostly most of the people would be products of their environment. If there is any nature, I think that is the nature. What do you think is human nature?

Jacobsen: That is a very philosophical question [Laughing].

Ismail: [Laughing] Why is it a philosophical question?

Jacobsen: It is a good question [Laughing].  

Ismail: Someone who has read psychology may be better.

Jacobsen: Yes. Human nature comes from two places at a minimum. Of course, we have nature-nurture. Everyone understands that at this point. However, the human organism is an integrated system. So, we see philosophical traditions around empiricism and rationality. Human beings, though, are an integrated system with sensory input and rational faculties. As any cognitive scientist will tell you, or simply if you look at a list of cognitive biases, e.g., Availability Heuristic, Hindsight Bias, etc., Dunning-Kruger Effect [Laughing], these are images into how the human mind is deeply flawed and incapable of certain kinds of rational inquiry as a matter of innate disposition. These could be, or can be, overcome with knowledge of them. However, not all the time. Even trained medical experts, they may not use their medical expertise, sometimes. Same for other fields or human disciplines. So, this integrated system of sensory input, limited as it is, and rationality, flawed as it is; they provide a window into what seems like a traditional philosophical divide, which, in fact, is a unified system and, therefore, should be seen as a unified philosophical system traditionally divided into two, empiricism and rationality. These are unified in some sense. They may not be 50/50. However, they are united. In that coming together, more of human nature can be something both innate, in the sense that we have certain equipment that we’re born with, but also the degree to which the equipment is responsive to the environment. Then within all of that, after a certain point, human beings develop a certain ability for conscious discrimination and choice in the world. That is where things become murkier.

The idea of freedom of will, since it may exist or how one defines it, would not be boundless. It would be finite. It would be finite based on capacity limits of the human nervous system and capacity limits in terms of time. How long can someone deliberate with the finite computational system? So, this integrated system bringing together empiricism and rationality depicts a human nature. That is both limited, grounded in the empirical, capable of the rational, and potentially capable of developing a certain amount of freedom and choice while in a closed and synergistic system. So, human nature is bounded in those ways. Then to the cultural question of human nature, yes, certainly, the flavours, the colours, the sights, the sounds, those, in a manner speaking, are human nature. It may be like the linguistic facility or faculty. In that, there is a general underlying structure. Something akin to this unified system described before. What comes out of this are the various flavours of culture in the peoples, we see. Many linguists will note a very apparent, stark difference between the world’s languages, written and spoken, while it is belying a certain very fundamental and close similarity of the system that produces all of them. So, it is a very superficial difference, where there is a quite common system of linguistic capability. Similarly with the various things seen coming out of all forms of human culture, whether religious, political, or otherwise, I would make the same argument for the arts and music. What these are telling us are, probably, in fact, what seem like stark differences between Baroque music and Hip-Hop, they are superficial differences. So, human nature is probably functionally infinite in its capacity to have different combinations of its systems to produce cultures in large groups, but also finite in its structure given by the fact that both the sensory systems that we have, and the rational systems that we have, are, no doubt, themselves limited.

Human nature is akin to a string of premises that I am trying [Laughing] to build here from what we get by the very fact of being born human, and how we grow over time akin to the way a snowflake grows over time. Certain capacities will come online over time and produce this integrated system. The things we find in cultures around the world are reflective of a very common set of simple systems that produce – that are themselves finite – a functionally infinite variety, as we have seen over recorded human history for thousands of years among all peoples. I think, the humanist vision is akin to not looking at the superficial image of the world. Something like ignoring Plato’s Cave, but leaving the cave and looking at what are the simple, finite principles that comprise human nature. So that, we can have a little more humility and a universal vision of what is a human being. It is not a universalism of ignoring the complexity or diminishing it, but valuing it as part of a common set of naturally produced parts of what make up a human being. So, human nature seems to be something both dynamic, integrated, while simple, but producing a functionally infinite set of outputs. That was a long road. I am sorry. I do not have enough breadcrumbs. 

Ismail: That was a very eloquent answer.

Jacobsen: I do not have enough breadcrumbs to get home [Laughing]

Ismail: [Laughing].

Appendix I: Footnotes

[1] Co-Founder, Aware Girls.

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