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Conversation with Gulalai Ismail on International Humanitarian Law, Human Rights, North Waziristan, and Being the Most Dangerous Person in Pakistan: Co-Founder, Aware Girls (3)


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

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

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2021/05/15


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: reportage in North Waziristan; most dangerous person in Pakistan; Pashtun Tahafuz Movement; human rights and humanitarian law; freethinkers; most dangerous woman; and a lifelong commitment.

Keywords: Aware Girls, freethinkers, Gulalai Ismail, human rights, North Waziristan,  Pashtun Tahafuz Movement.

Conversation with Gulalai Ismail on International Humanitarian Law, Human Rights, North Waziristan, and Being the Most Dangerous Person in Pakistan: Co-Founder, Aware Girls (3)

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

*Interview conducted April 24, 2020.*

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: You did some rights work and reportage in North Waziristan looking at the cases of women who were raped or sexually assaulted by security forces of Pakistan. What were some of those findings? And what was some of the protest you gave over those acts of the police forces? Also, what was the reaction of the police force or the state forces?

Gulalai Ismail[1],[2]: It was January 2009, when I saw a video on the internet. It was a video of a small boy. Maybe, he was 11 years old. His name was Hayat. In that video, the young boy was saying that he was from North Waziristan. He was saying that his brothers had been picked up months ago by security agencies. However, their home was continually barged into by the security forces. He mother was harassed regularly. He was so fed up with it. When this video came out, there was a lot of anger about the issue of harassment by security force. The security forces tried to shut down the woman. They tried to claim this was a lie, etc. The mother of the little boy, she presented herself in a local council meeting with local elders. She gave a testimony. She said, ‘It is true.’ She is regularly getting harassed by security forces. Home is regularly getting barged into by security forces. Her husband and son have already been taken by the security agencies, as in missing persons. Victims of forced disappearances. A s women’s rights activist, I felt a responsibility. When she spoke about sexual harassment, in a tribal area, where women do not have access to public spaces, where there are not enough schools and the literacy rate is really low with women’s less than 10%, they do not have access to media. There is not internet.

The government has still not given the right of the internet to people of Waziristan. There is not internet over there. It is a complete information blackout area. A woman who is so brave and courageous stood and spoke out against sexual harassment. As a women’s rights activist, I felt a responsibility to go visit her and show solidarity with her. To tell her, she is not alone. I, along with other women activists, I went there to meet her. When we went there, dozens of women came to see us. We were told a number of stories of sexual harassment by the security forces. Also, some of the women claim that some women have been abducted aby security forces. Those women have never been given back. They have not been returned to their families. We got to know the story of the woman who was part of a later incident. It was a policy of the state security agencies. It happened regularly. It was a common policy. The women from the area, it is such a taboo for a woman to be in public spaces all around Pakistan. Every woman in Pakistan is not comfortable to be on media. They are not even allowed by the men in the community and the family to be on the internet or to give any interview. This one woman was very brave. She had a small piece of paper with 25 lines on it. She said that she wanted to give the media an interview. Her husband had been picked up by the security agencies. The security forces keep barging into her home. They come and harass her every time. She drew one line on this paper for every incident. She had this paper with 25 lines marking every time of the harassment by the security forces.

This helps us know sexual harassment is either a policy or the security forces keep on enjoying immunity for the crimes committed against women in the areas, where they are engaged in military operations. Of course, in Pakistan, the mainstream media is not allowed to cover any issues in which people are critical of the Pakistani military. Also, the mainstream media is not allowed to give coverage to any activist of the movement known as Pashtun Tahafuz Movement. We were not given coverage. The story was not given coverage on any mainstream media. Of course, there are some channels like Voice of America or Europe Radio, which gave coverage to the story and gave voice to the issue. We also wrote letters to the international commission on the status of women to take notice of it. To make sure justice is done, the reconciliation commission should be established. Nothing was done. Instead, activists who went there. I went there. I started experiencing harassment by state authorities. A few days later, I was arrested from a protest. We were doing a protest against the murder of a peace activist. Right from there, I was arrested. We were all arrested, who were doing the protest. I was made a missing person. I was kept incommunicado for almost 48 hours, for two days. My family did not know where I had been kept. No one was given any access to counsel, to a lawyer. Soon after it, the crackdown started against me, which never ended. I was released. Even then, I was released only after immense international pressure. Even after the release, the crackdown did not stop.

Then when I highlighted the issue again in May of 2019, I highlighted the issue when protesting against the rape and murder of a 10-year-old girl in Islamabad, which is the capital of Pakistan. We were protesting this. She was raped and murdered by someone in the neighbourhood. The police had not lodged a complaint of the girl gone missing. When the girl had gone missing, they went to the police to find their girl and file a complaint. The police refused to take the complaint, ‘She must have eloped with someone. So, we won’t take the case.’ A few days later, she was found dead and raped. Then the hospitals were not even willing to do her post-mortem. So, a protest was happening. Civil society was doing a protest against it. In the protest, I highlighted the issues of sexual harassment in North Waziristan. [Laughing] For that, I was booked under a case or clauses under the anti-terrorism laws of Pakistan for defaming Pakistan military and for promoting ethnic violence, for engaging in treason, which is a life sentence. I do not know what they would have done if they had arrested me. Soon after the speech, I became the most wanted terrorist in Pakistan. I was highlighted as a terrorist, as someone who is a terrorist. Soon, they started raiding our homes. The digital surveillance was started. My parents were under digital surveillance. The raids were not any raids.

We are talking dozens of commandoes and police who raid our homes, check our homes, every corner of the home, harassing my sister and siblings and parents who were home; they took our mobile phones. We had CCTV cameras installed in our home. Those were taken from our home. Every few weeks, our home would be raided as if it were the home of the biggest terrorist or the headquarters of the biggest terrorist organization in Pakistan. Similar raids were done on my relatives’ homes. Soon, we got to know. My name was put on some state kill list. I was on a blacklist. Before that, my name was added on some personal special interest list. I used to be investigated, interrogated, by the counter-terrorism department of the special investigation agency of Pakistan. It was non-stop for more than a year. It has been a non-stop harassment by the state. I risked disappearances, booking me in cases of terrorism. It has been crazy. The past one-and-a-half year has been really crazy.

Jacobsen: If stated to Pakistan as the most dangerous person, let alone women but person, in the country, many people know the name and know the purported crime. I would assume statements were made in public by them, about you, about then movement you are involved with, or about your organization. If any, if my assumption is correct, what were they?

Ismail: The movement has always been presented very negatively in the mainstream media because the mainstream media is not allowed to invite us or members of the movement. They discuss us. They portray us as traitors. In April, it was the 29th of 2020. The director of the ISBR, the media public relations wing of Pakistan military. The director or the spokesperson of the Pakistan military, he did a press conference and threated the PT movement saying, ‘The time is up for the PT movement. It is time for action.’ His famous sentence, “The time is up for PTF.” Shortly after the press conference and the statement about strict action taken against us, and we’ve crossed the red line and will not be tolerated anymore, many videos emerged online on YouTube saying, “The time is up for Gulalai,‘ and two others. This was the kind of statements that were given about us. They were always threatening and outrageous statements against our basic rights, our fundamental rights. Besides this, when I was still in hiding because of the situation created for me, my life was at risk. Imran Kahn was visiting the United States. He was giving a speech in the United States Institute of Peace. He was asked about me and the crackdown about me. He started using the question as an excuse to promote more propaganda against the movement. He did not answer the question and promoted more propaganda against us over there.

One of the unfortunate situations for us is the political leadership have not come forward. In a way, they should have come forward in support of the movement. They have not come forward against the crackdown against us, in the way they should have come down against the crackdown against us. The political parties did not take a strong stand in support of the movement because, in Pakistan, the elections are engineered b the Pakistan military agency. Anyone critical of the military agency are afraid that they will not win and will not be able to get into the Parliament. They do not put themselves in trouble by questioning, or issuing support in solidarity with people like me or the movement. It is unfortunate. If there was any talk, then it was negative and only negative statements of propaganda.

Jacobsen: For the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement, what is the history there? Of course, you have Pashtun heritage. However, in Pakistan, this is a particularly sensitive issue. One, as you have noted, among many others with some overlap and, in other ways, not. What is the status of the movement? What is the trajectory?

Ismail: The history of the movement is after 9/11, the militant organizations started to organization in the Northwest of Pakistan. The state let them organize. The state hesitated and let them have access to resources because they were a strategic asset of Pakistan. They tried to establish Islamic state in Pakistan. They were killing people, even attacking the government institutes. Military operations started against them. Many more military opens have been dozen affecting millions of people. Millions of people are displaced from their homes. Most of them were displaced on very short notice. Not enough support was provided to the people who were displaced. They were not even given the label of Internally Displaced people. Because when you are given the label, the certain rights apply to IDPs, Pakistan avoided it, even called Intermittently Displaced People., or ITTPs or something to prevent them from having rights of displaced people. Thousands of families, even today, are living in those camps. They are not able to return to their homes. The camps were more like concentration camps. They are guarded by the military, the Pakistani military. They are not controlled by civilians. The civil society is not allowed to enter the camps and meet with the people inside the camps. Political parties are not even allowed to visit these camps. Only the military controls it. Landmines were used, which are against international law. No landmines, no excuse can be used to fill whole villages with landmines, even if you are doing a military operation. However, dozens of people have lost their lives. Dozens have people have been disabled because of the landmines.

Then extrajudicial killing is another phenomenon that emerged. Extrajudicial killing was done not just in the tribal areas of Pakistan, but all over Pakistan. When killed extrajudicially, they would be labelled “terrorists” rather than be given a free and fair trial. Hundreds of them were killed in fake police encounters. They were not real police encounters. They would be abducted, tortured, and killed, and the dumped, and then a fake police operation or encounter would be staged. Then the this would be labelled the “terrorist running away, so he was killed by the state.” Most were killed extrajudicially and were innocent people who do not have any link with a terrorist organization. Thousands of innocent people were killed extrajudicially. If you look at the whole military set of operations, not a single leader of these terrorist organizations was killed in these military operations. Who were these people? These were never shared with the public. Who were these terrorists who were killed? How did the Pakistani military come to the conclusion that this person was a terrorist? No kind of information was given to this day. No one knows, never even names have been given, the information has not even been given to the Parliament. There is one parliamentarian who belongs to the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement.

He has raised questions in the Parliament. He asked the Defense Department to give him the list of the terrorists killed in military operations because more than a dozen have been done. He wants the list. Not even the list of names of people has been provided. Similarly, extrajudicial killing and enforced disappearances became a big phenomenon. Most of the people, even if someone is not innocent, you cannot make them a victim of enforced disappearance. So, thousands of people became victims of enforced disappearances. They are brought internment centers. They are not given the right to a free and fair trial. They are not given the right to access family. They are not given the right to access to a lawyer. Once someone has gone missing, I have met families whose family members are missing for years, for 10 years, for 14 years. They do not know where they have gone. Enforced disappearance is another issue with targeted killings too. The local head witness and the Pakistan military, itself, has allowed terrorist organizations organize in their villages and to kill the local people. No action will be taken against the terrorist organizations, except in the name of military organizations crimes were committed. All of the human rights abuses were committed by Pakistan state military during the war against terror.

Jacobsen: With the lack of transparency with the public comes the basis for a lack of accountability to the public and to the international community, especially around human rights and humanitarian law, what is the status of freedom of expression and freedom of the press in Pakistan?

Ismail: If you speak about the tribal areas of Pakistan, then there is complete informational blackout. There is no T.V. There is only in some parts where you can listen to radio. No T.V. and no internet, the Pakistani government and the Prime Minister of Pakistan speaks so much about the lockdown of Kashmir. He speaks so much against the shutdown of internet in Kashmir. In the tribal areas of Pakistan, this has been like this forever. I do not if internet was ever even given to the trial areas of Pakistan. So, there is complete informational blackout in the tribal areas of Pakistan. In the rest of Pakistan, the situation for freedom of expression is really difficult. It is dire. There is no freedom of expression for voices of dissent. People who are dissidents. People who think differently; people who are critical of the state policy. In Pakistan, only religious clerics has freedom of expression. Only terrorist organizations have freedom of expression. Only banned terrorist organizations have freedom of expression. Human rights activists and common people do not have freedom of expression. IF they dare to use freedom of expression, like my father, then they are booked for cases for terrorism or cybercrime. The cybercrime case filed against his because he has been accused of speaking against the government. In the whole civilized world, you would not put someone in prison because they are being critical of the government. The FIR of my father says that he has been charged for cybercrime because he has speaking against the government. So, the regressive laws like cybercrimes laws and anti-terrorism laws of Pakistan are used against voices of dissent. I am not the only dissident. I am not the only human rights activist who had to flee the country to save my life. Many dissidents have to flee the country, to leave the country, to save their lives. There is a huge community where so many people had to leave Pakistan because it was no longer safe for them living in Pakistan. It was because of their political opinions. They were no longer tolerated in Pakistan for their political opinions.

Jacobsen: How many cases of humanists and others of a similar freethinker stripe, given the information blackout when bad things happen to them, whether injury, death, or otherwise, simply go unnoticed via the information blackout?

Ismail: I do not know how many cases go unreported, Scott, to be honest; because if there is no information, I don’t know the real figures. However, based on the religious fundamentalism and the support militants have enjoyed, I am sure many cases go unreported. The data available, I am sure this is unrepresentative and the persecution by state authorities and by the community is much greater.

Jacobsen: Are you still considered the most dangerous woman from Pakistan?

Ismail: Well [Laughing]…

Jacobsen: …[Laughing]…

Ismail: …just last week, Pakistan submitted an appeal in the court asking to cancel the appeal of my father, as he was booked on a cybercrime case. He is on bail now. But Pakistan is trying to cancel the bail of him. He has been tortured and persecuted because he is my father. In January when my mother received a letter, she is on the Exit Control List. This is based on my being the most dangerous person in Pakistan.

Jacobsen: This title, the most dangerous woman in Pakistan, whether a formal title or informally implied, is going to follow you for the rest of your life. This is not something that just goes away.

Ismail:  Yes, I think those who are ready for war. Those who support terrorism. Patriarchal institutions too, I am glad that they see me as the most dangerous person.

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Ismail: They should be really, really afraid that, now, they have a strong woman who is out there to expose their agenda [Laughing].

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Ismail: She will not sit back. Until, they are all held accountable. I am glad that they think I am dangerous.

Appendix I: Footnotes

[1] Co-Founder, Aware Girls.

[2] Individual Publication Date: May 15, 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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