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Conversation with Gulalai Ismail on Zia-ul-Haq, Misogyny, Religion, Faith, Science, and Pakistani Politics: Co-Founder, Aware Girls (2)


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

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

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2021/05/08


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: faith, misogyny, and uplifting women; science, religion, and the status quo in Pakistan; Aware Girls and Saba Ismail; and extremist organizing.

Keywords: Aware Girls, extremists, faith, Gulalai Ismail, Humanism, Islam, misogyny, Pakistan, religion, Saba Ismail, science, Zia-ul-Haq.

Conversation with Gulalai Ismail on Zia-ul-Haq, Misogyny, Religion, Faith, Science, and Pakistani Politics: Co-Founder, Aware Girls (2)

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

*Interview conducted April 24, 2020.*

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: In some cultures where there is some of the more extreme forms of violence against women and girls, where we see genital mutilation, infibulation, and clitoridectomy, it is mixed up between culture and faith.

How are forms of explicit misogyny in practice – let alone an attitude – reflected in religious values and in cultural values? On the other side, which religious and cultural values appear to uplift women in Pakistan?

Gulalai Ismail[1],[2]: Very interesting question, religion, Islam, has been part of our cultures and every community for hundreds of years. It has mixed with the local culture. So, faith and culture are very strongly linked with each other. I think faith is part of the culture. It is one sub-part of the culture.

They are strongly linked to each other. The religion has changed a lot. It has influenced in so many ways. Faith has influenced and shaped the culture, the festivals, the community activities. In Pakistan, especially in the Northwest of Pakistan, I have seen – and my parents have seen – how regularly the religious fundamentalists took up more political space.

They gained more political space and gained more cultural space. So, the cultural events, the cultural festivals, were declared by the religious clerics as non-Islamic and bad. They were banned or abandoned by the people under the influenced of the religious extremists.

So many cultural events and cultural activities, which used to happen a decade ago, or two or three decades ago, they used to happen; they are not happening now. All the faith-based festivals or mostly faith-based festivals are happening now.

Even some of the cultural events have still survived, however, they are always under attack. People from the agricultural communities, especially from the Punjab, would come together and fly kites.

They would sing. They would dance. They would fly kites. Now, the festival is under attack by state actors and by the religious fundamentalists calling this un-Islamic and part of Hindu culture. Therefore, they should not celebrate it.

Pakistan is such a diverse country because many nations live in Pakistan. Every nation has their own culture. So, sometimes, the festivals are very beautiful. The languages are very beautiful. Not much has been done by the state authorities to preserve the culture and the music.

There is only one federal institute alongside the Pakistan National Council of the Arts at the federal level. These are the two state institutes, federal level institutions, working to preserve languages, music, and culture. They are just two institutes.

There is not much at the state or the culture level to preserve the beautiful parts of the culture because, in Pakistan, the resources is linked to the polices. Pakistan is a country where the resources are invested heavily in defense and security.

On the whole, it is promoting the narrative that Pakistan is a security state. The money is spent on the manta that we are under attack by India and Israel, and the Jews, are conspiring against us; India is conspiring against us. We are under attack on all sides.

Therefore, we need a stronger security and more investment in defense. So, much of the money is spent on tanks, bombs, on the nuclear bomb, education in our curriculum, children are not taught about the music, the heritage, the diversity. They are mostly taught about religion. You will find religion in English course books.

You will find religion in Pakistan study books [Laughing]. You will find religion in Islam study books. You will find religion in Urdu study books. Religion is studied so much in Pakistan. Religion and religious intolerances are taught as the thinking for the kids in education.

Religion has been a huge space in the cultural and political life. Look at the corona pandemic, in the midst of the corona pandemic, every country of the world is asking its people and issuing guidelines to stay at home. The countries are on lockdown.

The whole world is under lockdown. The governments are asking people only to come out for necessities. Only on necessities is business ongoing. During the month of Ramadan, the month of Ramadan has started.

When it starts, even countries like Saudi Arabia, which I think is [Laughing] the epitome of a religious country, when Saudi Arabia mentions the closing of the mosques during the month of Ramadan, people have to stay at home.

The Kaaba is one of the holiest places for Muslims. It has been closed down due to the coronavirus. In Pakistan, the president invited the delegation of religious clerics before the month of Ramadan started. They had twenty demands from the government.

The twenty demands were the mosques must remain open for prayers and prayers much continue. All demands were accepted by the government. It was announced the mosques would remain open for Ramadan prayers during the month of Ramadan. That is a very dangerous president.

Pakistan does not have accessible healthcare. We have a very bleak healthcare system. If the pandemic hit us the way it has hit countries like the U.S. or Europe, then Pakistan will be seeing dead bodies on the roads. Because our healthcare system cannot afford it.

We do not have a strong healthcare system, even the strongest healthcare systems are breaking down in the pandemic. We do not have a system. The government of Pakistan, they agreed to the demands of the religious clerics at the cost of lives of the people.

During the corona pandemic, when all over the world, the media channels are inviting either the mayors, governors, who are giving briefings to people, and the doctors and medical experts. They are coming and giving information on it.

In Pakistan, every media is bringing religious leaders to talk about corona pandemic. Too much media, public space has been given to religious elements at the cost of the lives of people, at the cost of the destruction of the society of Pakistan.

Jacobsen: The former Nobel Prize winner Abdus Salam noted one thing to Steven Weinberg who he collaborated with in the past. He noted that an individual who is in many Middle Eastern countries with Muslim heritage. They will very easily and widely accept the technological and technical masteries that are brought about by science. All of the technological marvels and wonders that one can see implemented in Dubai or in the United Arab Emirates in general, or elsewhere. At the same time, the attitude and thought process of science that brings about the findings through that methodology. Those, he noted, were very, very hard to bring to a wide audience because the religious leaders and some of the political leaders saw this, in essence, as a threat. This is according to Steven Weinberg. In that, this would be an erosive or corrosive force on fundamentalist ideologies. How is this reflected in some of the Pakistan? Not only in the press briefing with religious clerics, but also in the attitudes of the public towards technology, on the one hand, and science as an attitude, a methodology, and a set of findings, on the other.

Ismail: In Pakistan, religion has been used in so many different ways for the benefit of maintaining status quo. It goes back to the history of Pakistan. For example, in Pakistan, if you raise the question, “What does it mean to be a Pakistani?” Who are you when you say you are Pakistani? In Pakistan, the Pakistani identity has been made synonymous with being Muslim and to Islam. It has roots in the subcontinent of India. Pakistan was made for Muslims. It was a country to be made for Muslims or in the name of Islam. Religion was made for the subdivision of the Indian subcontinent in the first place. Also, it was made to define what is meant by a Pakistani. That is why you can see how religion slowly, and gradually, took a huge part in the constitution of Pakistan. Pakistan was formed in 1947, but many years later in 1956 when the first constitution was formed; Pakistan was given the name the “Islamic Republic of Pakistan.” The Preamble of the Pakistan Constitution is known as the Objective Resolution. It says, ‘This country made in the name of Islam. The country will be ruled according to Islam.’ According to the Objective Resolution, people are not sovereign units of the country. God is the most sovereign. God is the most sovereign entity. The Objective Resolution was about how it Islamic the whole country. Slowly and gradually, religion was used by religious political parties. The same religious political parties who initially opposed the formation of Pakistan. After the formation of Pakistan, those religious political parties started using religion to gain more access to politics to have more say in the decision-making.

So, religion was mainstreamed by those religious political parties. The political parties and the military dictators were the biggest users of the religion. Zia-ul-Haq was a military dictator. His justification for overthrowing democracy and establishing a military dictatorship was Islam. He started the Islamization of Pakistan. He Islamized the laws of the country. To this day, we have not been able to recover from the Islamization of Zia-ul-Haq. He was the one who introduced many Islamic laws, which we are still part of the laws of Pakistan. They are still used. Sharia courts were established. The religious leaders have been given a role in the judiciary in the form of Sharia courts. Similarly, there is a religious council, an advisory religious council, which gives advice to the Parliament (of Pakistan). The only time the Parliament consults the religious council is when the Parliament has to legislate about women’s rights. The only time the Parliament thinks that they need to counsel these advisors is for women’s rights. Women are at the receiving end of the mainstreaming of religion in Pakistan. As I said, it has been used by Pakistan military. Then religion has been used for the strategic interests. The military establishment of Pakistan along with the political parties have used religion as a strategic asset. For example, when Pakistan had been supporting Taliban in Afghanistan. Religion was used to recruit people for Jihad.

There are hundreds of madrassahs, hundreds of jihad training institutions, founded all over Pakistan, so people could be brainwashed and trained for jihad in Afghanistan. The school curriculums were changed all over Pakistan. More religion was inserted in the curriculum. The narratives of jihad could be promoted. They are still part of the curriculum. Those jihad materials are still part of the curriculum. So, religion has been used by the military establishment and the political parties. They have been using religion to enjoy more control at the cost of destroying the social fabric of the society. As I said to you, religion is a big part of the curriculum; so, critical thinking skills are not part of the curriculum. People are never given – children, young people – the skills to criticize, to question. Criticism or raising questions, the whole school culture in built in a way that students are discouraged from raising questions. Students are not encouraged to raise questions; they are discouraged from raising questions and from critical thinking skills. So, religion has been used to maintain status quo in Pakistan. Throughout the previous decades, the military establishment, and mainstream political parties, have mainstreamed religious political parties. Most of the terrorist organizations in Pakistan. They try to emerge in the form of political parties. They run their election campaigns. They secure a huge amount; they will not be able to make it to the Parliament, but they secure a huge number of votes.

Jacobsen: When you founded Aware Girls, was it 16?

Ismail: Yes, I was 16.

Jacobsen: A co-founder with Saba (Ismail), what were some discussions that you can recall between Saba and you?

Ismail: While living in a girl while we were witnessing, even becoming victims, to the gender discrimination, we really wanted to do something to change it. One of my cousins was almost our age when she wanted to become a pilot. She was taken out of school and married to a person in the family who was almost twice her age. It was a time when we were very shocked and traumatized how one of our own cousins could be taken out of school and not be given the opportunity to go to school and pursue her dreams. This was the breaking point for us. We could not do anything. We discussed this a lot with our families. No one would listen to these two small girls who were discontented with the cousin’s marriage. We could not do anything to stop the marriage. We wanted to do something. So, it would not happen to any other woman. We talked to women and girls in our neighbourhood, in our schools. Most of the time, when we would discuss this with girls, we would not find a lot of interest among the girls. [Laughing] Starting a revolution against the gender discrimination, most of the girls had internalized it. I think the discrimination is internalized as a defense mechanism. We were these young girls. We thought, “These young girls are not allowed to make a movement, to resist against Patriarchy. Because they are not aware of their rights.” We decided to start by giving them education and awareness of their human rights. We started this campaign with the name of “Aware Girls.” It was a campaign to give girls awareness and education on their rights.

Once in our head, the idea, ‘Once they are aware of their rights and have some leadership skills, they will be able to speak up for their rights. We would go and the girls would have discussions about the issues faced in their daily lives. The kind of discrimination aced by them. What can be done, how they can negotiate for themselves inside of the home in their families for their rights, how to negotiate their rights, that is how it started. Once we started, of course, the more we learned. It is not just about lack of knowledge with the young girls. It is about lack of opportunities, lack of platforms, and about a conducive environment. Girls need a conducive environment to exercise their human rights. It needs supportive families. It needs supportive communities. It needs a state there for young girls to protect their rights. We got involved in advocacy work. We were working on changing the laws. We were working on leadership skills for girls in leadership. In 2009, we started working on peacebuilding after the region was threatened with terrorism and recruitments by the Taliban or by the militant organizations.

Jacobsen: How do terrorist organizations, extremist organizations, encourage men into their ranks, women into their ranks? And how do those men and women who end up in them become slotted to particular roles?

Ismail: The recruitment was started by the state. When they wanted to recruit people for jihad. The number of madrassahs were increased, and the number of terrorist institutes were founded. The media was used by the state. The media was sued to promote the narrative, the extremist narratives. The curriculum was used. In Pakistan, most of the people have been indoctrinated with a fundamentalist form of Islam. It is really easy for militant organizations and for terrorist organizations to identify the most vulnerable in the community and to reach out and recruit them. The madrassah training centers have been used to recruit people. Most of the time, these are the centers for recruitment. Mosques have been used. These militant organizations’ leadership, even until now, visit mosques and introduce themselves. They ask people to come and down join them. They have been given a lot of power to do huge political gatherings. Even last year, there was a huge political gathering of banned terrorist organizations, where they asked people. They took bait. They took promises of people offering for them to join jihad. They do huge public gatherings. They recruit people through mosques and religious madrassahs. Also, they recruit people who are vulnerable, who have different issues, who like the idea of war, who like the idea of weapons, or who like the ideas of jihad.

Also, they recruit through community. There are a number of women madrassahs. Most of the women have been recruited through those religious madrassahs. For example, there was a very famous case, where a madrassah teacher was going to join ISIS along with more than a dozen students of the madrassah. She was arrested and brought. It is not just mosques and religious schools. It is, as I said, generally through community and online recruitment is done and social media is used. Our public schools are good enough to indoctrinate people. There was a very famous case a few years back when a student from medical college. She was a student of medical college. She was recruited online for ISIS. Then she was brought back. This was how we got to know of the incident. Women are recruited are online from public universities, and from religious schools. The militant organizations have a huge network. Their network is limited to universities, schools. They have networks in the bureaucracy as well. They are in the military of Pakistan as well. Even within the military of Pakistan, you could see. People have been indoctrinated with the idea of jihad. It is real. Therefore, they should go for jihad. Almost every part of the society has their network, their people.

Appendix I: Footnotes

[1] Co-Founder, Aware Girls.

[2] Individual Publication Date: May 8, 2021:; Full Issue Publication Date: September 1, 2021:


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