Skip to content

Conversation with Saba Ismail on Criminal Justice, Dominant Faith Group Tied to Military State, Minority Muslims, and Humanists: Co-Founder, Aware Girls (3)


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

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

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2021/04/22


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: the formal charges; more recent case or cases; the justice system within Pakistan; different minority Muslim backgrounds; extensive periods of having to be in hiding; and the New York Times.

Keywords: Aware Girls, criminal justice, Gulalai Ismail, Islam, law, minority religious groups, Pakistan.

Conversation with Saba Ismail on Criminal Justice, Dominant Faith Group Tied to Military State, Minority Muslims, and Humanists: Co-Founder, Aware Girls (3)

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

*Interview conducted July 2, 2020.*

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What were the formal charges at the time towards your parents, your siblings, and yourself?

Saba Ismail[1],[2]: At that time, there were no formal charges. At the time, the raid, they were restless ordinary people without uniform. We never knew their identity. There were no charges and no cases. None against Gulalai.

At the time, Gulalai and I were receiving international awards. We were on the 100 leading global thinkers of 2013. Both us won several awards. We were getting the recognition and acknowledgement.

At one occasion, actually, when we both received the 100 leading global leaders award back in 2013, my father had a reception party at our village. The next day, some people came to my father.

It was a reception, but it was family, friends, and relatives. They said that if they knew the party and reception was here. We would be attacked. So, it is not a party as in Western culture. It was people getting together and eating food. It was people coming and chatting and having good food. That’s it.

Even that, my father received a threat that it would be attacked. Always, it received threats and different forms of persecution in one form or another. There was never a formal charge. There was never an FIR (First Information Report) or a police report, or anything.

Jacobsen: In the more recent case or cases, what were the formal charges at that time?

Ismail: Before Gulalai’s speech, she was charged. In total, she has been charged with inciting hatred and violence, inciting people to attack the army, of terrorism, and financial terrorism. These are the kind of charges that my family has been facing.

Gulalai was on the Exit Control List, No Fly List (can’t leave the country). My mother has been denied the right to have a passport. It was denied to her at the end of 2019. When her passport expired, she cannot get a passport because under the instructions of ISI; she will not get a passport.

She doesn’t have her identity documents on her. There is a cybercrime case against my father. There are multiple cases against my parents. On the 2nd of July, Gulalai and my parents were acquitted in the financial terrorism case.

That case started back in 2018 when Gulalai was put on a person of special interest inquiry. There were enquiries from the counterterrorism department. On the 12th of July, in 2019, there was a police case against Gulalai.

They accused Gulalai of taking money from India and transferring it to our accounts from India. The judge decided there is no evidence at all. With no evidence, the case is dismissed. Gulalai and my parents were acquitted in this case.

Because there was no evidence at all. They couldn’t provide any.

Jacobsen: This is insane.

Ismail: How can you charge someone based just on accusations? Because they couldn’t submit any single evidence. The judge was like, “This has to be dismissed and is malicious.” There are still so many crimes against Gulalai and the cybercrime case against my father, Exit Control List of my parents, and Gulalai was on a state kill list. There were orders to kill her.

There were all these charges. The past year (2020) have been a difficult time for our family fighting the legal ways.

Jacobsen: Now, if this is the status of the justice system within Pakistan, how is for other humanists?

Ismail: For other humanists, it is really hard. Same for human rights defenders and activists. It is not easy. It is really difficult. You can imagine. It took one year and multiple court appearances. My father was abducted, disappeared and spent 35 days in prison.

The police raids, everything, at the end, this case was used on social media and troll and spread hatred against my family. Of course, it cannot undo the harm done by Pakistan as a state against our family.

Our family is not united. We cannot go back to our country. Definitely, this is the situation. Even without a single piece of evidence, it still took one year and multiple appearances in course to bring our parents back and be acquitted in this case.

Other humanists are not safe. We have seen professors being accused of blasphemy. We have seen professors being killed in the name of blasphemy. Students have killed their professor.

Jacobsen: Holy smokes.

Ismail: Yes! Yes, recently, another person was accused of blasphemy. A humanist released a statement in favour of the professor. Generally, the space as a country is not safe for humanists. Anyone who dares to speak out will face crackdowns or being killed, false accusations of blasphemy, e.g., Asia Bibi who was falsely accused of blasphemy, spent 8 years in jail.

When she was released, the religious extremists were going crazy to get her killed. Also, a few year ago, a young brilliant student named Mashal Khan was killed by a university fellow at the university, again, because he was accused of blasphemy.

Blasphemy is not only a card used against religious minorities in Pakistan, but against anyone with a different opinion. They will say, “This person has committed blasphemy.” The justice system is not strong enough to protect them.

Or the crazy people, if the justice system fails to get them, there is mob violence to simply kill them if they are a humanist or a committed blasphemy. All the propaganda being spread against Gulalai on social media.

They say, “Okay, look at Gulalai as part of a humanist organization, she is a secular person. People should follow her and her ideologies because she is a secular humanist.” People reference the humanist groups and her being on the Board of Humanists International.

It has been used to spread hate against her. It is on social media. Several years ago, several bloggers were disappeared. They were accused of blasphemy. A lot of these cases stay this way. Because they believe if someone has a different political opinion; that’s where they use it.

Humanism is not a safe opinion at all. It can cost lives in Pakistan. This is a gruesome reality. This is the reality of Pakistan.

Jacobsen: The subtext or the elephant in the room is the idea of blasphemy as a generalized law in public, when, in fact, it’s only religious legal concept. So, the idea of applying a religious legal concept to those without a religion or those with another religion using religious legal law or different religious laws.

It shouldn’t be legitimate, but it comes at the most costly thing: someone’s life.

Ismail: But in Pakistan, it is not just religious persecution. Mashal Khan was a humanist and born a Muslim. He called himself a humanist. It applied to people who are not Muslims. Christian houses and communities have been burned because of these false blasphemy laws.

It is a very easy thing to provoke people in Pakistan. That’s what they’re using to promote. It is a very easy card to provoke people to kill someone or defame someone, or to make sure they don’t listen to someone’s ideas.

Jacobsen: Islamic backgrounds, minority Muslim backgrounds, is there a different reaction to different minority Muslim backgrounds, like the Ismailis? Are there different reactions to the minority Muslim backgrounds amongst the more dominant Muslim groups?

Ismail: Yes, definitely, people who are from the Ahmadi community. By law, they are not Muslims in Pakistan. The irony on top of all of it. I was born a Sunni Muslim. Now, if I want to have a national identity card, and when I am applying for a passport, I have to sign a document saying, ‘I, as a Muslim, do not consider Ahmadis as Muslims according to the Constitution of the country of Pakistan.”

If I don’t sign it, I don’t have an option to not sign it. If I don’t, though, then I will have to show my religion as another religion, such as a non-Muslim, in my identity documents. The amount of persecution that religious minorities within Muslim communities face is immense.

Imagine, people know that they are born in a certain religious identity cannot become the president or prime minister of a country. They know their dreams have limitations because of the religion they are born into.

Also, the persecution of the faith is immense. It is hard to say anything in support of these religious minorities. You say it. There are so many trolls and online armies ready to attack the family and to kill.

It is really hard. They have done it constitutionally, outcast the religious minority in Pakistan. There’s this Pakistani physicist, Abdus Salam. They have disowned him because of his religious identification. It is common to see a warning in a job warning, “Ahmadis are not allowed in this shop. Ahmadis are now allowed to do business in this shop.”

Where they sell clothes, telephone shops, there will be proper notices on the entrance of the doors of the shop. That these people from these religious minorities aren’t allowed. People growing up in a certain country see all this.

Because they’re a religious minority. Their certain rights are being withheld. They are not entitled to basic human rights in this country simply because of that. It is definitely not okay. Also, it has been taught in schools that Ahmadis are not Muslims.

It is repeated by the educated system. People propagate this online. It’s on a daily basis. You see it all around you. The way they are being targeted are several instances. People will travel on a bus. They will be asked to identify themselves and then shot and killed on the spot.

Whether non-religious or religious minorities, they have faced things so inhuman and unconstitutional.

Jacobsen: For some of the family, there have been extensive periods of having to be in hiding. So, without details for safety reasons, how does one even go about making that decision to say, “Okay, this is something that we have to do. We’re going to do it. We’re going to go forward with it”?

Then you drop everything in your lives to come to some form of safety without any certainty of safety in the end. 

Ismail: You’re in a different mode. You don’t have any other option. You don’t have many choices. You have to be resilient, extremely resilient and extremely strong because every step that we did at that time.

There was always chances of us not being safe and us being killed, losing our lives. That is when you know, constantly, about your safety or your parents’ safety. There is no other choice but to fight. You do your best in that time.

We have been through so many situations. My father has been going through so much in his life. He was accused of blasphemy before 9/11. When you live a life of such persecution, we had to do something like a SWOT analysis: strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats.

That kind of analysis. “If I take this route, what are the risks?” Definitely, in those kinds of situations, you can discuss it with your friends. You cannot simply take advice from other people, the community, everything.

We had to do a lot on our own. One person has to be resilient enough to stand in that kind of situation and to come up with solutions. This is what we did. We couldn’t stay in the house anymore because it was not safe for us. In order to save our lives, also, because we come from a middle-class family, we don’t have properties in different areas of the country.

We’d go to a farmhouse in some other part of the country. We didn’t have choices on our plate. We had extremely limited options in what we could do and did our best. Each of us is safe in our situation after going through so much.

We have to understand the risk, but have to be resilient in what we do. Also, it is all the security measures and the precautions when it came to the physical security situation.

Jacobsen: When the stories came out in the New York Times, several of them, about your sister’s case, in your father’s case, it came out in the most influential publication in the Western world. Two members of the same family with similar stories in different circumstances.

One with your father in Pakistan. Two with your sister in New York in the United States. How, in in a very short period of time, were these stories, when they came out, portrayed in the countries that didn’t want things for either your father or your sister?

Ismail: I’m not sure if I will be able to answer this. The people who were definitely not happy with why these stories came out in such a high profile way. I really commend the work of Jeffrey Gettleman. He put in a lot of work to the stories that came out at that time.

It was a lot of background work. When the first story came out, it took weeks and weeks of calls and emails between Jeffrey and I at that time. When the stories came out, it really helps a lot raise the awareness of the case.

The day the New York Times story was published when Imran Khan came to give a speech in the United States. Nancy, the Speaker of the House, asked Imran Khan a question about it. It really helped us. Of course, it was courageous of Nancy to ask the Prime Minister of a country about the persecution of a women’s rights activist at the time.

The New York Times helped bring the awareness to a higher level. Also, when the journalist from the New York Times visited our parents back home in Islamabad, she saw how much military people guarded with weapons and everything.

She saw those people outside watching of the house. They had weapons with them. There were cars with people. The journalist saw everything and documented in a pictorial way. They took pictures as evidences for everything.

When the story of the New York Times got published, those vehicles that would stand there all the time, day and night, were gone. That stopped on the day the article got published. Definitely, at the time, it was a big relief for us.

These people with weapons and guns were watching our parents all the time. It was a really good timing. When questions were being asked of the Prime Minister of the country, some of the persecution stopped because of this coverage.

I love the way Jeffrey articulated the story. I love the way he put his effort into this story towards ensuring that the story was told in a really good and neutral way. At that time, there was so much hatred and propaganda on the media against Gulalai.

No one was taking our side at that time. So, it was really important for us to tell or story to the New York Times. Here is our story, you shouldn’t listen to the Pakistani authorities and the media. In Pakistani, the anchors would say Gulalai should be hanged and shown as an example – how dare she speak against the Pakistani military.

My parents watched this all day. For three days on television, people were repeatedly saying, “She should be hanged in public.” What my parents went through because of that, they still cannot process it. It was a huge mental stress for parents to see all this.

All the stories being covered by the media in Pakistan. No one bothered to tell our story. It was told through social media, through Twitter. Those were the only means for us to actually say things, “This where we stand.”

Later on, I met people who read the story, but I didn’t meet those people. They knew the story of my sister. But they would mention, “Do you know this woman in Pakistan? I read this story.” I would say, “That is my sister.”

It gave us voice to tell our story and to be able to go to the higher levels. We got so much support from U.S. senators. Now, it has become an introduction of Gulalai. If Gulalai introduces herself, the two New York Times stories help.

Appendix I: Footnotes

[1] Co-Founder, Aware Girls.

[2] Individual Publication Date: April 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: