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Conversation with Saba Ismail on Mubarak Bala, Gulalai Ismail, Aware Girls, Talent, and Ethical Exemplars: Co-Founder, Aware Girls (4)


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

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

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2021/05/01


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: Mubarak Bala in Nigeria; Gulalai; most talented person; and ethical exemplars.

Keywords: Aware Girls, Humanism, Mubarak Bala, Saba Ismail.

Conversation with Saba Ismail on Mubarak Bala, Gulalai Ismail, Aware Girls, Talent, and Ethical Exemplars: Co-Founder, Aware Girls (4)

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

*Interview conducted July 2, 2020.*

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: There’s the ongoing case of Mubarak Bala in Nigeria. This is a very common people who are cofounders of organizations, presidents of organizations. How is this being received in the United States, which is known as a hub of Humanism?

It is one of the areas where secular Humanism took off in the 21st-century.

Saba Ismail[1],[2]: We have gotten support in a good way from our friends and supporters. People that we know. We have really good supporters from senator Schumer’s office, and others. We have got really good support.

Also, there were senators who actually said things on their Twitter publicly supporting the case. Senator Schumer wrote letters when our father was abducted from the high court. He was made a missing person, abducted, and disappeared.

It was the pressure from the U.S., including U.S. senators and State Department. Any support kept our parents safe to some extent. We were told by many people and friends around that it’s because we have the support, international support, in the form of the stories coming up on the New York Times, senators’ offices, and others – high level support, is the reason our parents are alive.

Gulalai and our parents would not be alive anymore. Having a voice when people know you as a credible person, also, I want to mention this. Gulalai didn’t become famous in the last two years. She has been well-known before.

He got a prize in the U.S. Congress in 2013. She got the Shirac Prize in 2013. There was all this international recognition. That is good on the one side. Yet, not everyone will get this recognition and encouragement at such a huge international level. What do you do with other humanists, where people may not know them?

They are not internationally known. It becomes hard to make sure that they are safe, to make sure that they are going through due legal procedures. We are lucky in this. We had a very credible history of 18 years of work.

People saw us when we started as teenagers. People saw us growing up and evolving in Pakistan and outside of Pakistan. I think, definitely, when someone has become part of this theme for decades, almost two decades.

They know what kind of person you are and what values and principles you stand for. That’s why people are still with us. There were several institutions, several organizations that should with us. Not because we knew them shortly or something, but because we had a really long relationship with each one of those individuals or institutions.

There are so many activists in Pakistan. Recently, I found this one doctor. She had to record a video statement for what she supported, what she said. Humanists issued a statement, recently; even though, she is well-known in Pakistan.

People stood up for her. But because she is not so well-known, she is not so safe. People have different kinds of priorities. What I am saying, if humanists don’t have the really strong support working, it is hard for them to be safe.

Our family’s case, I was based outside of the States. I was not being monitored by these security agencies. I was not be surveilled all the time. Because we would go together all the time. Gulalai was going through hiding all the time.

I was going through a different experience. My parents were going through a different experience. What helped us, I had the privilege to contact and do all this communication, whether with civil society, international community, UN, diplomatic channels.

It was only because I had a really known history of work and experience and people knew me. If a lot of people didn’t even know me. I also knew how to communicate my message. Who are the people who I should contact in this situation? How should I build my strategy?

I couldn’t contact my parents. I didn’t talk to my mother for months when Gulalai was in hiding. Her phone was taken away by security agencies. It was not safe for her to turn her phone on. When you are really disconnected, I didn’t know if she was safe or if arrested, or in custody.

I couldn’t talk to my mother. I couldn’t speak to my father. “This happened. This many people came.” That’s all I could get from him. It is important for humanists and activists to build strategies. I know situations are different and know the different persecution activists face.

From my place, having a strategy, having a person as in our case, it really helped. Gulalai didn’t know anything about these stories coming out of the New York Times. There were statements by humanists and several other institutions and Frontline, Lines for Peacebuilding, Global Observatory, FIDH, etc.

They were several statements. One day, on the day when our Imran Khan was doing his speech, we mobilized people who can go to the embassy. Every day, it would be petitions and all these supporters. Some were public petitions.

Some were open letters. All of that diplomatic work that happened, as I said. It is really important, as least from our experience, what really helped us. I was outside. I was not going through what my parents were going through.

Of course, I was in extreme stress, but I was not going through what they went through. I was in a position. I was in a privileged position. I had more privileges compared to my parents. I was able to mobilize everything.

We did a lot of background work before Gulalai became public and filing her asylum case. We did several visits to Washington, D.C. Several before she became public. It was a lot of work. Everything she went through, where do we want to go? Who should we contact? It was making her safe.

We met with F.B.I. We met with N.Y.P.D. We met at the highest level possible that we could do with the State Department. We made sure that she was safe and that the law enforcement was on her side, so they know and everything. It was a lot of work.

Definitely, if it is not someone immediately in your family, as not every family has one person is an activist and then they have siblings and parents, people and friends should advocate for them. This is a reality for people.

If someone doesn’t want to take responsibility in the family advocating for advocates, people can do it. A lot of these organizations would not have happened if I had not contacted all of these people. Because of where they would get the information, it is that it is not their intention and where they can get credible information.

I was the representative for Gulalai in all letters written for her. It is a lot of work. It is really for humanists and activists working in such environments. It is important that they are aware of the risks and should be trustworthy people who will stand up and do all those.

As a humanist and an activist, we have to go through personal trauma as well. We have to go through the trauma. We couldn’t allow ourselves to be affected by the traumatic experiences. We wouldn’t be able to fight if we were affected by this whole situation.

It is a mental toll. It is really stressful. There are a lot of things that humanists can learn from other humanists if they share. I am not sure if I am directly responding to the question. Also, digital security is important, especially for humanists, to ensure secure and safe communication channels.

I can even share through this email. ProtonMail is one of the safest. Signal for texting. In the process, I learned so much when I had to communicate. Even when I had to go outside, I was always at risk. There were attempts to bug my phone and my devices. It happened in that time.

Humanists’ lives and communication are at risk. Even in normal life, even when they aren’t being persecuted, digital communication so important. Because of the work that we did at Aware Girls, we used to teach girls about safe online spaces, about digital security. All of that.

We were the ones working on it and how important it is. If we hadn’t taken all those measures, Gulalai wouldn’t have been safe. In this time, when the whole world has become a digital world, if someone doesn’t say something on digital media or through a phone, it is a different world now.

In a digital world, you have to be safe digitally. You don’t know if people communicate in unsafe ways.

Jacobsen: Now, I want to touch on a particular individual influenced by Gulalai and you at Aware Girls. She recently graduated from a prominent British university. Who is this young woman?

Ismail: [Laughing].

Jacobsen: How did her story, in fact, start on the ground before fame through Aware Girls?

Ismail: Actually, I think she already had the potential. The way her father brought her up. She already had the potential. When we were in touch with her, she became part of a program for domestic violence awareness.

You mentioned Malala. She took part in a program from Aware Girls. I think it was a year before being shot in the head. I don’t want to take that kind of credit, saying, “Because of Aware Girls, she is Malala.” She already had the potential, won awards.

She is an alumni of Aware Girls. Definitely, a very talented Pakistani girl who we are extremely proud of.

Jacobsen: Who is the most talented person you’ve ever met in general?

Ismail: This is a hard question because there are so many. The world doesn’t have a measurement for talent. There are these IQ tests. Aside from that, we can’t say, “This person has a lot of talent.” Because we can learn things from people who aren’t the extremely genius talented people.

Life is about learning new things. You can learn things from people around us. I can’t say this is the person who is the most talented because I have met many people who are talented in many different walks of life or in the work that they do or in their personal lives.

There are many people. There are people who I have been inspired from, who I look as a strong person, as people who I can learn. I wouldn’t name one person or someone as the most talented who I have ever met.

Jacobsen: What about ethical exemplars who come to mind?

Ismail: For me, ethics are at the institutional level. I see ethics more at an institutional level. I don’t know. It raises the question, “What kind of ethics are we talking about?” It is about basic respect. I understand the question you’re saying.

I wouldn’t tie it to a person.

Appendix I: Footnotes

[1] Co-Founder, Aware Girls.

[2] Individual Publication Date: May 1, 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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