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Conversation with Saba Ismail on Pakistan, Women’s Rights Organizing, and Raids Against the Ismail Family: Co-Founder, Aware Girls (2)


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

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

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2021/04/15


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: human rights and the family in Pakistan; and Gulalai Ismail and Aware Girls.

Keywords: Aware Girls, girls’ rights, Gulalai Ismail, Pakistan, women’s rights.

Conversation with Saba Ismail on Pakistan, Women’s Rights Organizing, and Raids Against the Ismail Family: Co-Founder, Aware Girls (2)

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

*Interview conducted July 2, 2020.*

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Now, how was Aware Girls seen within Pakistan or Pakistani society for years up until a few years ago? Was it mostly positive or mostly negative?

Saba Ismail[1],[2]: It was both. Our work had a great impact on women in Pakistan. We advocated for anti-sexual harassment laws in Pakistan. We advocated for gay rights. We advocated for women in the informal sector, their rights.

We advocated for enhancing the political participation of women in the political process of the country. We helped young women to run in local elections, in the last local elections, in Pakistan. It was historic.

In some villages, it was the first time that women ran for elections. They were amazing. Young women and girls wanted to be a part of the organization and part of the programs. In our organization, we would not just do a one-time training or a one-day activity.

We would engage people over a long period, as long as 1-year. Some have been engaged for years in our programs. Women felt safe working as employees and being part of the programs. They knew it was all women as a platform.

They felt safe to be part of the institution, felt safe to be given opportunities. As I said about these women who ran in the local elections, we are seeing the change brought by Aware Girls. So, there was definitely a huge impact of our work, in our community.

There were men who started supporting women’s rights and women’s issues, e.g., women’s political participation. One of these women who ran for local election. One was run by men in the family. It was helping these women to win these elections.

It wasn’t just women. It was for men too. We reached more than 10,000 young people, preventing them from being taken by the militant organizations. We have been able to help them to promote the values of tolerance, non-violence, and peace.

The impact was huge reaching out to so many young people directly, helping women running elections, helping women run in and participate in political processes. We help run something started back in 2012.

We had something on young women in leadership. We had this in the 16 days of activism. We were raising awareness among women, “If there is violence, report it.” Women were like, “We can report violence. We should report it.”

There should be a place if an action is taken. If a woman is in danger, or if a woman needs a shelter or psychological support, medical support, we started a helpline, started provided free legal services to women facing domestic violence. We established strong educational institutions across the province.

We would do partnerships and programs. We would go to the colleges and campuses and talk on women’s rights, sexual reproductive health and rights, the issues of human rights in general, and peace.

We had good networking and partnership-building with other civil society organizations, including institutes. Even with government agencies, we had good working relationships.

We had women who worked in the informal sector. We developed a good relationship with the Labour Department. Women who were domestic workers or who work in the home are not considered labourers. They are not entitled to basic income.

They’re not entitled to sick leave. They are not entitled to anything anyone working in the formal sector would get normally. We worked with the Labour Department. So, they can help us in making women who are working in the informal sector seen as doing proper work.

Aware Girls established the first ever union of women domestic workers and home-based workers. It was the first ever time, where we organized hundreds and hundreds of women from the informal sector and built their capacity first.

It was educating why labour rights were important for them. We developed programs for them. When we were working in the Pakistani Labour Department, we had relationships with the media. When we ran these conferences and programs, we would always get really good coverage from great media channels.

It would always be people coming from the media. Whether the media or the government offices, educational institutions, or other civil society organizations, or even communities, we used to work with the communities.

It was the only young women led organization in the whole country. Definitely, it was safety. They knew that they would learn something. Also, families would see the change in their own family members.

For example, one story I remember, when I was working with the domestic workers and home-based workers in 2014, when I was organizing some of these programs, we had to postpone some programs because the army public schools were attacked.

It was attacked where more than 140 children were killed. We had to postpone. There were some other administrative issues. We had to stop our programs for 3 months. When we started the program, when everything was set to restart the programs, our team went to the homes of these women to inform them. We were restarting the program.

One woman was not home. Our team member left the message with the husband. This woman, at that time, when we stopped the program, this woman went to Afghanistan because people have relatives in Afghanistan.

But they are refugees. They are doing the work in the informal sector. She went to Afghanistan to meet her relatives. When our team went back and said, “We are restarting the program.” The husband called the wife and said, “You need to come back because your program is restarting. So, you need to be here.”

You won’t believe. This was such a huge change in this family. Because only when this woman started coming to our program. On the first day home, she was beaten by the husband. The husband said: How would she dare go to this? NGOs are viewed negatively in Pakistan.

How dare she go to a program organized by an NGO, the woman was like, “I learned so much on the first day. I have to come here.” She continued to go for the rest of the program. While coming, she learned so much. She transformed her husband so much.

A few days ago, the woman was beaten by her husband for joining a program. Only a few weeks later, the same man was calling his wife and asking her to come back because the program is being restarted.

So, when I think of the impact, it was definitely so huge. At times, we wouldn’t even know the impact or the change that we are bringing in the families, what changes we’re bringing in the society.

We cannot expect some few activities will change anybody’s life. It is not a realistic expectation. But definitely, what we saw, I know, of course, so many years have passed now. I still remember her: her face, her name.

That keeps us going. Gulalai and I are not on the ground anymore now. It was so important, brought so many changes to the lives of so many women. So, we have to continue the work. We have been receiving so many calls on the helpline, which I mentioned earlier.

They needed help in one way or another, help and support. This was the kind of impact. This was the kind of work that we had been doing on the ground. So, this was the positive side. You say, “Okay, how was Aware Girls seen?”

On the other side, we faced a lot of challenges. For example, it was girls at such a young age who can be leading an organization. When we would organize activities, we would be an all women and girls team, not just women and girls but young women and girls.

They would ask, “Where are the organizers of the event?”

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Ismail: We would say, “We are the ones.” They would say, “No, no, the man behind the organization.” We would say, “No, there is no man organizing all this. We are the leaders. This is our team.” It was an unbelievable thing for people to see young girls leading an organization and doing all this.

This is the kind of thing that we faced. We definitely faced confrontation from State and non-State actors. This was before the last year or couple of years. We were countering violent extremism in parts of the country.

We were addressing the root causes. Addressing the root causes is not so easy when you talk about the policies the country is supporting and changing all that, Gulalai and I were threatened to be among the missing persons.

This is back in 2013. So many years ago, we were told that we can be missing persons because we are working on these sensitive issues. They’re causing red flags for the national security of the country because we were preventing young people from becoming part of the militarized groups.

We did face these kinds of challenges. On one occasion, we were organizing on International Women’s Day back in 2012. This one government office called us and asked me to give them a bribe to have this event.

NGOs usually have a bad reputation. They would say, “We don’t allow you to organize events. You are an NGO.” All of that. When they asked us to give them a bribe on International Women’s Day, we were engaging different stakeholders.

Civil society organizations, men, etc., we were also engaging the government. When they said, “If we have to become a part of this program, then you have to give us a bribe.” I refused to give them a bribe.

As soon as I said, “I am not going to bribe anyone.” They immediately said, “International Women’s Day is vulgarity. Aware Girls is promoting vulgarity and Western culture.” They told me that they are going to ban the organization, are coming to raid our office, and then not allow us to do the activity.

The activity was the next day, March 8th. I had this conversation on the 7th of March. You can imagine the stress. We were organizing five activities in one day. We were really a small team, maybe 10 people in total.

We were organizing these five activities at once. There were more than 100 people per event. You can imagine the stress. Yet, we resisted this. We contacted the authorities and told these people, “These people are asking for bribes and saying International Women’s Day is vulgarity.”

There’s a mentality. Women’s rights are a problem. We face this problem in 2014 in Peshawar for the work that Gulalai and I did. At that time, Gulalai was on a trip. They attacked our home. They started to shoot, firing guns.

So, it was a very brutal attack. When I still recall that, that was really, really a difficult time. It was in the middle of the night after 12. These men who really stormed our house and were firing on the house.

They were firing in our direction and to destroy our work. That’s when we decided that city was not safe for us. That was another time relocating. We have been relocating because of these kinds of attacks that we have both faced.

In Pakistan, I haven’t seen such a case in which families are being tracked. Not in the past two years, those have been another story. Our family has been persecuted because of our work. Our family was attacked.

We had to move from one city to another. We went into hiding. That was a short time. We went into complete hiding and strategized how we would move forward with all of that. We have been receiving threats, attacks, challenges, harassment, as being women working on women’s rights or women working on peace.

There has been the good side and the challenges on the other side. In that, our father really stood in that. People who even travel to the US or countries outside. The intelligence agencies will come to our office, to our home, and will gather information and all that.

In our culture, you can’t imagine. The intelligence agency visiting our house to violate the house is really something. You won’t see it; it’s not common. Our father stood up with us. He would be helping us navigating whatever those challenges were.

Jacobsen: What is the feeling of being raided?

Ismail: It was scary, definitely. The society shouldn’t let this happen. It was definitely traumatic. It was hard. At that time, of course, when that happened, it was denied. We weren’t ready, of course. That kind of raid was not something that we were expecting at all.

We were not people to fight back with guns. Because, definitely, we are peaceful people who believe in peace and peaceful protest. It was really hard. It was like Gulalai was not harmed. It was Shola, my parents, and I.

It was the four of us. The hardest thing after the firing happening. Those people left. My father had to go to the airport to pick up Gulalai. He had to leave all of us back at home. We knew that if these people are still outside on the corner waiting for our father to come and to kill him.

We didn’t know. It was an uncertain event. Our father had to go and pick up Gulalai. When she got home, I told her the whole story. She narrowly escaped that situation. Because, what if she was outside? They would have killed her.

It was really hard for her to sleep at night. It was not easy. In Pakistan [Laughing], there was no electricity when she got home with our father. We were – literally – sitting with no lights waiting for Gulalai to come back safely.

It was a sigh of relief. The moment Gulalai came; we thought, “What should we do now? What is our next step?” That is when we went into hiding. Of course, it wasn’t easy. People were so suspicious of things happening. We saw one person standing in front of our house all day smoking a cigarette, all day.

There was another woman the next day who tried to enter our house by impersonating someone else. She was saying, “I have to drop something because someone ordered something from here.” We know that we never ordered anything.

There were people who tried to get in. They impersonated. There were people standing in the street in front of our house. There was a beggar who was actually spying on us. So, the very next day, we noticed some of these suspicious things, especially my mother.

She is good in catching these kinds of things. There was a person impersonating a mentally sick person. They tried to get into our home. He tried to get into it. My mother said it was suspicious and had seen suspicious people outside.

It was the incidents before and after this raid. It was not safe to spend one day in the house. It is not easy. We were a small family. You live so much in your house. Even then, you pack small. Those that can fit in the car. Then we left the home at that time.

There were people in cars following us. We ended up being safe, went into hiding. We moved to safer places. We thought that Islamabad may be safe. But in the last 2 years, everything has changed, because my father was abducted.

There were attempts to kill my father, attempts to kill Shola because they thought she was Gulalai. Even in the city, which is the capital of the country, my family is not safe anymore. That is why we moved back in 2014.

Of course, what happened in the last two years in Islamabad, as you all know by now, so much has happened in the last 2 years, my parents are not safe even in the capital.

Appendix I: Footnotes

[1] Co-Founder, Aware Girls.

[2] Individual Publication Date: April 15, 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


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