Saba Ismail woke up in her Brooklyn home to a voicemail from her sister, Gulalai. She was calling to say she had been apprehended by Pakistan officials upon landing in Islamabad after a flight from London. The Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) told Gulalai she had been put on an exit control list (ECL) and was going to be immediately detained. “The space is shrinking and closing out spaces for civic voices, voices who are raising for peace,”  Gulalai says in the message recorded as she was being detained. 

Speaking to The Independent later Gulalai says: “I am a well known human rights activist and I have always worked for countering extremism, for preventing young people from joining militant organisations, for peace-building, for inclusion of women in peace-building and I have always spoke for human rights of women in Pakistan.

"Adding my name on the ECL so that I can not leave Pakistan is an attack... on my constitutional right to speak up, my right to freedom of expression, my right to freedom of thought.

"Adding the name of a well renowned human rights activist in the ECL is a black spot on the character of Pakistan,” she says.

Within hours of her detainment Amnesty International launched a campaign for her release utilising the hashtag #ReleaseGulalaiIsmail which spread across the world.

Andrew Copson, president of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) – of which Gulalai is a board member – says: “We are gravely concerned for our dear friend and colleague. Gulalai is a brave humanist and human rights activist, whose tireless efforts for peace and human rights have earned her respect around the world.”

After around eight hours in detention, the decorated campaigner was released on bail and allowed to go home, but her sister claims Gulalai still does not have her passport and is unable to travel due to being on the ECL. The Pakistan government and FIA have not yet responded to requests for comment. 

In a climate where the government is repeatedly accused of stifling free speech, Pakistan has questions to answer about the arrest Gulalai Ismail, and why nine other people associated with her remain in prison to this day.

* * *

Raised in northwest Pakistan, Saba and Gulalai Ismail grew up in a progressive family where they, among their other siblings, were taught about human rights and gender equality, predominantly from their father Muhammad Ismail, a teacher and activist.  

But outside of their home they saw a different world.

“Since I was born I have seen the differences in the way people treat their daughters than their sons,” 30-year-old Saba told The Independent. “Inside, outside, in schools – I saw that difference from a very young age.”

Although seeing gender inequality on a daily basis, there was one particular moment in her teenage years that still stands out for Saba.

“When my cousin was about 12 years old, she really wanted to become a pilot. One day she was told she can’t go to school anymore because she’s getting married to a man 15 years older than her, so she had to discontinue her education the very next day. 

“I saw my male cousins going to school, continuing their education, and I thought, ‘she wants to be a pilot, and she’s not able to go to school, even though she wants to. She has to get married instead.’ That really sparked questions in mine and my sister’s minds.”

This one moment led Saba, then 15, and Gulalai, 17, to start an organisation with the aim of bringing gender equality to girls in Pakistan. 

“We thought why is this the way – this shouldn’t be happening. Those questions popped up in our heads and at this young age we didn’t know the answers to a lot of them, but we knew it shouldn’t be happening. We thought we must to something to prevent other girls from such situations so they are able to speak for themselves, so they have the proper education, so we started Aware Girls.” 

Aware Girls began in 2002 and still runs today, helping with education, engaging women in political processes and peace-building processes, and addressing gender-based violence.

The seed of fighting injustice that was planted at such a young age has continued to grow throughout the lives of these two women. Saba spoke at the White House in 2017 about peace-building processes, she shared a panel with Melinda Gates and has regularly consulted for the UN. Gulalai too has worked with numerous organisations, winning the International Humanist of the Year Award and the Anna Politkovskaya award for campaigning against religious extremism. She was also previously named as one of 100 Leading Global Thinkers by Foreign Policy magazine. Her passionate TED talk examines growing pressures of religious extremism and the non-violent ways of combating it. 

Gulalai has heavily criticised Pakistani military operations in the nation’s tribal regions, during which thousands of civilians have been killed.

But such outspoken criticism rarely comes without a response. 

In August this year, she spoke at an event in Swabi in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, which was organised by the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM). The human rights group denounces violence by security forces and their operations in the country’s northwestern regions and has previously called for judicial probes into those killed by the military in the name of its war on terror.

"I was informed during the custody that there is an FIR - a police case - against me because on 12th of August I participated in a protest rally for peace ... It was a huge protest but the FIR was registered against 19 people who made speeches or who organised the protest. My name was amongst one of them."

The charges against them included “unlawful assembly, punishment for rioting and punishment for wrongful restraint”, according to Amnesty International, and nine of these people are still in prison. 

"Now I have applied for the bail before arrest in Swabi where the FIR has been lodged and on 18th October the court will decide whether to grant me bail or to arrest me," Gulalai says. 

Saba says the nine PTM members in jail have recently had their appeal for bail rejected. The Pakistan government has not yet responded to request for comment on these arrests. 

On her own detainment, Gulalai says: “This is not an attack on Gulalali Ismail, or PTM. This is an attack on civic freedoms”

Saba claims both she and her sister have “been threatened to be put among the missing persons”. Despite now living in New York, Saba says the threats continue and she continues to receive aggressive messages online because of her campaigning.

Forced disappearances have been frequent in Pakistan over the past 20 years, with human rights activists and bloggers going missing at an alarming rate. 

“There are a lot of people who are missing. No one knows about them and where they are, they’re gone,” Saba says. “Mass graves have been identified. Either someone can be retrieved years later in a grave, people are tortured to death.”

Saba refers to the example of assassinated politician Salman Taseer. In 2011 Taseer spoke out about Pakistan’s blasphemy laws in relation to the death sentence handed to a Christian woman named Asia Bibi. One of Taseer’s bodyguards, Malik Mumtaz Qadri, shot him 27 times after Taseer questioned the laws. Qadri was found guilty of this murder and executed in 2016.

“There were more than 500 lawyers who said they would defend that bodyguard for free, that he did what he did in the name of religion,” Saba says. “There were people throwing rose petals over him in celebration. There were thousands of people protesting on the streets against this death penalty. This person has assassinated someone, he openly says he is doing this is in the name of religion, but people believe he is a religious cleric.”

Saba points to religious extremism as the root of this unrest, and in particular violent religious extremism. It is this deeply entrenched ideology that appears to be the recurring barrier to activism like that of the Ismail sisters. Although attacks may be decreasing in numbers, Saba claims this dangerous ideology is stronger than ever.

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n her work with Aware Girls, Saba has been speaking with girls and young women being recruited by militant groups in the north of Pakistan.

“In one of my visits in madrassas in the Swarbi areas I went there and there was this girl, maybe 16 or 17 years old. She said to me: ‘You know what I do in my free time? I practice using the sling shot.’ We asked her why and she said: ‘Because I have to protect Pakistan. There can’t be a time in the country when Muslims aren’t allowed to pray. You have to be ready at any time.’”

“From a very young age we see extremist groups brainwashing young girls, not just young men, to be suicide bombers. They have to be ready at any time, practising the way they speak and talk, expressing hatred to people of other religious backgrounds.”

With contemporary technologies such as social media giving radical ideologies the ability to reach far and wide, the encouragement of young people to radicalism is a very real concern.

But people like the Ismail sisters will not stop their journey of activism and educating.

“We have to have counter-narratives for this ideology,” says Saba. “That’s why we’re working with young people, men and women, not just teaching but learning from each other, so that they can become peace-builders in the community.”

Gulalai is no longer detained and is out on bail, but she remains unable to travel. Despite the fear of rearrest, Saba says her sister’s detainment is not the end for either of them.

“Even though she’s on bail there’s still the danger she could be arrested again. But she is still committed and calm, this incident won’t deter her or anyone else at Aware Girls for working towards human rights, we won’t stop.”

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