Death threats are way of life for the female founders of a group working for equality in Pakistan, writes Billy Briggs

Gulalai Ismail is used to death threats. She's also been falsely denounced on television as a "CIA spy" and Pakistan intelligence once threatened the 29-year-old she would "disappear" if her efforts to promote human rights did not stop.

Last spring, Gulalai had a lucky escape when lost luggage after a flight meant she wasn't at home in Peshawar when four armed men turned up at her door.

"They claimed to be security officers who had come to search our home," Gulalai explained. "They tried to enter forcefully but my father refused to open the door.

"They were shouting and making threats. They started shooting guns into the air. I thought that sooner or later I'd be attacked, but I never thought it would happen to my family."

Advertisement

She doesn't know who the gunmen were, saying they could have been Taliban or Pakistan's security services, or even a criminal gang trying to kidnap her for ransom. "We cannot trust anyone," she said.

Gulalai's life is at risk because of her work in Pakistan with Aware Girls, a human rights organisation she formed about 10 years ago with her younger sister, Saba.

In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where they were born and raised, the women work to promote peace in a benighted province bordering Afghanistan where an estimated 4000 people have been killed in suicide attacks since 2010. The security situation is desperate and we met Gulalai and Saba after an atrocity in Peshawar when the Taliban entered a school just before Christmas and murdered 132 children and 18 adults; a barbaric act that appalled the world.

Saba Ismail, co-founder of Aware Girls, answers questions from women after female community event in Mardan. Photo / Angela Catlin
Saba Ismail, co-founder of Aware Girls, answers questions from women after female community event in Mardan. Photo / Angela Catlin

"Each day, we never know when we leave our homes if we will be killed or [will] come back to our home," Gulalai said. "It is so common and these things are causing so much fear in the minds and hearts of the people."

Aware Girls operates at grassroots to peacefully oppose religious extremists, often in the face of severe violence, not just in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa but also in Pakistan's federally-administered tribal areas and other dangerous parts of the nation.

Saba, 27, was 15 when she started Aware Girls with Gulalai, who is 29. Their initial goal was to advance women's rights in a culture where many females are denied basic rights and suffer discrimination.

Said Saba: "There were so many human rights violations, such as rape and murder, happening to women in our community but no platforms for women to raise their voices. We want women to have equal rights to justice, legal support, financial resources, and access to education and other social services."

Aware Girls has since broadened and developed programmes to support impoverished domestic workers, and there are around 300 young people involved in a project called Youth Peace Network that stretches into rural parts of South Waziristan and Afghanistan, among other places.

Advertisement

The aim is to promote peace, tolerance and human rights but this work often comes at a high cost.

In December 2011, for example, Nobel Peace Prize Winner Malala Yousafzai attended an Aware Girls project to learn about human rights but her efforts in Swat Valley were later rewarded by the Taliban with a bullet to the head.

Malala survived, and Saba said her friend had helped greatly to highlight the issue of violence against women in Pakistan although assaults were endemic.

Gulalai Ismail, one of the founders of Aware Girls, addresses women at a community HIV/AIDS education session in Peshawar, Pakistan. Photo / Angela Catlin
Gulalai Ismail, one of the founders of Aware Girls, addresses women at a community HIV/AIDS education session in Peshawar, Pakistan. Photo / Angela Catlin

"She is a symbol of honour for us. Violent attacks are happening to many women in Pakistan. The Taliban fear women being educated. This is the biggest threat to the Taliban because they know that if women have power and information, then they can bring positive change. The Taliban are afraid of young women even though they are only 14 to 15 years old."

The main battle against extremism centres on education and Aware Girls also tries to prevent youngsters being radicalised by the Taliban.

This was an increasing problem, Saba said.

After the Peshawar school attack, Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif ordered a crackdown on seminaries linked to militants and Gulalai says there are many such schools in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

With her help, and working undercover, we gained access to two madrassas alleged to have strong links to extremism.

We visited a religious school in Swabi district where boys rise at 4.30am six days a week, to memorise the Koran. They do this until 10pm each night. Gulalai explains that the school has pledged allegiance to Jamiat Ulama-e-Islam, a religious political party calling for a pure Islamic state and closely linked to the Taliban.

"This is well known in Swabi as a militant madrassa that gives young men ideologicial training for jihad," she said.

We also visited Panjpir madrassa, which controls a network of seminaries across Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Boys study at Jami Gasmia, a militant madrassa where boys as young as 6 years old rise at 4.30am six days a week to recite and learn the Koran. They do this until 10pm. Photo / Angela Catlin
Boys study at Jami Gasmia, a militant madrassa where boys as young as 6 years old rise at 4.30am six days a week to recite and learn the Koran. They do this until 10pm. Photo / Angela Catlin

Panjpir is where Maulana Fazlullah, the leader of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), received religious education. He is the man who ordered the shooting of Malala and the attack on the school in Peshawar.

We were given a short tour and obtain some official newsletters which Gulalai later translates.

She says: "Although TTP claimed responsibility for the Army Public School attack the [Panjpir] newsletter says the Taliban and Pakistan Army are all one people, and that external factors and agencies are trying to create an internal conflict within Pakistan by portraying the Taliban as the enemies of Pakistan."

Gulalai says this newsletter is a very clear apologist stance for the Taliban.

"The narrative of this madrassa is to take the responsibility away from the Taliban and blame other countries such as Israel and India. There is also an article on blasphemy saying that if someone says something against the Prophet then they should be killed ... so again this is a very militant perspective instead of talking about tolerance and leaving alleged offences to the rule of law. They are telling people it is OK to kill someone involved in blasphemy or other religious offences."

After finishing translating, Gulalai says the fight for Pakistan will continue, no matter what the threat.