|Born||1986 (age 34–35)|
|Education||Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad|
|Occupation||human rights activist|
|Movement||Pashtun Tahafuz Movement|
|Awards||International Humanist of the Year Award (2014)|
Commonwealth Youth Award for Asia (2015)
Chirac Prize for Conflict Prevention (2016)
Anna Politkovskaya Award (2017)
Gulalai Ismail (Pashto: ګلالۍ اسماعیل, Urdu: گلالئی اسماعیل; born c. 1986) is a Pashtun human rights activist from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan. She is the chairperson of Aware Girls and the Seeds of Peace Network (not to be confused with the Seeds of Peace organization that works with youth in 27 countries, including Pakistan). She speaks on the subject of promoting peace and women's empowerment at conferences internationally and is the recipient of the International Humanist of the Year Award from the International Humanist and Ethical Union, and of the Fondation Chirac Peace Prize for the Prevention of Conflict. She is an activist in the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) campaigning for Pashtun human rights.
In 2019, Ismail escaped from Pakistan and reached the United States after fearing for her life for speaking out against sexual assaults and disappearances allegedly carried out by the Pakistani military. In March 2021, she became a global ambassador for Humanists International.
Ismail was born in Swabi and from the age of nine was brought up in Peshawar, Pakistan. The daughter of teacher and human rights activist Muhammad Ismail, she was educated from a young age about gender discrimination and women's rights. Ismail graduated from Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad in 2012 with a Master of philosophy degree in biotechnology. At the age of 16, she founded Non-governmental organization Aware Girls with her sister Saba Ismail, aiming to challenge the culture of violence and the oppression of women in the rural Khyber Pakhtunkhwa area in the north west of Pakistan. In an interview in 2011, she said:
I set up Aware Girls when I was 16 because all around me I saw girls being treated differently to boys. My girl cousin was 15 when her marriage was arranged to someone twice her age; she couldn't finish her education while my boy cousins were [doing so]. This was considered normal. Girls have internalised all this discrimination – a woman who suffers violence but doesn't say anything is much admired in the village as a role model. A good woman submits to her husband or father. Aware Girls raised awareness of equal status. We did training that women have human rights and taught leadership skills and how to negotiate with their families and with their parents to get an education and to have control over their own lives.
Ismail aims to get peace activists together to discuss ways to promote peaceful resistance to the Taliban and encourage more woman into politics, as well as investigating the psychological impact of terrorism on children and families. Malala Yousafzai was an attendee of Aware Girls in 2011. She has criticised the British government's Prevent strategy saying it can lead to alienation of Muslims and could turn vulnerable individuals towards extremism. Ismail has also spoken out against blasphemy laws in Pakistan and the effect this has had on progressive speech, secular activism, and the safety of secular activists. She said: "I am convinced that without a secular democracy, we will not achieve peace in Pakistan."
In addition to Aware Girls, which she continues to chair, Ismail set up the Seeds of Peace Network in 2010, training young people in human rights and political leadership, encouraging the participation of women in politics in Pakistan, and encouraging tolerance between people of differing faiths. Seeds of Peace was a response to what Ismail saw as the increased 'Talibanisation' of young men and women vulnerable to militants in the Swabi district and other rural areas. According to the World Humanist Congress, "her work is characterised by promoting peace and pluralism; challenging religious extremism and militancy; promoting good governance in areas stricken by militancy, providing civic education to young people; strengthening democracy; and political mainstreaming of young women."
Between 2009 and 2011, Ismail was on the Executive Committee of the Young Humanists International, and between 2010 and 2012 she was a Board Member of the Women's Global Network for Reproductive Rights. She also works for the Gender Working Group of the United Network of Young Peacebuilders (UNOY), and is a member of the Asian Democracy Network. Ismail is currently a board member of Humanists International.
Ismail's organisation has widened its scope to include education on topics such as access to HIV and AIDS prevention and treatment, access to safe abortions, and she continues to speak at international conferences to promote awareness of peace-building, tolerance and women's rights. Both Gulalai and her sister Saba have also acted as adviser on peace and women's rights to the United Nations and US governmental departments. She has been threatened for her activism and has been forced to flee her home in the past. On 16 May 2014, four armed gunmen attempted to force their way into the family home, shouting for Ismail who had been delayed by lost baggage at the airport. In an interview with the BBC she said,
I am aware that the security risks are high...at times I am afraid for the lives of my family...we had to relocate ourselves, again and again, we had to change our home because of the insecurities...One of the positive messages which it gives me is that the impact of my work is huge and they want to create fear in my heart so that I become silenced.
She has been vocal critic of Pakistan and Taliban though she has been silent about the war crimes and violence by Kabul regime against innocent Pashtoons In 2013 Ismail set up the Marastyal Helpline to give advice and assistance to women at risk from, and victims of, gender-based violence. The service gives advice on legal and medical aid as well as emergency ambulance information and emotional counseling and operates from Peshawar.
In November 2017, the head of a Pakistani youth parliament accused Ismail of blasphemy, a charge which in Pakistan carries the death penalty, and urged his followers to kill her as an infidel. In February 2018 Ismail, refusing to be intimidated, filed a legal case against the accuser who was arrested without bail. In a statement Ismail said: "I stand not only for myself, this legal move will give voice to other people who are falsely charged with blasphemy. I will not be silenced. I am not afraid of these cowards. I will fight against them and prove them wrong."
In August 2018 Ismail was arrested and charged in Swabi for "making anti-state comments and using inflammatory language" following a protest organised by the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement demonstrating against alleged human rights abuses by the Pakistan military against Pashtuns. Ismail was charged alongside 18 other people and denied the charges.
In October 2018 Ismail was detained by airport officials in Islamabad and her passport held after attending a Humanists UK conference in the United Kingdom. After detention she was released on interim bail and officials at Islamabad International Airport confirmed Ismail's name was on the Exit Control List. Her legal representative then petitioned the Islamabad High Court to have her passport and travel documents returned and her name removed on the grounds that it was a violation of basic human rights. Ismail's counsel argued that her arrest and the confiscation of her passport had taken place even though she had not been named in the First Information Report (FIR) registered against some Pashtun activists. During the proceedings, it was revealed that Pakistan's premier intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), had instructed the Federal Investigation Agency to place her name on the list. In November 2018, she was taken to ISI headquarters. "They told my father that if you do not make sure that your daughter is silenced, we are going to kill her," Gulalai said. On 14 March 2019, the court set aside the decision to place her on the ECL as she had not been given an opportunity of a hearing as required by Section 8 of the Passport Act 1974 and directed that her passport be returned to her. The court, however, allowed that her passport might be confiscated at a later date if the correct procedures are followed.
On 6 February 2019 Ismail was arrested at an event protesting the murder of Pashtun rights activist Arman Loni earlier that month. She was taken along with over 20 other PTM activists, including Abdullah Nangyal, and held at an undisclosed location. During the detention, she was kept hungry and thirsty for two days in a cold, dirty room which had a urine-soaked carpet. The arrests received widespread criticism in Pakistan and internationally, including condemnation from the President of Afghanistan Ashraf Ghani, Amnesty International, and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP).
Fears for Ismail's safety escalated when she drew attention to the stories of females claiming to have experienced sexual harassment by the Pakistani security forces. On 23 May 2019, as Ismail and other activists were protesting against the murder of Farishta Momand – a 10-year-old Pashtun girl who had been abducted in Islamabad, allegedly raped, and then killed with a knife and thrown in a forest where animals ravaged her body – Ismail became the subject of another First Information Report by the Pakistani police, accusing her of an "anti-state and hate speech during a protest rally organized in Islamabad against murder and alleged rape of Farishta". According to Farishta's family, the child was reported missing on 15 May, but the police refused to investigate the case or register a missing persons report for five days. Instead, the family claimed, the police treated them inhumanely and forced Farishta's father to clean their offices and bring them fruit. Ismail received a 30-day travel ban and a further application was raised to block her social media accounts. Since then, she was forced into hiding, with raids by the Pakistani police on the family home, and the torture of her driver to attempt to discover her whereabouts. Believing their phones to be bugged, her family claimed to have had no contact with her for several months.
Ismail escaped Pakistan and reached the United States in September 2019 to live with her sister Saba in New York, where she requested political asylum. "If I had ended up in prison and tortured for many years, my voice would have been silenced," Ismail said. "The last few months have been awful. I have been threatened, harassed, and I am lucky to be alive," she added.
Ismail won the 2009 YouthActionNet Fellowship.
In 2013, she received the Democracy Award from the National Endowment for Democracy, and was acknowledged as one of the 100 Leading Global Thinkers of 2013 by Foreign Policy magazine.
In August 2014, she was awarded the International Humanist of the Year Award by Humanists International at the World Humanist Congress in Oxford, England. She was elected to Humanists International's Board of Directors in 2017. In 2021, she was appointed Humanists International's first ever Ambassador.
In recognition of her efforts to further women's empowerment, she received the 2015 Asia Region Commonwealth Youth Award for Excellence in Development, under the theme of Democracy and Human Rights.
In 2016, her organisation Aware Girls was awarded the Fondation Chirac Peace Prize for the Prevention of Conflict, which was presented to Ismail by the then French president Francois Hollande.
In 2017, Ismail was joint winner, with murdered journalist and activist Gauri Lankesh, of the Anna Politkovskaya Award, Reach All Women in WAR (RAW in WAR) award for campaigning against religious extremism.