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Gulalai Ismail, Feminist Hunted by Pakistan’s Authorities, Escapes to US

Gulalai Ismail has been accused of treason, but human rights defenders say she is being targeted for highlighting abuses committed by Pakistan’s military.

New York Times

Updated:September 20, 2019, 6:16 PM IST
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Gulalai Ismail, Feminist Hunted by Pakistan’s Authorities, Escapes to US
Gulalai Ismail poses for a portrait in Prospect Park, in Brooklyn, on September 4, 2019. (Hilary Swift/The New York Times)

New Delhi: Her face was everywhere — on the news, at police stations and at airports where the Pakistani government had put her on a list of the nation’s most wanted.

She has been accused of treason, though human rights defenders said that the allegations were bogus and that she was being targeted for highlighting abuses committed by Pakistan’s military. Security services were searching for her in every corner of the country, raiding her friends’ houses and closing in on her family.

But somehow Gulalai Ismail, a 32-year-old Pakistani women’s rights activist on the run, managed to slip through the dragnet last month and escape to the US. She is now staying with her sister in Brooklyn, New York, and has applied for political asylum in the United States.

She is still worried about her parents back home and the underground network that secretly protected her as she moved from house to house, city to city, through countless police checkpoints, always wearing a veil over her face, her eyes barely visible.

She did not reveal how she got out, except to say, “I didn’t fly out of any airport.

“I can’t tell you anymore,” she said in an interview this week. “My exit story will put many lives at risk.”

Her ordeal sheds light on the state of human rights in Pakistan, a troubled nation with a history of brutal repression. Ismail has campaigned aggressively for women’s rights, bringing attention to rapes, disappearances and other abuses that she and many others said have been committed by Pakistan’s security forces against their own people.

The military is all-powerful in Pakistan, and the country is approaching an inflection point. Pakistani officials do not like talking about Ismail — none would comment publicly for this article.

Her account of being chased out of the country does not help the government’s efforts to win diplomatic support at a time when the economy is tanking and Pakistan is begging the world to censure India for its recent moves on Kashmir.

It has taken Ismail some time to feel safe even in New York, she said, but she has begun to meet with prominent human rights defenders and staffs of congressional leaders.

“I will do everything I can to support Gulalai’s asylum request,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. “It is clear that her life would be in danger if she were to return to Pakistan.”

Pakistani security officials said they had suspected for some time that Ismail had slipped through their fingers.

“Our guys have been after her, by all means, but she is not traceable,” said a Pakistani intelligence agent who spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing intelligence protocols. “She has gone to a place beyond our reach.”

How she did that — whether it was crossing overland into Iran or Afghanistan and then onward to Europe or the US, or perhaps getting smuggled out by sea — remains a tantalizing mystery. The Pakistani government had barred her from leaving the country and tried to seal all the exits.

Ever since she was 16, Ismail has been speaking out about human rights abuses, focusing on the plight of Pakistani women and girls who suffer all kinds of horrors, including forced marriages and honour killings.

In January, she aired accusations, on Facebook and Twitter, that government soldiers had raped or sexually abused many Pakistani women. She has also joined protests led by an ethnic Pashtun movement that Pakistan’s military has tried to crush. Pakistani officials have accused Ismail of sedition, inciting treason and defaming state institutions.

In late May, she became a fugitive.

It started with a phone call from a friend to her house in Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital, where she lived with her elderly parents.

“It’s all over the media; a raid team is coming; you have to leave — now!” the friend said.

Ismail scrambled out the door with no spare clothes or even a phone. “They can trace you, even when it’s off,” she said.

Was she scared?

“It was one of those moments you don’t have time to feel,” she said. “You don’t have time to be frightened; you don’t have time to be brave; you just have to act.”

She spent the next three months moving from place to place, across many different Pakistani cities, never using a phone or touching a computer, she said. She turned to a small, trusted group of friends and their contacts, staying indoors, covering her face for the few moments when she did step outside, incredibly careful each time she changed locations.

Pakistan is a heavily watched place. Roadside security checkpoints are everywhere. Ismail said she crossed hundreds of them.

She recalled one incident when she showed up at the house of a friend of her father’s and when the friend answered the door and saw her standing there, he froze.

“He was so scared that he would be arrested for supporting a terrorist and his children would be arrested,” she said.

The next day the friend called a taxi, and Ismail left.

“Hiding is not pleasant,” she said.

She already had a visa to the United States, where she has visited regularly, meeting prominent women, including Michelle Obama. After she arrived in New York in August, she immediately holed up in her family’s house in Brooklyn, where two brothers and two sisters live.

Still, she did not want to go outside. She felt depressed and anxious. She said she didn’t feel any huge gush of relief.

She was worried about her parents, who face charges of financing terrorism and remain under heavy surveillance in Islamabad. She was also worried that a Pakistani agent or someone on the government’s side might see her on a New York street and take a picture of her — or worse.

In recent days, she said, she has been feeling much better. She still spends most of her time inside the family home, cooking mutton achaari and other Pakistani dishes.

She is waiting on her asylum application. Lawyers said there was little chance that the United States would send her back to Pakistan.

“In Gulalai’s case, I understand that she is charged with anti-state activities, which obviously carry a death penalty,” said Masroor Shah, a lawyer in Islamabad who has dealt with many human rights cases. “There is no likelihood based on past policies and local laws that US authorities would even consider an extradition request.”

Ismail has started a new research and advocacy group, Voices for Peace and Democracy, to protect women in conflict zones. She is also thinking of law school.

But it makes her sad, a constant shadow on her life ahead, that she might never see her parents again — or Pakistan.

“When I left, I knew this was a one-way trip,” she said. “And as I was leaving, I bent down and touched the soil, and told myself, ‘This is where I belong; this is my country.’ ”

Jeffrey Gettleman c.2019 The New York Times Company

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