Gulalai Ismail is a feminist and women’s rights activist from Pakistan. Since childhood she has been thinking critically and defying the expectations of patriarchal culture, acting as a figurehead for other women to follow in her steps. Gilalai believed political parties are the best place to nourish the movement, and organisations need to foster independent and critically-thinking people for its progression. In this interview Gilalai speaks of the compounded risk of being a woman defender, and the importance of conceptual clarity when defending human rights.
Could you please give us a little background about what you do, how you began, and what initially inspired you?
I am a feminist living in the north-west part of Pakistan and I am very passionate about women rights issues and peace. I write proposals/ reports and organize events to raise funds and promote rights based issues.
I developed a strong sense of the unfairness of gender equality as I was growing up in a strongly patriarchal culture. I found my religion to be very discriminatory and hostile towards women and this feeling filled me with frustration throughout my teens. Although I was from a middle-class family and allowed access to education; I still felt discriminated against, living in the society where the gender hierarchy is adhered to an extreme. I succeeded in becoming independent, although this was with great difficulty. I was the first one in my family to live in hostels and then take up a job in another city - but all that has opened new avenues for my younger female family members, who are following my lead.
When I joined the non-profit sector, I realized that women occupy the subordinate positions even in the sectors dedicated to promoting women-rights, hence I decided to take lead and promote other women as well. I love working for gender equality, but I am currently leading the Fundraising Department of one of the biggest and oldest Universities in Pakistan. When I was offered this senior position of "Director Fundraising", I was reluctant to join, but I accepted when I noticed that university is very masculine space where men hold all the administrative senior positions. I remembered the quote of Gandhi: Be the change that you wish to see in the world. It filled me with passion to create a space, get heard, and have a say as woman in a masculine environment.
In your experience what are the main difficulties women human rights defenders face?
In this capitalist economic system one of the most important considerations for anyone in general is earning a livelihood. If you are a woman, economic independence means so much more than just having money - It gives you a lot of freedoms and access. The main challenge a women human rights defender faces is to “not to lose her job”, which sometimes compels her to make compromises. Hence, if you are a HRD you must work with the organizations and people who also work for human rights cause. Otherwise, you are left with two options - either to follow what they say (and have your job) and get frustrated, or leave your job and starve.
WHRDs have to face a lot more challenges than men HRDs; intimidation and harassment is far more severe and damaging. If kidnapped, raped, or jailed, WHRD not only suffer physical and psychological pain, but the societal pressures and constraints make their lives more suffocating.
Have you found certain groups of women are more at risk than others? If you are comfortable sharing your own experiences, could you provide examples?
Yes, of course. There are certain issues which are more sensitive than others, and most of the time they are context specific. For example, in Pakistan women working on LGBTI and religious freedoms are more at risk than women working for women rights per se. Similarly, taking against state oppression and specific state policy is also a very sensitive issue and WHRDs in this area are more at risk and vulnerable than others.
I am part of different networks and alliances, such as women rights networks like End Violence Against Women Alliance and Feminists Fridays. We protest on different issues and challenge the status quo. Though we face certain social pressures, we can handle them. However, few of us are part of Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM), for example, which is against the state oppression of the Pashtuns as a nation, the ongoing war on terror in this part of the word, and the associated strategic depth policy, which has caused the people of this region a lot of suffering.
Not only are we being socially cornered, but we are being directly threatened, and few of our friends have been arrested. Getting arrested and being a woman is a big deal. A few of us, though still supporting the cause, are not coming to the forefront anymore because we cannot afford to be arrested.
In your experience as a defender, what are your main concerns when carrying out your activism in the private, public, and digital sphere?
Operating in the current economic system, “losing a job” is one of the biggest concerns. Being married women also means one must carry the bigger burden of keeping the so-called “family respect” intact.
In Pakistani society a woman has to be careful that her pictures are not being misused, she is not being blamed as western agent damaging family values, she is not being considered as anti-religion, she is not going to places alone, especially on odd hours (which hinders her work), and what not.
If any of this happened, she would not be able to marry someone, or her marriage would be at risk, she would get kidnapped and even raped (and blame put on her shoulders), or her children or siblings would not be able to move freely in the society.
In the face of all these challenges, what has given you the motivation to continue?
I am a woman and I can think; I believe that it is a good enough motivation. I can see the discrimination and oppression. I understand that there needs to be systemic changes which might take centuries (if we are not opting for revolution, which of course has its pros and cons), but I would like to add my contribution. I can only justify my existence in this manner.
Can you think of any good practices (legal, administrative, policy, etc) that allow you to carry out your work safely?
I think among the civil society, political parties are the best places to nourish and keep the movements alive and bring about transformational change, hence I think spaces should be created within the structures of political parties for knowledge creation, dissemination, and analytical thinking.
I also think NGOs should be strengthened through their work around focused, long-term advocacy. Project based approaches and short-term interventions are counterproductive. Individuals in these NGOs are extremely important as they are the real game changers, hence the focus should be on developing individuals with critical thinking, motivation, and skills to bring about change. They can use whatever platform they can.
How do you think we can strengthen the women’s rights movement globally?
Women rights movements cannot be considered in isolation.
Individuals should be developed and strengthened; those individuals should get connected and that can form movements. Systems are important but individuals are the ones who create and operate the systems.
Simultaneously, Indigenous movements of women should be taken very seriously and should be given due regard. For example, women of Federally Administered Tribal Areas who want reforms in their areas to have equal rights as other Pakistani citizens, and women from Sindh running the Sindhiyani Tehreek demanding social justice, are taken seriously and acknowledged equally by the mainstream feminist movements. Only then can the movement become global. They might not agree on various issues such as religious freedoms and LGBTI rights, for example, but they would ultimately reach what mainstream global movements have achieved (i.e. both the conceptual clarity and effectiveness).
Similarly, there should be remedies/services available on a local, national, or international level. Most of the time WHRDs need support for themselves or for other women, but when that is unavailable, they are vulnerable.
In your experience which techniques and practices have been particularly effective at keeping you safe?
Operating in larger groups, not showing my face to the media most of the time, and sometimes taking a step back.
What self-care methods have you felt are most effective for battling burn-out and helping you deal with the challenges you face?
I travel, do trekking, and write travelogues.
What advice do you have for other women activists, particularly for young women interested in getting involved in the movement?
Conceptual clarity and a well-thought-out strategy is extremely important because sometimes it (I wasn’t quite sure what you meant by “it”) is harmful and counterproductive.
If you could give your younger self, just beginning in HRD, one piece of advice – what would it be?
So far, I think I have done well. I just want to read and explore more. Even the sky is not the limit.