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September 21, 2019

Gulalai seeks political asylum in US


September 21, 2019

WASHINGTON: Gulalai Ismail’s campaigns to empower Pakistani girls have won her international awards and recognition as one of her country´s foremost activists. But when she spoke out against sexual violence, her fortunes quickly changed.

The 32-year-old said she feared for her life. After four months on the run, she succeeded in eluding a vast hunt and has turned up in the United States, where she is seeking asylum.

Gulalai said she never sought to become an overseas dissident but sees closing of the political space in Pakistan.

"I never wanted to leave Pakistan," she said in an interview in Washington. "I believe that I can better work towards democracy and civil supremacy and peace in Pakistan." But she concluded she would be more effective abroad, saying, "If I had ended up in prison and tortured for many years, my voice would have been silenced."

Gulalai, who speaks with poise and passion though she remains afraid, believed she posed a special threat as a vocal woman.

"When a man stands up, he is mostly against the state oppression," she said. "But when a woman stands up, she is fighting oppression on many levels -- fighting cultural norms, fighting the patriarchy and the state oppression."

Gulalai was still a teenager when she co-founded Aware Girls in 2002, which promotes gender equality in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

In 2017, she won the prestigious Anna Politkovskaya Award for human rights advocacy. The year before, she was honored for conflict prevention by France´s Chirac Foundation and has been welcomed by former first lady Michelle Obama.

But she came under greater scrutiny last year when she started speaking in support of the Pashtun Protection Movement, which defends the rights of the Pashtun tribal population in the northwest.

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