Monday, 30th October 2017

E- paper

Haunted by Pakistan, feminist escapes to US

A 32-year-old Pakistani women’s rights activist on the run managed to slip through the dragnet and escape to America

By Jeffrey Gettleman/ NYTNS in New Delhi
  • Published 21.09.19, 3:14 AM
  • Updated 21.09.19, 9:26 AM
  • a min read
  •  
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. YouTube/ TEDx Talks

Her face was everywhere — on the news, at police stations and at the 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 America. She is now staying with her sister in Brooklyn and has applied for political asylum in the US.

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