Saba Ismail is a feminist, peace activist and is working for the empowerment of young women. At the age of 15, with other young women fellows She co-founded "Aware Girls"; a young women led organization working for empowering young women by strengthening the leadership capacity of young women enabling them to work for social change and women empowerment, and advocate for equal access of women to health, education, governance, political participation, and other social services. The organization is active in a context of militancy and religious extremism, complicated by poor governance, poverty and low literacy. The young women of Aware Girls engage in CVE programs in which young people are prevented to join militant groups, create open spaces for dialogue, revitalize indigenous culture destroyed by militants and promote nonviolence and pluralism in the community. She supported the idea of strengthening girls voices to bring prosperity in her community, and firmly believes that change has to come through younger generation.
She has been appointed by the UN General Secretary as a member of the Advisory Group for the Progress Study on Youth, Peace and Security because of her expertise and work on youth, peace and countering/ preventing violent extremism.
Her work has been mentioned by Scott Atran in a debate in UN Security Council as a successful example and also in different media including Science, The Guardian, BBC, The Hill, Huffington Post, The Washington Post, Newsdeeply, The Ferret, The Independent and others.
She is a co-founder of the South Asian Regional Feminists Forum on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, is an alumna of the International Visitors Leadership Program USA and Hurford Youth Fellow.
Saba has been awarded “2017 Red Bangle Award” in recognition of her work on women’s rights, “Chirac Prize for Conflict prevention” in recognition of her work for peace, non-violence and conflict Prevention in Pakistan. Foreign Policy Magazine acknowledged her bravery and activism by recognizing her as one of 100 Leading Global Thinkers of 2013 and has been acknowledged in the “30 under 30 Campaign by the “National Endowment for Democracy” for her long struggle for democracy, peace and women’s rights.
Saba has the honor to speak at many high level events like Launch of the Resolution 2250 in New York and D.C representing young peacebuilders, at the UN including High Level Thematic Debate of the UN General Assembly on Peace and Security, High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development, High Level Dialogue of the President of the General Assembly for the 71st session, moderated session in the 71st Session of the UN General Assembly Third Committee, and shared her work as Speaker at the University of Denver, Cleveland State University and George Mason University.
Email - firstname.lastname@example.org
Twitter - @sabaismail
Susan: So Saba, thank you for joining us on The Peacebuilding Podcast. It is really a pleasure to be able to give voice to women like yourself, and be able to give global voice to women like yourself, who is a younger woman than me and is doing really amazing work. So hello and welcome.
Saba: Thank you so much, Susan.
Susan: You know, I like these podcasts to be as personal as possible. And I know, you've probably told your story many times but I think it's really, you know, to introduce you to listeners to tell us who you are, who you are, and where you come from. And how do you think that's influenced why we are here today and having this conversation?
Saba: Well, thank you so much. It's a quite I think it's, you know, I'll try to summarize these answers. So but I think....
Susan: You don't have to be to, you know, we have 45 minutes but yeah, I mean, it's one of the things is nice about podcasters. We can be a little bit richer, a little bit more in-depth than a 10-minute interview, you know...
Saba: Yeah, so definitely, because it's like, you know who I am and the background is quite, you know, intense, I would say, because, well, I have experienced what it takes to make a young person want to be a jihadist. I was born in a very small and rural village in the northwest of Pakistan and that area is deeply religious and deeply traditional.
Susan: It's probably, you know, I had Scilla Elworthy on the show, who wrote A Business Plan For Peace, she describes that part of Pakistan, it's probably the most dangerous place in the world to be a woman. And I don't know...
Saba: Yeah it is, it is one of the most dangerous places on earth for women. And also, you know, being well, I was raising up I was taught about warriors who destroyed Hindu temples, and churches and was told that these are my true heroes. And my teachers taught me to hate life, believing that this life, current life is very short. The real life is after life. And the earlier I start that, you know, the luckier I am. So while I grew up, I saw images of abuses and violence against Muslims in Kashmir and Palestine filled young people's zeal for jihad. And we were told that it was our religious duty to help Muslims through the violent Jihad we're suffering in other countries.
Susan: So you know, let me slow you down. So you were, how many? How many? How many kids in your family?
Saba: We are six siblings.
Susan: and where do you fall in the lineup?
Saba: I'm number four.
Susan: Number four. And so this was you. So you were born in, in a town in Northwest Pakistan.
Saba: Yes, in a village, in a village in northwest of Pakistan. And then I grew up in the city, Peshawar, but the name of the city is Peshawar. And I studied from public education system, you know, not from the government, but the private school system. And there I was taught about, you know, the hatred, there was a story about, you know, the, how this is my duty to fight, and engage in violent jihad. And I saw while growing up, I and my siblings, we saw thousands of young people going to fight. We saw, you know, families receiving dead bodies of their loved ones killed in jihad. And these deaths were cherished in the villages, and in the Northwest of Pakistan. The families were considered holier than others. And just everyone believed that the whole family would be going to heaven, guaranteed. So I, you know, as a young, you know, not as a young but as a kid actually wanted my family and having to, for sure, and...
Susan: You know, what, give us an age at this point that you were aware of that thought...
Saba: How, as well, these thoughts were introduced to me from since I, you know, started going to school, maybe from third grade to start doing, you know, teaching all this a third, you know, seven, eight years old. And but then what I, you know, and because I was learning so much from this educational system, and everything, I also wanted my family to go to heaven, you know what, because heaven is, of course, seen as a beautiful thing, and you know, so the problem was our father, and our father was a human rights activist and a teacher, he didn't believe in any war and the jihad, he just believed in…
Susan: Was he the problem or the blessing?
Saba: Of course, but at that time, as a kid, we were thinking, I and my siblings, were thinking that he is the problem, because we all... he actually overheard all of us, you know, discussing about how we all want to be martyrs, and we want to go to you know, and fight this Jihad as you know, as young kids. So that's why I…
Susan: What was the lineup, girl boy, girls, boys....
Saba: So your own kind of mix of the young, the youngest, the eldest one is sister, then we have one brother then one sister, then it's me, and my brother, and then sister,
Susan: And where does Gulalai... 'coz Gulalai....
Saba: Gulalai is second. She's the third, she's our third but she's like one year elder than me. We have exactly one year difference. So our father actually, you know, invested a lot of, invested in our education, a lot of people and family surrounding us were investing in buying homes and cars and land. And our father was when he saw and he overheard this conversation that we were having in the influence from the society and generally especially from our schooling system, and our desires to be martyrs, he was like, you know, he has to do something immediately for this. And he realized that his children, his own children has been indoctrinated. So, he started a mission of his own to help us unlearn all of these things. And you know, to undo the harm that is already done. So he started actually teaching us about local heroes, the men and the women who were not using weapons, but who were using their voices and who would like people like Gandhi, and people like Bacha Khan was known as a frontier Gandhi, who…
Susan: Let me actually back up even further, how did he get these ideas?
Saba: So he's a, he's an activist, and he used to, he was a political activist, as well, and a human rights defender. But he learned all of these things by himself because he was his own father was, was dead, when he was like 15 years years old. So he realized all these things in the society, and he himself actually educated himself, and you know, everything. But I think it was, he's a very, it's very rare for, you know, for, for men to raise, you know, to raise kids like this in the northwest of Pakistan. Usually in the northwest of Pakistan, the way people raise their children and kids are, they spent all of their resources on boys and they invest, you know, the resources on weapons as well. So that when there are family feuds, the sons are, you know, able to fight with other families and, and all that, but our father was very different. He always invested in education for both girls and boys. So ...
Susan: What's interesting, in general about that is, you know, in terms of tracking women and women's empowerment is so often it's fathers that have really supported their girls in terms of, in terms of stepping into their leadership. And I mean, I have seen some research about this, but I also just anecdotally see it over and over and over again, that the power that fathers have in terms of helping girls realize how powerful they are.
Saba: Yeah, and this is my personal, of course, experience. And also the see that, you know, the patriarch of the family... if the bedrock of the family is towards women's empowerment, it really helps the next generation. Because definitely at the end, even you know, the, you know, in our society, men, men, the patriarch, have a lot of power to decide how their families will, you know, go forward. And, you know, the next generation, so in our case is, you know, the patriarch, who is our father of the family was a human rights defender. He wanted, he didn't want it, you know, that the patriarchy, you know, the patriarchy to move forward in the family, but he wanted to have a different, you know, different family, he wanted to have equal, equal rights to both his daughters and said, and that's why this, you know, the things changed from there. And in on the process, definitely introduce it to other inspirational women as well. Other feminists, other free thinkers.
Susan: Like who? Do you remember?
Saba: I do remember, I do remember a politician, a former, who's now a former politician, but her name is Bushra Gohar. She's a Pakistani former parliamentarian, and a woman like […] she's also now the chair of the, that she's the […] person for the laws against sexual harassment against workplace. So she's the […] person in the [...] of Pakistan. And woman like another, another name is [...], and, you know, women who were heading UN agencies at that time in Peshawar. So he introduced us to very different women, you know, very different women from the society and that inspiration.
Susan: And Saba, what did your mom think about this?
Saba: She's always very supportive towards all these ideas and towards our book. I think without her support, she has never, you know, she, she had been to school only for like, two or three years, till third grade, she went to school, and then she was not allowed, she was dropped off because this school was in another village. And, you know, the grandfather was, didn't allow girls for education to go to another school, it was not accessible. And it was not their priority at all to educate their daughters and even their sons. So you know, so but even you know, it's, but she can communicate in you know, in basic in English, she can communicate, she understands the issues. And she has been extremely supportive in our work. And there have been a lot of incidents that which I'm going to share later, actually. Because now and what happened, especially recently in the past one year with my family, and my mother was the one who took the lead on all that. It was not my father, but my mother who has been leading, like, for example, I can share, like, you know, but I think it will be a little bit more relevant if I share it in order to bit later.
So growing up, you know, as I said, growing up and all these women that I met, I also met another woman who changed my life. And you know, the reason why I started working on peacebuilding, and it was because when I met this one woman who's, you know, in the stories about her 13-year old son, and like many other young boys, after school, he was also going to the madrasa to learn the Quran. And just like in these typical, in a majority of these madrasas in Pakistan, he was also taught about the importance of falling to heart, and that God comes first and parents come later. So he didn't need it.
Susan: You said parents come later?
Saba: Yes, god first. Parents second. Yes, god is always first. And by god, I mean, you know, the violent jihad. That's how they equate that the violent Jihad comes first, and parents come second. So of course, he didn't need his parents' permission to go jihad. So one day he disappeared. And then the family received his dead body. He actually went to Afghanistan for the Jihad where he was killed. So his family was, of course, very, you know, kind of privileged, and, like, you know, very, in terms of like, you know, they were very sure that they will go to heaven. But also the mother was very devastated to receive the dead body of a 13-year old son. And when I saw that mother being devastated, that was also, you know, that was the moment for me to realize that jihad is not about justice. It's about you know, it's, it's about pain, there is no glory in that. And of course, you know, that woman and her son's story, and you and I listened to them, and I met them, it really affected me. And that was our calling for me and my sister, Gulalai. And that's how we decided to start a work. And we established Aware Girls, a young women-led organization. And then we formed Youth Peace Network, in which we stopped young people from being getting recruited by the jihadi groups.
Susan: Could you say... could you slow that thing? Because I've heard Scilla told me a bit about that work. But it'd be interesting. So you were actually going into madrasas and convincing people that the Quran did not support the idea of violent... is that... you tell it.
Saba: So what we've actually been doing is that we have established this Youth Peace Network which is a network of young people in which we work with young people so that we build the capacity of these young people as peacebuilders, and then the young people work with their peers to prevent them from being getting recruited by the militant groups. The Youth Peace Network, you know, when it's basically we started it with, like, 30 young people, and now we have more than 22 groups active in Pakistan and Afghanistan. But what we are doing through this network....
Susan: So it started with you and Gulalai?
Susan: That's amazing. I mean, really, congratulations.
Saba: Yeah, thank you so much. We have been doing this work because we both grew up in conflict. We have witnessed and we have experienced, and of course, our you know, our perspectives are different. We know the realities, we know the, you know, and we also know the problem, the root causes. So we are addressing the root causes but also through this network, we are bringing communities together. We are reconstructing the barns and the communities that were, you know, destroyed by the militant groups, but we are bringing communities together of different faiths, different cultures, different ethnicities together on one platform, so that they can one collectively build a narrative of tolerance and peace. But you know, also, to have a culture of dialogue where people from different religious backgrounds or different point of views can sit together and talk in a safe environment. So we have been doing, you know, to create this conducive environment where there is no space for violent ideologies, and which is more conducive for peacebuilding and coexistence or non violence.
Susan: So let me... this sounds amazing. And let me back up to something that's again, more personal, because I think that what you're describing is something that would require you to have a lot of self confidence and a lot of ability to not get afraid. I mean, to maybe be afraid, but to do things anyway. I mean, I don't want to speak for you, but I'm guessing that you often found yourself in scary situations. And so I wondered if you could, you know, because I think, I think part of my objective is that I you know, there's there's obviously a movement all over the world of women, girls waking up, men waking up around gender equality. And, and yet, in the West, I think that women are living a much mostly a softer existence, you know, they're more protected from some of the realities that you were faced, you know, right up front with. So I wondered if you could just talk a little bit about your internal, how you've dealt with your own fear, how you've built your own self confidence, and how you have been able to get out of your own way to be able to do the kind of work that you're just describing.
Saba: Yeah, it needs a lot of courage and bravery. And it means it's not easy. It's very risky to work on these issues in the northwest of Pakistan.
Susan: I mean, I will say you couldn't even talk to me when I first reached out...
Saba: For almost three months.
Susan: What happened exactly?
Saba: Yeah. So I'm just about to come to exactly to that kind is why I'm unable to talk. And you know, why? because it needs so much, you know, out of the world bravery. It's so... and my family is among the rarest of, you know, families in the northwest of Pakistan that students have so much crack down in the past at least one year, but specifically with the past few months, what has happened with my sister, Gulalai who was the co-founder of Aware Girls and we've done all the work on, you know, she's the founder of the Youth Peace Network and working to prevent young people to be recruited from the military […]. What has happened with her as she has faced online campaigns. She has faced death threats, blasphemy campaigns against her. She was illegally detained. She was disappeared by the state, disappeared for more than 40 hours where none of our family members knew where she is. She was, you know, she was missing.
Susan: And my understanding is that if she gets accused of blasphemy, that the consequence is death.
Saba: Yes, the penalty is death penalty but what recently, she's currently at this moment, she's facing terrorism and sedition cases against her, multiple, you know, sedition and terrorism cases, the reason... And she's also put on exit control list, which is a...
Susan: What control list?
Saba: Exit control list, which doesn't allow anyone to travel outside the country. It's a travel ban on her. And the travel is that is preventing her from traveling outside of the country. And the only reason is to stop her from speaking about her work and about the human rights situation in Pakistan. The current cases against... that accuses her of terrorism is because she spoke about... she spoke about the sexual violence by the Pakistan military in the conflict zones and during the counterterrorism operations in the northwest of Pakistan. And she brought the stories to the mainstream media…
Susan: .... about the girls getting raped or.. yeah...
Saba: Yes, a woman getting raped, barging into their homes, violating their privacy, violating their dignity. And what happened was that in this year in January 2019, there was this, you know, a video that become widen, in which a young boy raised the issue of military personnel barging into his home and harassing his mother. He recorded this, you know, video and it was all and Gulalai actually organized the delegation of women who would travel to North Waziristan to show solidarity with a woman who spoke about against the harassment by the military. But also when the delegation traveled there, they met several other women who shared similar stories, and some of them recorded their stories. And they wanted these stories to be brought to the mainstream media. And, you know, definitely one thing I want to mention, the traveling to Waziristan and to the northwest of Pakistan to these tribal areas, is not easy, even locals cannot easily travel there. And it was the first ever time in the history of Pakistan that the delegation of women went there to meet other women. It never happens, which was really like a history in the making that woman going to show solidarity with other women. And what happened, of course, when these women and when you know, Gulalai and these other members of the delegation brought the stories to the mainstream media, the military establishment was not happy with that at all. They did every attempt to silence the family who actually spoke about it the first time, but also only, you know, but also we see that the time when Gulalai brought up, start, you know, bringing these stories and issues to the mainstream media, she has been charged of terrorism and sedition. And after that, the law enforcement agencies have been raiding our house in Islamabad in order to arrest her. There have been several raids, more than four raids at our home where our parents and our younger sister live. And the raids will happen most of the time in the middle of the night with more than 50 to 60 personnel, law enforcement personnel will just come attack our home in more than 10 to 15 vehicles each time. And they will just search everything in our home, whether it was car or whether it's personal wardrobe, but whether everything. And they snatched our families phone, our parents and our sister's phones. The CCTV system that was installed in our home for our family security was taken away by them without producing any legal documents for taking all this, you know, equipment and for taking away any phones. And in one of the raids, they took, they abducted our family driver who has been working with our family for some years. And he was physically tortured and toxins were injected into his body because they wanted to know the whereabouts of my sister Gulalai because she is currently forced into hiding at this time. And when the driver was released after that, you know, a very close friend of Gulalai was illegally abducted. He was tortured and electrocuted for more than 13 hours. Like literally while he was handcuffed, electrical shocks were given to him.
Susan: Saba, why are they so threatened? Why are they so threatened by two very bright women starting an organization called Aware Girls and trying to organize youth to actually create more peaceful society? Why is that so threatening?
Saba: It is so threatening because, you know, one is that it's very, like talking about these issues like, you know, the usual image of the northwest of Pakistan of women, you know, are conservative woman, and...
Susan: This is also where Malala came from as well. Right?
Malala, exactly. And actually, in fact, Malala used to attend one of our training program before she was shot. So she's a trainee of Aware Girls. So definitely it's the same area, but overall, it's not, you know, it's not something that people will see that, you know, in the northwest of Pakistan, women coming forward and speaking up. And it's not like very... Gulalai's image or... which is not like, you know, a typical, a typical girl from the northwest of Pakistan in terms of maybe like, you know, not covering our head, let's say it's not, you know, it's very unusual. If people expect us to be in the traditional...
Susan: Are you required to cover?
Saba: Yeah, this is, you know, this is a very traditional requirement to have this and also...
Susan: But not a burka?
Saba: No, no, not a burka. Burka is not our culture, it has come from Saudi Arabia. It's the colonization and in all that, from that, but it is our culture is to have a chador which is a long piece of cloth and to cover. And when we don't, if you don't do that, and you know, when you're a different person, just in terms of like, you know, this, but also someone who support you know, who is working on women's rights. We are so vocal, but was not as scared, and who is still, you know, in.. Yeah, who is in this male dominant and this very patriarchal society. When you don't, you know, when you don't support the, you know, the patriarchy, but you're speaking up against and also speaking, and questioning military is, you know, in itself in Pakistan is, is not easy, you know, it's very, no one can dare to even question, you know, the military, or the wrongdoings of the military, it's not that easy to even question. So questioning them at first, and then when you're actually telling the stories, you know, of the sexual assaults by the Pakistan military to the world is something that, you know, there is then of course, no other excuse for them. But you know, this is, they're scared that, you know, this is a sexual assault is international war crime, it is recognized as an international war crime, and if we are speaking about this issue, and they are bringing it to the international media, then it means there will be international investigation, maybe or like, you know, people will talk about it. And, you know, they will ask for accountability and not doing, you know, not being involved into war crimes. So definitely, this is something, you know, that they don't want to, and it took these women from the troubled areas, it took them almost two decades, because, you know, this war on terror is going on in Pakistan for almost two decades. So it took the women of Pakistan and the tribal leaders almost two decades to speak up about this issue. It's the first ever time that women from these troubled areas are speaking up. And…
Susan: It's amazing that...
Saba: This is the "me too" movement of Pakistan. And how you see differently the Me Too movement in the West, and in the US, but this is where the women who have never been to school, but they're still recording, they're still telling these stories, because enough is enough.
Susan: Well, I think it's what's powerful now, about this moment in time, because I think women all over the planet are supporting each other in finding their voice and speaking up about what they're, what the reality is, and, and obviously, women, you know, there's different realities, but it's also very similar realities, you know?
Saba: Yes, yeah, it's true that, you know, I would like to mention one story that is very powerful, when Gulalai traveled to Waziristan to Northwest in January, and which there is this one woman who is a literate, an old woman, and every time the military would harass her, she would draw a line on a piece of paper. And she showed this, this picture to this delegation, it's a small, tiny piece of paper, there are 25 lines drawn on it. Just imagine going through this, and then she was forced, you know, she was like, okay, you know, she cannot take all this and she left that area. But...
Susan: What kind of harassment... in what ways were they harassing her?
Saba: They were different, you know, these women have been faced a lot, barging into homes, violating their privacy, violating their dignity. You know, it's been, it's definitely it's a lot that these women, women are already taken in, you know, in the name of searching houses in the name of like, you know, a lot of main things, but, you know, seeing the courage of this woman, and the way they are, you know, documenting, I think it's really important that we talk about, it's really important, because definitely, we just cannot allow, you know, an institution to do this to women, and especially then when they're doing a lot of these things in the name of counterterrorism, and then in the name of peace. It is definitely injustice. It is definitely something that, you know, the international community should question, you know, this...
Susan: Well the thing, it's very, you know, so my last guest was Stephanie Savell, and they have been documenting the post 911 wars and specifically the amount of money that the United States has been spending, which is significant, obviously, yes, this, my country has spent more than the next seven to 10 countries combined, and in the name of making the world safer for the United States and the world safer in general. But the reality is, nothing has gotten safer. It's gotten less safe. And so listening to this kind of story, it's like, hmm, it's so clear that if people really wanted to make things safer, they would support somebody like Gugalai, like they would support that kind of initiative. They would support a Youth Peace Network going into the madrassas and talking to people about why they wouldn't necessarily want to be jihadists, you know, that would make a lot of sense as a peace initiative. But that's not what has been supported, I think, by my government, which is, I'm sure it's part of the problem here.
Saba: I think it's, you know, to this, there are a lot of Western countries that are actually in the, you know, for them, the guns, weapons, producing guns and weapons, and selling them is a huge business for them. And I think it's really important, you know, it's really important that the world think about, you know, the Western world as well, that what they want to do already, because of, you know, these, in the name of counterterrorism in the name of security initiatives, millions of dollars have already been invested into more weapons into more guns, more bombs. And you know, every, all the amount of money like every penny that is spent on these guns, besides bombs, is injustice to girls who wants to go to school, or to people like Gulalai who is a peacebuilder, and who is labeled as a terrorist in her own country, although she's an internationally celebrated human rights defender and activist, but you know, the way you know, the way she has been framed, or you know, and the way she has been, you know, kind of, because the state, in fact, some state is afraid of her voice. But you know, that there are, I think the western, in the Western world of the business of war and making money such a lucrative business, but this has to be diverted, this has to be, you know, this has to be changed. And as you mentioned already about Scilla, that you had a talk with her side over here, I would like to mention, you know, some figures from Scilla's book, in which she writes that the book is Business Plan for Peace, in which she writes that the armed conflict causes massive economic losses every year, but peacebuilding and peacekeeping are very grossly underfunded. The spending in 2015 on peacebuilding was 6.8 billion, and peacekeeping is 8.27 billion. And together, they just represent 2% of the economic losses caused by the conflict. So this book, you know, demonstrate the total cost of scaling up the most effective systems to prevent war over a period of 10 years, but costs under 2 billion. So you know, the figures, but also, in this book says that currently we spend $9 billion annually on ice cream.
Susan: On what? Sorry.
Saba: 9 billion annually on ice cream. So I, you know, I always say, and I always mentioned this, that I like ice cream. And I would like to eat ice cream in a peaceful world. So in terms of that, yeah, I think you know, the money that is being spent on whether it's a counterterrorism initiative, what whether it's, you know, on this war on terror, it needs to be local communities and local peacebuilders who needs to be engaged. Yeah. And they need to be involved in these processes, you know, what type of funding should go? What type of.... ? Because, like, also with, you know, in the case of Gulalai, you clearly see that it's the government and it's the state, which is so scared of peacebuilders, because they're, they are scared that you know, that the war crimes that they are doing will be exposed, or, you know, they will be, they won't be able to cover up those, you know, those clients that they're doing in the name of terror, or in you know, sorry, in the name of this war on terror. So I think it's all it's all together that yes, the international community should make the governments accountable for this war on terror that what they are, you know, what they're doing, how, you know, what is the output and it gives Pakistan, I clearly see that this space for civic societies is shrinking, but also maybe actually want to point out towards the, how, you know, the state has supported militants, like Osama Bin Laden, who was hiding in Pakistan. And it's not missing, but it's, you know, it's one of the former I, security agency representative was written in a book and who has, you know, mentioned it, you know, in multiple occasions, that it was the state who gave support to Bin Laden and it was the state who gives support to […] who is another terrorist and the mastermind of the attack on school children in which more than 140 children were killed. That was 2014. So this man, […] has been, you know, is treated like a state guest. No legal processes against him, nothing. […], which is another terrorist, and you know, is who is a well known, like internationally recognized terrorist, and he's also been a lot of support given support by the state. But Pakistani state is doing crackdown against human rights defenders, against journalists who were speaking up, against judges, you know, anyone, because in this current government in Pakistan, it is very much controlled, you know, by other state, you know, institutions. It's not a very open democracy. And that's where the problem is that there is crackdown.
Susan: So let me ask you something, the name of your organization, one of the organizations is Aware Girls, and this podcast has consistently, I mean, we feel pretty clear that there's a strong correlation between empowering women and building peace on the planet, and in fact, that if we got gender right, in fact, we would have a much more peaceful planet, we would not be supporting militarism, to the extent that we are and I'm saying we, the human community. I'm just interested in your thoughts on that. Does that seem true to you? And what would happen? What would happen specifically, as you know, Pakistan is a case in point. If women really, if there really were true gender equality in Pakistan, what would happen to militarism in Pakistan in your view?
Saba: I think if there is gender equality, of course, it will positively impact the situation. If there is free space and you know, an enabling environment where women can speak up, and you know, where they can talk about these issues, they can have also have proper, you know, legal remedies. If there are proper legal remedies, of course, I think it's going to be really thrived. And of course, the women's rights movement in Pakistan is affected by this current administration, and this current government, because if there is no free civic space, where you know, that usually the groups which are marginalized groups are, you know, they are affected in a negative way. So similarly, because now there is so much crackdown, generally on civil society, it's the feminist and the women's rights movement, who are also getting, like more intense crackdown and you know, more not having free spaces. Because, you know, as, as we see, generally in society, the group, you know, the marginalized groups affected most, in Pakistan, what happened when there was... on eighth of March, which is International Women's Day, there were thousands of women who came on the streets, who protested and was, you know, rallying for women's rights. But what happened, the government of northwest of Pakistan, and also we're all there was like, there was a resolution, and the parliament against this March and against this, really. So you can imagine that we, you know, it says it was, again, history making, but so many thousands of women coming up, forward speaking for the rights, you know, it was like we are, it's been almost more than three years that I live in New York, and when I was in Pakistan, there was, I couldn't see this kind of like, you know, amazing and brilliant movement when I was there. And only in such short a short period of time, you can see that so many women are coming forward. And instead of celebrating those women, instead of showing support to them, instead of listening to them, there is a resolution that, you know, against these women, it's really interesting,
Susan: But it's interesting... it sounds like you see a change, you see, you think that women in Pakistan are waking up and coming together more and protesting more and speaking out, even if there are resolutions against them?
Saba: Yes, they are. You know, there are women, there are `women lawyers, there are women activist and there are women journalists who are, instead of being so much crackdown and repression, they are coming forward. They are, you know, speaking up. I have been working, you know, for four years, I've been working with women, and I've been working to empower young women into citizens of equal rights and responsibilities. I have seen that they are fighting, you know, the extremist, they are, you know, I, when I was working, I was working to also strengthen the governance structures, through the effective participation of women and girls in these processes. So when, when I was working, we build the capacity of women so that they can participate in the political processes, and also in the democratic process of the country. And back in 2015, there were women that we trained. They ran for election. They won the local elections in Pakistan. So not only, you know, challenging that extremist narrative, but also taking away space from those extremist narratives and you know, be there in those processes in the decision-making processes, in the policy-making processes. And when these women came forward and running those elections in law, in some villages, it was first ever time that women were even running for elections and you know, participating in this process. But what is happening also, with this current, you know, government, we have seen that the number of women in the policymaking has been starkly decreased, like every day there are...
Susan: Is that because of global authoritarianism?
Saba: Well it's because of the current government. It is because of this, you know, in Pakistan which is not, you know, pro women's rights, which is not, you know, and a lot of these meetings like, you know, everyday you follow their social media and updates that they give on about the meetings or anything, they're all male, like, you know, there is, in majority of these meetings, there are zero percent of women in these meetings. So definitely this government, this current government in Pakistan is, you know, is not very supportive towards women. There are no spaces, you know, in the policy making process.
Susan: Okay, so what you have on your plate, what you're taking on is so immense, and obviously needs a lot of support. And what do you feel like, What gives you the most hope and what feels like the greatest support that are moving things in the direction that you think they need to go?
Saba: So when I see, you know, so many young women and young men speaking up for the race, and still, like, you know, coming forward, that definitely gives me hope I have seen a lot of women, I've seen a lot of men coming forward and doing amazing work in Pakistan. And I think, you know, that is definitely one thing that gives me hope that even instead of like so much going on currently, but also the environment that we all grew up in, you know, the conflicts that the old mostly like the people in the northwest of Pakistan, the younger generation have lived in conflict for years and years…
Susan: They're terrorized... right? Really, their entire life.
Saba: Exactly, you know, our entire lives, and still, they want peace, they're working for peace, they don't want to be engaged in violent activities. Like, for example, currently, there is this one grassroots movement arising up in Pakistan, which is called the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement, which means special protection movement. This is a grassroots movement that is asking for, you know, for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission that is asking to make sure that the people who are enforcely disappeared are being brought in the court system. And this, you know, in this movement, there are a lot of younger generation who are the face of this movement. So definitely, when they are engaged so non-violently, you know, there are DFL demonstrations in which more than 40,000 to 50,000 people have come up, you know, in one single demonstration. And the record is that not even a single flower pot has been, you know, broken. Like, it's so peaceful. It's so peaceful. So definitely, it's really, you know, it's really good to see and it's really good to see that, yes, they are the hope of Pakistan. As Gulalai actually is also facing all this crackdown because she showed solidarity with this movement, you know, with this (?). And she's not, you know, she's not, you know, the leader of the movement, but they are so scared, the state is so scared of brave voices like Gulalai's because they know that if such a non violent movement is happening and if the world knows, you know, about it, and this movement, have more credible voices, and people internationally start showing solidarity with this movement, you know, the military will be in trouble because military in itself, the spokesperson of the military, which is, you know, DG ISPR known as DG ISPR, Major General Asif Ghafoor and...
Susan: What was it?
Saba: DG ISPR Asif Ghafoor is his name, and he's the spokesperson of the armed forces. He held a press conference in April. And he said, the time is up, time is up for the people of Pashtun Tahafuz Movement. And then he warned them, you know, that you have all the liberty, just imagine you have all the liberty of being nonviolent, okay, you know, and then he was like, you know, your time is up, and there will be crackdown against you. And then there were videos on YouTube, they started emerging. And this in these YouTube videos that is clearly mentioned that the state will have the military will have crackdown, against Gulalai, and you know, against the other two people, two leaders of the movement, who are the parliamentarians. And only less than a month after that, you know, there were two cases against Gulalai accusing her of terrorism. And now she's forced into hiding, and the two parliamentarians of this movement are being arrested, and they are in jail. They are not being released at all. We don't see a chance of them being released, every time they have a court date, the judge is on vacation. The judge is sick. The judge is, you know, has an off-date, and the judge never even listens to them. The justice system in Pakistan is, you know, not transparent. There is so much influence. And that's where I see to answer to your question that when I see hope so I see hoping all these people who have been, there is so much crackdown against them by the strongest institution of the country, but they are still standing up. No one has been, you know, said that, okay, we don't want to work for peace anymore. Because, you know, we cannot, of course, you know, this institution is so strong and we cannot stand up to this crackdown, like my family has been, you know, has been threatened so much, being harassed so much in so many ways, including my younger sister, who is a look-alike of our sister Gulalai. These agencies told her that we were about to abduct you, but then we realized that you're not her. And they interrogated her, they cross question her because they thought that she is her, she was being followed, even if she would go in to buy vegetables or milk, she was being followed by multiple cars and multiple people. She was still, you know, she was still, you know, don't of course, you know, and our parents are still when, you know, when the media outlets are interviewing my parents, my parents are saying that I'm proud of my daughters, that we are proud of our daughters. We are proud of the work that they are doing. Although their life is in hell these days, you know, they don't have, they're not living a normal life from on. It's been 90, more than 90 days. And, you know, they try to socially isolate them, but they're everybody, you know, the people in Pakistan is there still standing very strong, because one, you know, we are standing on the right side of the history. We are we stood up for a cause, which is human rights and peace. And, you know, we will continue even our sister is forced into hiding, we don't know, you know, you know, definitely a lot about her at this time, we don't know about her whereabouts. Our younger sister has to be relocated to a foreign country. Because, you know, it's impossible for her to live in Pakistan anymore. And she has to start her life from scratch, just because she's someone's sister, our parents, you know, they even cannot talk to us, you know, normally because their communication is being surveilled, is being watched, taped, you know, everything, you know, I just barely talked to them and cannot talk about a lot of things at all, because, you know, they will be in trouble, their safety and security. And they're old. You know, my father is a human rights activist. So and he has been to jail, he was accused of blasphemy before 911, actually, when he spoke up, spoke out against the Taliban and the militant groups, he went to jail on that. So he stood up, and but my mother who is a housewife, and she, you know, she has nothing to do with but my sister says, you know, outside or what my activism my sister is involved in, but she's just being dragged into all this just because she's our mother, just because she's a mother of Gulalai. She's going to court every week. You know, she's fighting the case. And that's, you know, when you asked me earlier about support of my mother, and I told you that, uh, you know, I think it will come later, that when my sister, my sister was arrested in February, because she was protesting against the brutal murder of a member of the PTM of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement. That member was killed in broad daylight and was brutally killed. So my sister was, you know, participating in this protest, and my sister was arrested from that protest. She was taken to a police station, and then she was disappeared for 40 hours, my family didn't know about her whereabouts at all. We were told that, you know, she's being tortured, and, you know, not a lot of like, you know, stories that were told to us, and we had no idea what's going on. But it was our mother who took the lead, and my mother and my younger sister Shola, who was there and who was searching for her from one police station to another police station, from one government office to another government office. And who were advocating, you know, for her safety recovery. So definitely, you know, it's women, like, you know, my sister or my mother, who instead of, you know, all the happenings....
Susan: ..and you!
Saba: ...and me but maybe because I'm a kind of undermining. No, but you know, I'm not saying it because I think I'm, I'm at least comparatively, in a safer, in a safer part of the house.
Susan: How did you come to be in New York?
Saba: It's a very personal story that I might not be able to share a lot. But I, you know, the reason why I came to New York was in I was in a situation in which I had to save my life. And I had no other option. But I had to come to New York, because I have siblings here. Yeah, so I was in a situation in which I had to, you know, escape, and the only option was New York, because I have family who could support me and who could help me and escape. But yeah, that was, you know, but still, you know, I'm here. I'm in a position, you know, in a much safer position. And I think that's why, you know, I'm kind of giving more credit to, you know, my family who is back there on the ground, who is going through so much, and my sister is just only because she speak truth to power she's facing, you know, she's facing so much. So, yeah, definitely, you know, working for peace generally is not easy in Pakistan. People even who are associated with you friends, even, like there are friends who were tweeting in support of Gulalai when these cases of like, you know, this terrorism were filed against her, and they received calls. They received death threats over phones, that they should not tweet anything in support of her. Otherwise, they will be in trouble. So currently, you know, it's a very hard time for her.
Susan: A lot of oppression. So Saba, we are hitting our time boundary in terms of the hour. And I wanted to give you an opportunity to say anything that you want, at the, you know, like to summarize or to say anything that, you know, stands out to what people most... anything that is in conclusion, from your point of view?
Saba: Well, my conclusion is that there is, you know, is, I think, my message to everybody is that, although there is, you know, not only in Pakistan, overall, generally, you know, the the rise of nationalism and authoritarian, we can see that as a steady growing, we can see it in many different countries.
Susan: For now.
Saba: And I think it's very important for everyone not to be silent and start to speak up because if you choose to be silent, you know, when we think that it's really hard, maybe when it's over, then we will speak, I think it's not going to solve any issue. I think it's, you know, it's not better for the world. It is not better, generally. So my message is this be, you know, all the people, all around to speak up, whether they are in the US or in, you know, in the Western world, or in Pakistan, and similarly, other countries, it's very important to be persistent in our causes, even at the cost of, you know, whatever comes. So definitely, it's very important. And also, I think the responsibility of the people who are, who are not living in the, you know, in the conflict-affected areas, I think responsibility comes on their shoulders, to show solidarity with those people, to listen to them, to talk more, and to actually give them spaces so that they can talk about these issues, they can bring these issues to the, you know, to the international forums, because, at least in Pakistan, there is so much like, you know, crackdown, even on media, people cannot even speak about my sister's case. Or, you know, about any other crackdown. So it's very important that people internationally, give more spaces to the people who come from certain situations.
Susan: And if they want to follow you or know what's happening, what's the best way to, to pay attention?
Saba: So I have a Twitter account that I post updates on, that I believe that's my own name. It's Saba Ismail. And my email address is also you know, anyone can reach me out on my email address…
Susan: We can post that. We will post that with the episode if you'd like anything.
Saba: Yeah. So my email address and Twitter both, they can follow my Twitter for more updates and can send an email for you know, for any more updates.
Susan: How about Aware Girls? If people are interested, is that one of the same? Is you and Gulalai.. is the same? I mean, it is. Yeah, if they wanted to follow Aware Girls, is that a separate organization? Or is it the two of you?
Saba: Well, there are people. There are other you have, you know, active board members, you have staff and team that are working on the ground, they are still working for women's rights and you know, for peace on the ground, so definitely, but for any information, at least for now for Aware Girls, they can contact me because there is so much crackdown on Aware Girls, you know, in Pakistan and on associates that their communication is being so watched that it can go that you know that it can pose risks to a lot of people in Pakistan. So for now, it's more better to contact me for information for Aware Girls, Youth Peace Network and any other updates.
Susan: Well, I hope you know, I just... what you're doing is so amazing, so courageous. And I guess, maybe, maybe it's because I'm an older... older than you and the mother in me is thinking, what are you doing to take care of yourself?
Saba: Yeah, it's a question that a lot of our friends and supporters have asked me in the previous three months and a lot of my friends have pushed me to do a lot of things. But it's very hard. It's extremely hard to be in such a situation in which you have the responsibility...
Susan: Well that can be more pressure too... I mean, I don't ask it like that. But I guess I, I guess I think because what you're doing is so critical. It is hard, it's hard to know how to, how does one take care of oneself, given the kind of pressures, you know, and one way, one way you take care of yourself is that you don't try and do it all by yourself that actually all of us are paying, you know, get do this podcast, pay attention so that people are paying attention to what's going on. Because I think that, particularly around the world, I think women as a group are starting to support each other, more paying attention to you know, that the similarities and stories and wanting to see, and men, many men too, but i think i think i think women as a group are needing to do it, and and I'm wanting to support them and doing it.
Saba: Thank you so much. Definitely a lot of our friends and you know, stakeholders and partners have showed immense support in the past three months. And I think, you know, it's really, it's so incredible to see, and I think I'm so blessed, and my family is so blessed, my sister is so blessed to have so many people that you know, that they are supporting her, they're supporting this cause, you know, they're definitely not supporting, you know, one individual based on you know, being their favorite, but because they are they want to support this cause so the support that I have seen from my sister, is remarkable, and I'm so thankful, like, you know, it will be very hard for me to thank, you know, in to name the any, you know, friends, organization or institutions. But yeah, and that definitely...
Susan: Yeah, it's not just about... obviously, your sister and you are a symbol of, of a whole different approach that can be taken to peacebuilding, you know, that, that the money that's been put into the military, that my country is put into the military, that other countries, it hasn't, it hasn't ended up making this world safer, but actually doing the kind of work you're talking about, I think has the potential to make it safer.
Saba: Yeah, that's true. That's true that, you know, that's why I want to talk about you know, and I mentioned about investing in peace and investing in, in young peacebuilders, investing in local peacebuilders, and investing in older peacebuilders, like you were saying, you know, for playing the role and, you know, giving spaces and voices to people like me, and other peacebuilders, of course, and I think it you know, it's the investment in terms of money is very important that where the money goes. Recently, the US government have passed the global fragility act. So if the money that goes through this dress act, you know, I think that also the people in the US should advocate that this money should go to the local organizations, to the local institutions, to the local partnership peacebuilding for, you know, the approaches should be I believe, locally-led because the local people know the realities, they know, they have, you know, they have the solutions. Instead of just you know, instead of just targeting, or investing, you know, giving out weapons to someone, this money should be used very (?), you know, and, and consultations. So definitely, it's very, it's very important, because it's, you know, the money, power, you know, resources, play a huge role in shaping, you know, and shaping these issues or shaping, you know, the solution towards these issues.
Susan: Well, anyway, I really, thank you so much for your time and for joining us and for all of your courage. It's really, it's so inspirational. And yeah, and I hope this, lots of people listen to you far and wide on the podcast.
Saba: Yeah. Thank you so much, Susan. Thank you for your time.