New Delhi: Gulalai Esmail is one of Pakistan’s best-known women’s rights activists, speaking out about forced marriages, gang rapes and crushed dreams.In a photo by Saiyna Bashir, Gulalai Ismail during a session with her staff members and others at the office of Aware Girls in Peshawar, Pakistan, Juan. 21, 2019. Gulalai Ismail has been celebrated around the world for groundbreaking work helping women and girls. Pakistan considers her an enemy of the state. (Saiyna Bashir via The New York Times)
Her groundbreaking work has carried her around the world, winning her awards and audiences with high-powered women such as Michelle Obama and Queen Elizabeth II.
But in her own country, Esmail has become an enemy of the state, accused of inciting rebellion. And now she is on the run.
For two months, practically no one has seen her. Pakistan’s security services cannot find her. They have raided her house several times and deployed scores of officers, and, according to Esmail’s family, abducted and tortured family friends to extract information.
Her associates said Esmail, 33, is leading a phantom-like existence, shifting from house to house, timing her movements carefully, stepping out only with a scarf over her face and relying on an underground network of fellow feminists across Pakistan’s cities who are risking everything to hide her.
Her family says they have had no contact with her since she vanished in May — “All our phones are bugged,” said her younger sister, Saba.
Rumours keep surfacing that she was spotted here or arrested there. But security officials said that she was not in custody and that they were relentlessly pursuing her.
The hunt has continued even though Pakistan has recently presented itself as turning a corner.
Prime Minister Imran Khan held talks last week with President Donald Trump at the White House (mostly about Afghanistan).
But the intensity of the pursuit reveals how domineering and perhaps unnerved the country’s security services — referred to as “The Establishment” - remain.
“We are in a grey area,” said Rasul Bakhsh Rais, a professor of political science at Lahore University of Management Sciences. “There’s a lot of actual and political chaos in this country right now.”
But, he said, he could not see any legitimate reason to go after Esmail.
Pakistani security services have accused Esmail of a litany of serious offences including sedition, financing terrorism and defaming state institutions, though authorities have not filed formal charges against her.
No Pakistani government official agreed to comment publicly on her case, but several spoke on the condition of anonymity. Her family provided more than a dozen pages of documents, including police reports and copies of the allegations against her.
Pakistani officials said they had no issue with Esmail’s advocacy for women. But they maintained that she had crossed a line in recent months by spreading divisive messages at unlawful rallies held by a grassroots Pashtun rights movement known as PTM.
As PTM has grown, holding boisterous protests and inspiring more and more young people, the government has cracked down.
Esmail is an ethnic Pashtun, one of Pakistan’s largest groups, and she has become a prominent PTM supporter. She has appeared onstage at PTM events and spread one of PTM’s core messages - that Pakistan’s military has victimised civilians in Pashtun areas.
“Her speech against the state and army is an attempt to divide people on ethnic lines and incite them to commit treason,” read a police complaint registered May 21.
'Money laundering, terrorism'
In the past week, Pakistani officials accused her and her parents of money laundering and financing terrorism, saying that they had received large transfers of money from India.
The Esmail family denies this.
“Everything is false,” said her father, Mohammed Esmail, who now spends his days inside the family’s modest home in Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital, staring out the windows at two nondescript sedans with tinted glass permanently stationed just up the road — police officers.
Esmail said the police are frustrated that they cannot find his daughter and are closing in on her inner circle. This month, he said, agents raided the family house, where Esmail lived with her parents, for the fourth time and carted off computers, phones, cameras and DVDs — and the family driver.
The driver returned hours later, barely able to speak. He had been electrocuted and injected with an unknown substance, tortured in an attempt to make him reveal where Gulalai Esmail had gone, Mohammed said.
Pakistani officials declined to comment on these allegations.
When Esmail was around 16, a female cousin who dreamed of becoming a pilot was married off to a man nearly twice her age, abruptly ending her education — and her dreams.
That motivated Esmail to start an advocacy group, Aware Girls, that has trained thousands of young Pakistani women about their rights.
One was later shot in the head: Malala Yousufzai, whose resilience has inspired millions.
As Esmail progressed through high school and college, eventually earning a master’s degree in biotechnology, she focused her attention outside the classroom on human rights, gender-based violence and countering extremism. She ran workshops, set up a domestic violence hotline and was invited to events in Iceland, Britain, the United States and South Africa.
“She is my pride, I am proud of her,” her father said.
On a glass table in the living room, he keeps all of her awards close to him, among them: the Chirac Prize, the Commonwealth Youth Award and the prestigious Anna Politkovskaya Award (named after the Russian journalist who was killed).
Esmail’s family believes that if she is apprehended she will be charged, subjected to an unfair trial and, potentially, imprisoned for years.
Her associates and Pakistani security officials said they have no evidence she has died. Both sides believe she is hiding.