Pakistani activist who accused army of sexually harassing women flees to US after months in hiding

A Pakistani human rights activist who says the country’s military has sexually harassed “dozens of women” has resurfaced in America after spending months on the run.

Gulalai Ismail – despite being placed under a travel ban by Pakistani officials – somehow managed to make it to New York, where she is now living with her sister and pursuing political asylum, reports say. She had been arrested in Pakistan multiple times over the past year.

"If I had ended up in prison and tortured for many years, my voice would have been silenced,” she told the AFP this week.

Pakistani dissident and feminist Gulalai Ismail poses during a photo session before an interview with the AFP in Washington, D.C., on Thursday.

Pakistani dissident and feminist Gulalai Ismail poses during a photo session before an interview with the AFP in Washington, D.C., on Thursday. (Getty Images)

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Ismail, 32, landed on the radar of Pakistani authorities after speaking out about alleged abuses committed by the country’s military.

She says an army operation to remove militants near Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan has resulted in the sexual harassment of women.

"Dozens of women had come to tell us that the incident of sexual harassment was not unique,” Ismail told the AFP. “It is systematic. It had been happening for years."

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

Ismail, when she was a teenager, founded the Aware Girls organization, which works “to empower young women, advocate for equal rights of young women, and to strengthen their capacity enabling them to act as agents of women empowerment and Social Change.”

She has been arrested in Pakistan three times since October 2018, according to the BBC. In her latest arrest, in May, she was charged with incitement of violence against state institutions after speaking at a protest following the rape and murder of a 10-year-old girl, the Alliance for Peacebuilding says.

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Ismail’s father, Muhammed, told the BBC that there have been six cases filed against her in Pakistani courts and that she fled the country over concerns for her safety.

"The last few months have been awful,” she also told the station. “I have been threatened, harassed, and I am lucky to be alive."