Along with my sister, Saba, I co-founded Aware Girls, an organization dedicated to women’s empowerment, gender equality, and peace in Pakistan. For our work toward strengthening women in leadership, I received the 2013 Democracy Award presented by the National Endowment for Democracy in a ceremony at the U.S. Congress, and I was named one of the “100 Leading Global Thinkers” by Foreign Policy magazine, among other distinctions.
But as you may know, human rights and peace work is often seen as threatening by those in power and by extremist groups. Due to my increasing visibility, I was aware that sooner or later I would be attacked. But I never thought it would extend to my family.
At midnight on May 16, four armed men attacked our home asking about me, claiming to be security officers who had come to search our home. They tried to forcefully enter but my father refused to open the door. They kept banging on the door, shouting and threatening us, and shooting guns into the air outside our house. Eventually, they left but threatened that they would come again soon. We don’t know if they came with the intention to murder or kidnap.
I had been out of the country since April, and though I was scheduled to arrive home that night, my baggage got lost and I spent an extra two hours at the airport registering my lost baggage claim. If that had not happened, I may have encountered the armed men directly while entering my home.
We immediately reported the incident to the police, but we have no information about who the armed men were. For now, we are relocating ourselves to avoid a further attack—one that could be more organized and lethal.
I know this was not an isolated incident; there were several suspicious events leading up to the attack:
1. We noticed people were around our office and home for several weeks who appeared to be gathering information about us. One of them, who may have been posing as a mentally disabled person, even tried to enter a few times.
2. My family and I have been under surveillance by intelligence agencies of Pakistan for many years, but in December we began having regular encounters and started feeling harassed. The encounters increased after our organization established 12 Youth Groups in Swat and FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) to promote peace and counter extremism through non-violent approach.
3. Two months ago, Aware Girls was listed as one of five “agents of the CIA” on a television show. Threats and surveillance significantly increased after the show aired.
4. In our home village (where a large number of Taliban militants also live), my family hosted a party in honor of the National Endowment for Democracy award that I received. Our friends across the province attended along with local musicians, who performed at the reception. A few days later we received the news that had the local Taliban leader known about the party, it would have definitely been attacked, and that my family and I had been placed on their “hit list.”
5. There have been several social media campaigns calling me a foreign agent, “Western puppet,” and atheist after my international recognition as a youth leader, which ignited digital threats of violence and hatred against me. Though I regularly receive threatening messages on social media, my youngest sister (who looks a lot like me) received a message on Facebook where she was warned that her family was under threat and that she must save herself.
As you can imagine, it is a very difficult time for us. I was aware that defending human rights and countering extremism is a risky job, and anything can happen to us anywhere, at any time. But now my family has become the center of these risks and harassment. Remember us in your thoughts—we need strength and encouragement to face this situation. And we are as determined as ever to continue our struggle for the betterment of society and peace around the world—even at the cost of my life.
For more information about Aware Girls, visit http://www.awaregirls.org/.