WASHINGTON: Rights activist Gulalai Ismail has reached the United States and sought political asylum.

Ms Ismail’s campaigns to empower Pakistani girls have won her international awards and recognition as one of the country’s foremost activists.

But when she spoke out against sexual violence and disappearances in northwestern Pakistan, her fortunes quickly changed.

Ms Ismail said she never sought to become an overseas dissident but alleges a closing of political space in Pakistan.

“I never wanted to leave Pakistan,” she said in an interview here. “I believe that I can better work towards democracy and civil supremacy and peace in Pakistan.”

Ms Ismail was still a teenager when she co-founded Aware Girls in 2002, which promotes gender equality in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

In 2017, she won the prestigious Anna Politkovskaya Award for human rights advocacy. The year before, she was honoured for conflict prevention by France’s Chirac Foundation and has been welcomed by former first lady Michelle Obama.

In May, police filed a complaint against her under an anti-terrorism law.

Ms Ismail declined to discuss how she escaped Pakistan, saying she did not want to put others at risk.

Authorities widely circulated her name to seek her arrest, with airport authorities told not to let her leave.

Ms Ismail is living for now with her sister in New York. She said her initial fears of being sent back to Pakistan were eased after she held meetings in Washington at the State Department and with staff of lawmakers including Chuck Schumer, who represents New York and is the top Democrat in the Senate.

“I was told that there was no chance that the US will ever take such action as extraditing me or handing me over because they know that it is a case of political revenge,” she said.

But she remains worried for her parents in Pakistan. She said that they have become socially isolated.

Published in Dawn, September 21st, 2019