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Humanism in Pakistan

Watch Humanists International's Gulalai Ismail describe her work in Pakistan
In Pakistan, it is very different to be humanist, because Pakistan is a country which is very conservative; human rights violations are deeply rooted in the culture; and, most importantly, Pakistan is not a secular country. The political religion has a huge control over the policies of the country. The religious clerics and the religious segment of the society, they define the narrative of the society, which leaves, really, less space for people who are humanists or people who are atheists. If I’m a humanist, it means that someone can kill me, just because they think I’m different. I can be persecuted by the lawmakers. As per law, I can be persecuted.
Laws such as blasphemy laws can be used against me and, on the top of it, if I am a humanist and also a human rights activist, it means that my human rights work can easily be discredited by making the propaganda against me, that I am a humanist, an atheist, and, therefore the work that I do for the protection of human rights is also prejudiced, and that the human rights work is actually a game plan to bring Western ideas to Pakistan. So thus, being a humanist and living in Pakistan means putting your life at risk every day, just because you have certain kind of beliefs, which are way different than the mainstream society.
We established ‘Youth Peace Network’ and while the militant organisations in 2009 were recruiting young people as suicide bombers, we were recruiting young people as peace-builders. We identified the key factors which make young people vulnerable to the militant organisations and we started using those key factors as a tool to prevent young people from joining militant organisations. We have 500 volunteers who have reached out to more than 10,000 young people in the previous ten years and this is a big achievement, saving the lives of 10,000 young people, preventing them from becoming vulnerable to the narrative of the extremist organisations.
So ‘Aware Girls’ is a young-woman-led organisation that we, that I and my sister, Saba Ismail, we started it when I was 16 and she was 15, around 15 years ago. We started this organisation and the aim of the organisation was to provide a platform to young women and girls, where they can learn about their human rights, they can discuss about the issues they are facing, and together they can build a strategy for changing their communities. Now we are working on girls’ rights to education. We are advocating at the policy level, we are advocating at the community level, so that all girls can go to school.
We’re also working on political empowerment of young women because we believe that if women are not at the policy table, then their rights will not be saved, their rights will be protected. Many young women now, they are politically aware. Hundreds of women have been using their right to vote, they have been standing up for their right to vote. Many women have run for local elections in Pakistan after they became part of our programmes and at least 10 of them have actually won local elections. Those women would have never been able to run for elections, if they had not been engaged in our programme.
So, because of the work that I am doing, young people and young women are becoming more empowered, they are taking charge of their own lives, they are making decisions about their selves, and they’re changing their own communities.
One achievement of being a humanist and being open about it, and then working as a human rights activist and then [being] known in my community is that it creates a safe space for other humanists, especially for the emerging and young ones who don’t have connections to the world, who don’t have any global connections. They know that they are not alone and they know that their humanistic beliefs, their humanistic life stance is not a sin.
One of my humanistic values which has inspired me to work for human rights is that when I leave the world, I want to leave it in a better shape. I don’t want the generations that would come after me to face the same kind of challenges that my generation has been facing; and if I don’t work to make this world a better place, it means that I am failing. My other humanistic value which inspires me to work with young people - I believe in celebrating life. I believe all of us should celebrate life to the maximum. I believe in happiness.
I want to explore the culture, I want to explore the beauty that exists in this world, and I believe every person has this right to explore the beauty and not wait for an uncertain time which will never come. This is our life and we should enjoy it!

Gulalai Ismail is the Chair of Aware Girls and the Seeds of Peace network. She speaks on the subject of promoting peace in Pakistan and women’s empowerment at conferences internationally, and is a recipient of the International Humanist of the Year Award from Humanists International, and of the Fondation Chirac Peace Prize. In Pakistan, she has faced repeated arrests for her human rights work. She is a board member of Humanists International.

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