In Pakistan, This Activist Was Martyred for Her Moderation
Gunmen murdered Sabeen Mahmud on a Karachi street last Friday. She had asked too many questions about government brutality—and she’d got others asking them, too.
This past Friday evening, a bright-eyed woman with a wide smile, cropped hair and infectious charisma strode up the stairs of a squat building on Sunset Lane in a tony section of Karachi called Defense Housing Authority Phase 2 and into a bustling cultural space. The Second Floor, known popularly as T2F, which she had created through her nonprofit organization, Peace Niche, was an island of intellectual discourse and cultural activities in the midst of a commercial area dotted with small groceries, tiny tailoring establishments and plumbing and electrical workshops.
The aspirational activist and entrepreneur, Sabeen Mahmud, 39, was nervous, she confided to friends, but she was committed to hosting a necessary discussion, “Un-Silencing Baluchistan (Take 2).” The panel talk, with leading Baluch activists, had been canceled at a university in Lahore “on orders from the government,” university officials said. Word was that the orders came from the country’s powerful military intelligence operations, but nothing was stated openly.
The night’s topic was generally taboo: alleged human rights violations by Pakistani security agencies in the restive province of Baluchistan. How sensitive? The U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency cancelled a conference on Baluchistan in 2012 altogether after Pakistani military officials protested.
Before the event at T2F, Sabeen had written a Facebook message in Urdu to friends. “It is now time, after saying bismillah, to step forward,” she wrote, invoking a Muslim salutation meaning “in the name of Allah.”
“We need to stand together and face what may come our way,” she added in English. “My logic tells me that ‘the establishment’ will not come in guns blazing.” She ended with her characteristic: “Cheers!”
She wasn’t the only one who was uneasy. Other friends too, were worried about how the event would be received by the “powers that be,” and felt relieved when it went off smoothly. Those who weren’t physically present were reassured by a photo Sabeen posted of the successful panel, hashtagged #Karachi and #T2F, from her Instagram account, where she described herself as a “Post Modern Flower Child.”
Less than half an hour later, she said her goodbyes to those who attended the event, and headed home, nosing her white Suzuki Swift off Sunset Lane, her mother in the passenger seat, their driver in the back seat.
Minutes later, stopped at a traffic light, she was shot dead. Five bullets.
The next morning, heartbroken friends and family carried her lifeless body from the morgue to T2F for her last journey, her funeral procession.
If there is any doubt that Pakistan is in a deadly struggle for the future of the country, it was answered Friday night in the explosion of gunfire that killed Sabeen.
A bullet to her face, one to the head and two to the chest, the fifth one unclear as to its target—she was pronounced dead soon after at a local hospital. Her mother, a respected early-learning educator, was seriously injured by two bullets, one of which had gone through her daughter’s face.
The murder underscores the crisis that is Pakistan. The country is like the scientist Dr. Frankenstein from 19th-century literature who created the monster that turned on his creator. The extremists and hired gunmen who carry out the dirty work of murder and violence in the country today are like that monster.
Politicians, military leaders and the ordinary citizenry must decide, 67 years after the country’s creation, whether they will allow its dysfunction to destroy the nation and its innocent Sabeens, or if they will free the nation from a culture of denial, intimidation, face-saving and violence. Will they move to end the prevailing culture of impunity for murderers and push the country into the 21st century and support civil society activists like Sabeen?
Since January, one of us, Asra, has been writing about an “honor brigade” that silences debate on Islam. The linguistic inspiration for that term in Pakistan is the “ghairat brigade,” named for a word for “honor,” that includes TV hosts, former military chiefs, politicians, militant leaders, “nationalists,” and regular citizens in Pakistan who consider murder, intimidation, shame, ultra-nationalism and hyper-religiosity—two issues they conflate—as more honorable than truth-telling and individual human rights.
If there is any hope for Pakistan, it is in the people on the other side, like the hundreds of Pakistani writers, activists, community leaders, and ordinary folk who on Saturday filed through T2F’s cultural space, turned into a funeral parlor, and stood their ground, around the world, against intimidation, even in grief.
In Boston, the other one of us, Beena, a friend of Sabeen’s and a journalist and activist in Pakistan, heard the shocking news soon after the shots rang out. She later wrote defiantly on a blog that Sabeen’s murder was the latest in a campaign of “intellecticide” that has targeted writers, academics, politicians, government officials, lawyers, students, and others who speak out for human rights, women’s rights, democracy, secularism and peace. The headline: “Please, not Sabeen. And no, that won’t shut us up.”
The list of those targeted is a long one. Those killed include: Saba Dashtiyari, a much loved professor in Quetta, the capital of Balochistan; Zahra Shahid Hussain, a senior leader in the political party of former cricketer Imran Khan, Tehreek-e-Insaf, or “The Way of Justice,” known as “Zahra Apa,” with apa, meaning “older sister” in the Urdu language; Perween Rahman, known as the “mother of Karachi”, an architect who headed the low-income housing Orangi Pilot Project in a part of the city known as Asia’s largest slum; and lawyer Rashid Rehman Khan, who defended a “blasphemer.”
Those targeted who miraculously survived attempted assassinations include Nobel Prize winner Malala Yousufzai, the young Pashtun girl who was shot in the head by the Pakistani Taliban for speaking out for the right, particularly of girls, to education; Hamid Mir, a television reporter and anchor with a huge viewership; and liberal journalist Raza Rumi in Lahore. This is by no means an exhaustive list.
Baluch journalist Malik Siraj Akbar, a graduate student at Harvard Kennedy School, who has seen many fellow journalists killed and has himself been threatened for his work, was supposed to be on the Friday evening panel, but couldn’t get his Skype connection to work. “The country is in the hands of beasts,” he said later. “They are out to shoot everyone who does not agree with the state’s narrative. And we, the liberals, feel the state is on the side of the extremists. It is a long battle.”
The journalist targeted in Lahore, Raza Rumi, a friend of Sabeen’s, recalled how Sabeen opened the cultural space after a Pakistani friend returned from the U.S., struggling with serious mental illness issues that ended with his suicide. “It’s unbelievable,” he said. “They are trying to silence anyone who speaks up.”
Sabeen’s mother, Mahenaz Fazil, endearingly called, “Mimi Aunty,” was discharged from the hospital on Saturday after the bullets were removed. At her request and in a radical departure from tradition, the funeral procession proceeded from T2F, the community space Sabeen had created. Funeral processions in South Asia tend to start from the home of the deceased or from a mosque. Sabeen, fiercely secular, considered T2F her home (with her posters of reggae singer Bob Marley and artist Frida Kahlo on the wall), as did so many artists, writers, activists, and young people.
Mahnaz, despite her injuries, her back aching from a bullet wound there, insisted on seeing off her slain daughter. Sitting in a chair in the ground floor of T2F’s open space, surrounded by artworks on its red-brick walls, she received and comforted mourners with deep hugs.
“Beti,” she said to Nadra Huma Quraishi, a teacher and civil society activist, using the feminine version of the Urdu word for “dear.” “You have to be strong. All of you have to progress forward.”
Quraishi handed her a poem she had handwritten, dedicated to Sabeen, one line reading, “The Phoenix rises.”
Pakistan is in dire need of reform on many fronts. In 1977, 30 years after the country’s founding, military dictator General Zia ul Haq ushered in an era of political Islam, with funding and support from Saudi Arabia, trying to offset the impact of the 1979 revolution in Iran on Pakistan’s minority Shia sect. The United States, too, started supporting the illegitimate Zia regime, pumping arms and aid to Pakistan to counter the Soviet Union’s 1979 takeover of Afghanistan.
These factors together converted the Afghan fight for national liberation into an Islamic religious war, or violent “jihad.”
By the time the Soviets had been defeated in 1989, General Zia had established strict, ultraconservative Islamic laws, called hudud, that criminalized adultery and made rape difficult to prosecute, leading to women being disproportionately convicted for alleged “moral crimes” for which they could be imprisoned, flogged, or executed by stoning. The emphasis on women’s “honor” in the name of religion resulted in women classical dancers being banned from the public airwaves, and stage and female TV actresses and anchors being forced to cover their heads. (Some refused, paying the price by having to resign from their jobs or not being offered acting roles.).
On another level, Pakistan’s involvement in the Afghan “jihad” put in place the government-sponsored training of “religious” militants. The mujahideen, or “Muslim holy warriors” of the 1980s that then-President Reagan welcomed to the White House and equated to American’s founding fathers, morphed into the Afghan Taliban of the 1990s and the Pakistani Taliban of today. The legacy survives today in sectarian extremist groups, like Lashkar-e-Taiba, Harkut-ul Mujahideen and Sipah-e-Sahaba, banned in theory but operating openly in the streets of Pakistan.
At Sabeen’s funeral, Huma, a teacher and activist, remembered a story Mahenaz had told friends about raising Sabeen as a single mother. One day when Sabeen was 5, she asked to cross the road for kulfi, a creamy South Asian version of ice cream. Mahenaz stifled her fears and let her go, and when her daughter came back with the kulfi, she remembered, “I was very proud of her.”
Now, her daughter lay slain, wrapped in white sheets. Another of Sabeen’s friends, an outspoken activist, fashion journalist and entrepreneur, Mohsin Sayeed, stood nearby, stunned and shocked. Like so many there, his eyes were red from weeping. “It is breaking my heart,” he said.
Then, it was time to bury their friend and respected mentor. In the spirit of the revolution that Sabeen stirred in people, something remarkable happened: in a traditional culture where women are usually not allowed to go to the graveyard with funeral processions, nobody was left behind, much like the funeral for the young woman in Afghanistan, Farkhunda, brutally slain at a mosque in Kabul.
“The bier carrying Sabeen was followed by women in a large number,” Huma wrote on Facebook. “They came, the mothers, sisters, daughters of Karachi to pay homage to a fallen hero, one of their own. Women rode in the funeral hearse bus, and they said the funeral prayers. Then it was time to take Sabeen to her final resting place and they came there, too.”
They were there in jeans as well as in shalwar kameez, the traditional long tunics and baggy trousers that men and women wear in the region. Some were draped in burqa, a black gown, and head scarves. Others had their hair loosely covered, and some did not cover their hair at all. The diversity, defiance, and mutual respect for differences represented the inclusivity and openness of thought that Sabeen nurtured.
Women “walked to the graveyard, stood around the grave, silent sentinels, tears falling but no sound escaping their lips till the end of the ritual; took part in all the funeral rite … and prayed over her,” wrote Huma.
As their beloved friend was laid into the ground by two men who had stepped into her grave, to guide her body, shrouded in white, gently into the space, a small quibble ensued on whether Sabeen’s face was lying in the direction of qibla, the direction of prayer toward Mecca, the birthplace of Islam. Debate arose around other details that are the stuff of orthopraxy, or external ritual, mostly eclipsed in Sabeen’s life by deeper, philosophical questions about positivity, goodness and peace.
Finally, the rationalism that Sabeen advocated in life prevailed in her death. She would have scoffed at these petty details, everyone agreed. The men standing shoulder-deep in her grave emerged, leaving Sabeen alone in her final resting place.
“The amazing thing is that people forgot their differences to unite, all for her,” said Pakistani blogger and activist Shoaib Taimur.
Her friends in Pakistan and around the world vowed to not let her legacy die. They have made a website in tribute to Sabeen where anyone can submit their thoughts, photos or other contributions. Protest meetings and vigils are taking place not just in her home city, Karachi, but also in Lahore and Islamabad as well as further afield, like London, Boston, and San Francisco.
“Sabeen’s legacy was to speak out. Her legacy was not to cower in silence,” said the lawyer and activist M. Jibran Nasir, 28, who considered Sabeen his mentor, catalyst, and enabler, as well as colleague at Pakistan For All, another nonprofit for which Sabeen was a board member. “The best tribute we can pay her is to continue speaking out.”
In Karachi on Saturday, those who loved Sabeen, men and women together, took fistfuls of dirt and dropped them upon her grave. Huma, Mohsin and others covered the grave completely with white gladioli, chrysanthemums, and Sabeen’s favorite flower, the fragrant jasmine—the white symbolizing the peace Sabeen so fiercely advocated in her lifetime. Appropriately, the white flowers, too, defied convention.