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Defiance and fear in Pakistan – the shooting of Sabeen Mahmud


© Sabeen Mahmud's Facebook page.

On the morning of 24 April, Mahenaz Mahmud noticed signs of anxiety in her daughter, Pakistani activist Sabeen Mahmud.

The cafe Sabeen owned in Karachi, T2F, was due to host a discussion on Balchostani separatism that evening. The talk was supposed to take place at Karachi University, but they had received threats of legal action from the government relating to some of the speakers and cancelled the event. Even though Sabeen was busy preparing to leave for London, she agreed to host the talk.

Mahenaz explains: ‘I hadn’t been going to T2F for a while. People were on edge. I don’t know what took me there [that night], but I just wanted to be around her.’

As the event drew to a close, Sabeen offered to drive her mother home.

‘She was going to a friend’s,’ says Mahenaz. ‘They had a dinner and a party. She said, “I’ll drop you [at home] and then I’ll go”, and I said that was fine. She was looking ahead at the traffic light, just waiting for it to turn green. Then I saw this one motorcycle drive really close. I saw a gun coming out and I thought it was probably a mugging. The next thing I heard was a deafening gun shot. She was gone. She was gone instantly.’

The news of Sabeen Mahmud’s shooting broke on Karachi’s TV channels within minutes, and in the days that followed the story rippled through international media. New Internationalist, along with outlets from Al Jazeera and The Economist, to CNN and the New Yorker all carried reports and obituaries about Sabeen.

Journalists, friends and other observers variously labelled her an activist, designer, social entrepreneur, councillor and tech genius; all unanimously saw her as a mindful and gregarious human being.

She had a natural talent for bringing out the best in people and applied this ability to a staggering array of causes and personal interests.T2F and the NGO she started, Peaceniche, became focal points in Karachi for political discussion and the liberal arts.

A deep scar remains

‘It’s mind-boggling. I had no idea and I don’t think Sabeen had any idea of her impact,’ Mahenaz says. ‘At her funeral there were thousands of people. All kinds of people across the social divide.’

Speaking to the people who knew Sabeen, it was clear her personality and the work she carried out made a profound impression on their lives. At the same time, the brutal nature of her passing has left a deep scar on a city which has historically held a buzzing liberal arts scene.

Remembering Sabeen at the Southbank, London.

Zaheer Alam Kidvai owned a business which supplied computers to the high school Sabeen attended.

He first met her when she was 15 and she had asked if he would teach her about computing – she didn’t think much of the teacher she had at school. Aside from introducing her to Apple Macs, ‘Zak’, as she knew him, became something of a mentor to Sabeen and planted the seeds for many of the ideals she pursued throughout her life.

‘Karachi in my young days was a totally different place. Very different from what Sabeen saw. Life was full of everything then. Jazz musicians came here, like Brubeck and Ellington. Top test cricket matches were played. The city was full of hotels, restaurants and night clubs and there was never a killing. Now everything has reversed.’

I asked Zaheer about how Sabeen’s values and beliefs differed from mainstream Pakistani culture today.

‘Sabeen was living now as we did in the Sixties. There is really very little in today’s mainstream that could be compared to what Sabeen thought and did. She was as different as you could imagine. I am 75 years old and I have never seen anyone like her. She never lied. She was a “freak”, according to many. She played cricket on the street. Loved music, from pop to classical. Read a zillion books. She wanted people to talk to, instead of shoot, their enemies.’

An inimitable spirit

Twelve days after the assassination took place, Peaceniche decided to go ahead with its plans to hold an art exhibition, ‘Dil Phaink’, at London’s Southbank Centre. The exhibition was a collaboration of over 30 Pakistani artists and because of the shooting, it had taken on a special significance for all involved.

Raania Duranni, a visual artist and art manager, had been in the final stages of organizing it together with Sabeen. She told me how the exhibition was a response to the violence and deep political divides faced in Pakistan today.

‘Ninety per cent of artists in Pakistan stay away from discussing “controversial” issues, because they do not want to cause trouble for themselves or risk their lives’

‘Dil Phaink is a celebration of an inimitable spirit of abandon and exuberance, bordering on melodrama. We believe these troubled times and our muddled identities aren’t the problem, they’re the platform: the perfect stage for a nature that tilts towards the flamboyant, the need to wear your heart on your sleeve, take chances.’

Ali Gul Peer was one of the few people I contacted who was willing to speak to me about why Sabeen had been killed. Ali is a hip-hop artist and stand-up comedian based in Karachi, who has worked with Peaceniche in the past.

‘Ninety per cent of artists in Pakistan stay away from discussing “controversial” issues, because they do not want to cause trouble for themselves or risk their lives. The ones that do are aware of the dangers and still choose to do it.’

I asked him about how he thought Sabeen’s passing had affected people still involved in the arts in Karachi.

‘It felt like a message, which sadly is repeated more often than it used to be in the past. Not just for liberal artists, but anyone who exercises freedom of expression. Anyone who has an opinion in their art or performance.’

Challenging atmosphere

The questions hanging over why Sabeen was murdered and who was responsible are symptomatic of a time and place where government corruption, Wahhabist extremism and a lack of free speech create an atmosphere which poses all kinds of challenges for artists. Few people I spoke to were willing to answer questions of a political nature.

Mahenaz told me, ‘Over the last 2 years I’d been saying to her, “You know, Sabeen, I think you’re going to get a bullet someday. If that happens, I’ll have to deal with it, but you need to do what your heart tells you to do, what your head tells you to do.”’

I asked Zaheer why he thought Sabeen had been singled out.

‘This is difficult to tell. This was our fourth programme on Baluchistan, and she was murdered immediately after it. So for most people it was that programme which killed her, although she only introduced it. Also, there were fundamentalists who wanted her dead, particularly after she and others, including Jibran Nasir [a Pakistani activist], asked that Mulla Abdul Aziz be put behind bars. But he wasn’t. Of course it could have been anyone. We’ll never know. Never.’

I interviewed Zaheer before the Karachi police held a press conference on 20 May to announce they had charged several individuals who had confessed to the crime.

‘Sabeen was as different as you could imagine. She never lied. She played cricket on the street. She wanted people to talk to, instead of shoot, their enemies’

The alleged ‘mastermind’ of the group was Saad Aziz.

Aziz was highly educated and attended the same university as Pakistan’s current Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif. The press release on his arrest, which can be found here, reads like a shopping list of recent high-profile terrorist attacks in Pakistan, including the Safoora bus shooting, which killed 46 people, and Sabeen’s murder.

The social media response to the announcement suggested that some at least were sceptical about how a small group of men could carry out so many crimes over such a short period.

One person I spoke to, who declined to be named, said: ‘Saad was certainly the mastermind to the Safoora bus shooting. He even tried to film it while it was happening. He will obviously die for it. So it’s easy to get him to “confess” to many other killings and have all those “cases closed”.

‘In Sabeen’s case, Aziz first confessed to have had her killed because of her Mulla Abdul Aziz protests. In 2 days, that changed to her pro-Valentine’s Day protest, which took place over 2 years ago. They haven’t even got his story right.’

The uneasy sense of closure brought about by Aziz’s arrest has done little to relieve the threat of violence hanging over politically outspoken liberals in Karachi. Sabeen’s 23-year-old assistant Sara Nisar said, ‘For some people, it is a reason to fight back, push harder and make their voices heard. For others, it is the end of an era as they know it, a deathly blow against the already waning peace and tolerance.’

When I asked Sabeen’s mother what needed to change in Pakistan to make sure others like her daughter did not face the same violence, she answered simply, ‘I think that’s another story for another day.’

Henry Wilkins is a London-based journalist, photographer and videographer. You can find him at henrywilkins.com.


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