On Friday, April 24, the city of Karachi lost one of its most creative and bravest citizens.
Sabeen Mahmud, the director of a popular arts center called The Second Floor, or T2F, was shot and killed by unknown assailants right after hosting a discussion with dissidents from Balochistan, the country’s largest – and most embattled – province.
Mahmud’s murder sent shockwaves through the country’s civil society, prompting a mixture of anger, frustration and grief.
A lot has been written about the controversies surrounding her killers; while many accuse Pakistan’s intelligence agencies of orchestrating the assassination, there are also reports that claim Mahmud was probably targeted by the religious right for promoting progressive views.
However, what is perhaps getting lost in the entire debate is what Mahmud stood for throughout her life.
Numerous publications, local and international, have referred to her as a rights activist, a social worker, arts advocate and café owner – but Sabeen Mahmud was much more than just that.
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Taking a stand
Mahmud was a staunch believer of fighting for what is just and right. In fact, the discussion “Unsilencing Balochistan,” which she had attended right before her assassination, was itself a matter of taking a stand against the oppression of the voiceless dissidents.
Despite receiving multiple death threats, she refused to hire armed guards for her protection.
“Fear is just a line in your head,” Mahmud once stated in an interview. “You can choose what side of that line you want to be on.”
Promoting peace and peaceful solutions
Mahmud didn’t just raise her voice against injustice and oppression. She also offered viable, peaceful solutions and tried to make a difference with her own actions.
She founded PeaceNiche – a nonprofit organization that “promotes democratic discourse and conflict resolution through intellectual and cultural engagement.”
In 2013, she organized Pakistan’s first hackathon, a weekend-long event to encourage participants to brainstorm and focus on solutions to civic problems in the country.
“People are very disillusioned with mainstream politics right now,” Mahmud told Wired. “We wanted to come up with a way to put that energy to use.”
Reclaiming mosques from extremists
Mahmud was one of the very few people in Pakistan who took the risk of challenging and publicly denouncing extremist elements.
After the Peshawar school massacre in December, she got involved in the #ReclaimYourMosque movement, which gathered hundreds of peaceful protesters outside the infamous Red Mosque, whose cleric who had refused to condemn the attack on children.
Also, on Valentine’s Day in 2013, she organized an online protest against anti-Valentine’s Day banners that had been put up in Karachi by a conservative political party.
Freedom of thought and expression
T2F is not just a café – it is the first community space for open dialogue in Pakistan where people, while having a cup of tea or coffee, discussed new ideas. And it was Mahmud who opened the doors of this platform to the residents of Karachi amid hopes that it would spread to other parts of the country.
“The people of Pakistan are going through severe disasters and traumas every day,” the activist told The Express Tribune in 2010. “They need to recover and absorb the shocks. They need understanding and support. The ideas will spread slowly, in a ripple effect.”
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