How we should honour the legacy of Sabeen Mahmud

Pakistan is a strange country – it’s generally perceived as a male dominated society where majority of the women are confined to their homes and not ‘empowered’ enough to contribute towards society. From political arenas to the business world, men hold most of the key positions. But there’s always another side to any story – the realistic side: a country where a woman stands up against the most powerful Army General and keeps fighting for democracy until she is silenced forever.

A society where a teenage girl has the courage to challenge terrorists and fights for female education rights even after taking bullets to her head at point blank range. A society where an activist like Sabeen Mahmud does not surrender her struggle to find peaceful solutions to the socio-political issues gripping her country – until she is ruthlessly targeted and murdered.

Sabeen Mahmud, a vocal human rights activist and director of a community safe space to encourage dialogue called T2F [The Second Floor], was shot several times on 24 April, as she drove home with her mother after hosting an ‘Unsilencing Balochistan’ event at her café and arts space in southern Karachi. She died before reaching the hospital and her mother was injured.

It’s not clear who is behind her murder but the issue of Balochistan draws issues of state censorship. Last month, a similar event at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) was cancelled after an enormous pressure from intelligence agencies.

We all know there is an ongoing conflict in Balochistan and people have every right to know the realistic state of affairs. I am even ready to accept the theory that external forces could be involved in destabilising and exploiting the Balochistan situation. But closing down debate will make the situation worse. Students of Pakistan are smart enough to understand the issues faced by their country. Any efforts to patronise them or to prevent them from participating in a discussion will always falter.

Sabeen Mahmud was a fearless activist who never gave in. Her strength was to counter the hatred and extremist narratives through music, art and logical debates. She believed in herself and the causes she championed – to an extent that she never thought she was endangering her life. Before her murder she said in an interview: “I have a very cavalier attitude towards fear – I don’t care – I just feel when time comes, you have to go.”

She made her point strongly: that ideas outlive individuals. Sabeen Mahmud represented (and in death) continues to represent a fearless section of Pakistani society.

I met her friends recently who organised a silent vigil to honour her memory and work. Tears were shed but one could clearly sense their commitment to carry on her legacy – the legacy of a peaceful Pakistan where everyone has a right to speak their mind – and where people respect each other’s thoughts and ideas.

Sabeen Mahmud sought to explore solutions by promoting wider social engagement. Her centre was open for everyone. She was open for a discussion with anyone (even with those who threatened her life). Kamila Shamsi, a famous writer based in London, described this unique feature of her personality: “She didn’t judge those who were less than her and she took people on their own merits.”

We are certainly an unfortunate society: where people are targeted and killed for having a point of view; their faith judged if they speak up for the rights of minority faith groups; and their loyalty to their country is questioned if they stand up against state-sanctioned human rights abuses instead of taking an easy route of silence.

No state institution should be beyond the law. And every citizen has the right to debate socio-political issues in order to explore lasting solutions.

Ideally, the government should protect activists like Sabeen Mahmud, who represents a Pakistan modelled on the dreams of its founding fathers. A Pakistan where citizens feel safe and protected irrespective of their beliefs. Where people stand against injustices without fear of violent consequences.

Indeed, Pakistan is a strange country, because you will not find brave women like Sabeen Mahmud in every town or city. Individuals who stand up against the brutal elements of our society. Who believe that hate can be countered by love and who value human rights above all else.

Sabeen is no longer alive to carry on ‘Unsilencing Balochistan.’ But from tragedy, she succeeded in raising a wider debate on this issue.

Rehman Anwer (@rehmananwer) is an interfaith and peace activist currently working for Faith Matters and Tell MAMA.