Sabeen would say: " If you were afraid, you'd get nothing done: especially not in army-ridden, intolerant Pakistan, where so much was never to be questioned or discussed, and certainly not by women." (The Economist) Sabeen Mahmud, 40, a courageous, creative and conscientious human rights activist was shot dead in Karachi on April 24,-- even as she ended her final program at The Second Floor (T2F) in her café which served as a hub and bastion for liberals. Sabeen could be modeled on Khadijah, Prophet Mohammad's wife, a caravansary trader, and a successful entrepreneur, who proposed their marriage to the Prophet. Sabeen epitomizes Khadijah's Daughters -as a bold, smart, problem solver, as well as a leader, an entrepreneur, a care taker of her community in Karachi who put herself out front to right the wrongs of others.
My blog, Khadijah's Daughters highlights Muslim women who are change agents, activists, writers, and thinkers, who follow their dreams, make a difference, and invest in the change they want to see. Sabeen Mahmud, in her short life dared to dream, to take the lead, and do the unfathomable. Nosheen Ali, a poet and friend of Sabeen's describes her as bit of a dare devil. Khadijah managed camel caravans. Sabeen liked to drive motorcycles to work even though Karachi is a city where women certainly do not ride motor bikes. Sabeen had courage of her convictions. Sabeen was a creative and undeterred visionary. "She did what she wanted," said her friend, Zaheer Alam Kidvai.
Raza Rumi, a rights activist and friend of Sabeen's says: "She was a voice of reason, pluralism and secularism: the kind of creed that endangers the insidious side of constructed Pakistani nationalism." She wanted to start a modern café, The Second Floor, (T2F) based on the entrenched coffee house traditions of Pakistan so as to enable her community to work together and solve their common problems. "She had no money to fund a new public space, but when her London based uncle sent $9,400 for her grandmother's future health care," Sabeen had an "aha" moment. She shared her plans with her grandmother "and assured her that if she fell ill, we'd give her a triple shot of espresso that would either cure her or kill her." With her grandmother's blessing, she opened The Second Floor. (T2F)
Sabeen began with local problems, but was soon drawn to the crisis in Baluchistan, a mineral rich province deeply unhappy with the way in which the Pakistani government treats it as a resource colony.
Since 2005, Balochistan, Pakistan's largest, and least densely populated province, has been under siege by armed guerilla campaigns against the state by separatist forces. The province is the least economically developed, and has the worst social indicators in areas, such as, health and education. The Pakistani army has targeted the separatists through air and ground operations which cuts the province off from the rest of Pakistan. Balochistan is a hot bed of violence. Abductions and dead bodies are commonplace. Some 2,825 people, mostly Balochi rights activists, have vanished since 2005, and their bodies are often discovered years later. Many Baluch's blame these deaths on Pakistan's ISI intelligence agency, which denies these charges.
After much deliberation, Sabeen decided to host an event at The Second Floor on the challenges facing Baluchistan, called "Unsilencing Baluchistan" with seasoned activists, Mama Qadeer, Farzana Majeed and Mir Mohammad Ali Talpur. Activists like Qadeer and Majeed have long championed the cause of Baluchistan's "disappeared," a term used to describe people who have been abducted in Baluchistan. In the final analysis, Sabeen had doubts about hosting the event on Baluchistan because the moderator of the discussion had backed out. What she did not anticipate was the brutality that ensued.
As she got into the driver's seat after the event at The Second Floor café with her mother by her side to return home from the café, she was shot at close range as was her mother, but her mother survived.
A hundred friends and well wishers gathered immediately at the hospital. "I raced through the hospital corridors to get to the ER envisioning a defiant Sabeen who was going to laugh at her own plaster or dressing," one friend said.
"She stood up and hosted an event for a group of people who have no voice despite the threats she had gotten. She did not back down - she gave her life."
Activist Nasrullah Baloch, chairman of the Voice of Missing Baloch rights organization, condemned the attack on Sabeen, demanding that those responsible should be tried for their crimes. He continues: "Whenever voices are raised against rights abuses in Balochistan, the government tries to suppress them. Suppressing voices does not solve the issue; indeed it only makes the voices become louder."
Sabeen's friend Rumi explains her death: "In her work, she was neither a political partisan nor a power seeker but Pakistan's state and non-state actors are averse to any form of dissent. This is why she had to be killed."
Sabeen - and the Baluch's - are Muslims. The kind of tribal violence which took her life was typical of the Jahilya - the pre-Islamic period of ignorance in Arabia. This is the dark spirit against which the Prophet preached and against which Islam was a reaction. Sabeen's courage makes her a modern Khadijah. She was one of a kind, she had vision and conviction, tenacity and chutzpah to forge new pathways of change in her society. Sabeen had a substantial following and hopefully, her death will only inspire her friends and followers to continue in her spirit of caring, defiance and creative problem solving. May Sabeen's soul rest in peace even as we hope that her network will continue to be inspired by her enlightened vision, and her indefatigable courage to right the wrongs in Pakistan.